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Friday, September 25, 2020

The King of Treif Goes Kosher

A celebrity chef who shuns celebrity, Yoram Nitzan has been a reluctant icon of Tel Aviv’s culinary scene for decades. His ruddy, youthful face and bashful expression belies his status as one of Israeli haute cuisine’s founding fathers. 

Since the mid-1990s, the 55-year-old has been at the helm of renowned treif Tel Aviv restaurants Bindella and Mul Yam, so when he resurfaced this past winter as the head chef at the David Intercontinental’s new upscale — and decidedly kosher — restaurant, nomi, in Tel Aviv, it sent shockwaves through the culinary classes. 

“People asked how on earth did the King of Shrimps get to cooking kosher?” Nitzan said, laughing. But the chef thrives on finding creative workarounds for buttery risotto (Jerusalem artichoke cream) and asparagus tempura without the heads (which, according to his kashrut supervisor, are bug-ridden). He also loves that a whole new audience can now enjoy his food. 

“In the past, I’d feed prime ministers and now the supervisor might tell me there’s a really big rabbi at [a] table.” And, he adds, the benefits of cooking in a 550-room hotel far outweigh any kosher considerations. Nitzan isn’t limited to the quality and price of the ingredients he orders because the costs get swallowed up in the hotel’s own orders. It’s a luxury that not many chefs can afford these days. 

Nitzan comes from a family where celebrations and holidays always involved a family get-together, either at a restaurant or at his mother’s house. To this day, Nitzan, his children and grandchildren and all their cousins gather every week at his mother’s house in northern Israel on Friday night. At 84, she still cooks up a perfect storm. 

Although Nitzan never cooked with her when he was young, he inherited her attention to detail — the result of her yekkeh roots. He learned to cook while serving in the Israeli air force and living on his own.

After finishing his military service, Nitzan enrolled in a year’s preparatory course at Haifa’s prestigious Technion. He was accepted into the university to study mechanical engineering but his heart just wasn’t in it. “I didn’t have the passion of the other students. I felt like an outsider,” he said. It was his then-girlfriend (who later became his wife) who “saved” him by encouraging him to go to culinary school. After finishing his studies, Nitzan worked at a high-end Italian restaurant in Tel Aviv. Famed chefs Jonathan Roshfeld and Israel Aharoni poached Nitzan for their acclaimed restaurant, Tapuah Zahav. Roshfeld eventually took Nitzan with him to Mul Yam. During his time as head chef, Nitzan traveled once a year for apprenticeships in Michelin-starred restaurants all over the world.

“People asked how on earth did the King of Shrimps get to cooking kosher?”

Mul Yam famously marked the end of its illustrious run after it was destroyed in a fire in 2015,  but Nitzan recalls there were plenty of adrenalin-filled escapades before then. He said on more than one occasion, the electricity went out — to the delight of the diners and the horror of the kitchen staff. Candles were hastily lit, handwritten ticket orders were squinted at, and meal prep was MacGyvered by harried sous chefs in a kitchen illuminated by the headlights of Nitzan’s car.

Yet even when things run smoothly, Nitzan says he’s still filled with trepidation before a service. “Think about it this way. A sculptor makes a sculpture, reaches his peak and that’s it,” he said. “I need to reach my peak every afternoon and every evening.”

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