September 21, 2019

An Israeli chef at Jean-Georges

On a recent afternoon at Citarella market on New York’s Upper West Side, the young Israeli cook Dan Pelles was leaning over the fish counter, breathing in the perfect bass. “You choose the fish by its smell,” he told me. “The smell should be sweet, like fresh saltwater. Try it.”

I leaned over the glass partition to sniff myself, but the Citarella fishmonger instantly caught me. “You can’t do that,” he scolded. “I could lose my license.”

He tried to persuade us to choose a fish with our eyes only. “You don’t need to smell it. Look at the firm flesh, the red gills…”

“That’s bull—-,” Pelles whispered under his breath. “There are five ways to know if a fish is fresh: clear eyes, smell, gills intact, skin with scales, no belly burns. If it’s open and doesn’t have a stomach, the fish is no bueno.

Earlier that day, I was astonished to learn that the 27-year-old Pelles is a line cook at the famous Jean-Georges Restaurant, housed at the Trump Hotel Central Park and considered one of the most illustrious and demanding kitchens in the world. 

Since it opened in 1997, Jean- Georges has consistently been rated among the top restaurants in the country — it has four stars from The New York Times, as well as the elusive three Michelin stars that some French chefs have literally killed themselves over.

So naturally, when I found out that this young transplant from Tel Aviv is starting his career in this kitchen, I insisted he cook me dinner.

Back in the apartment of our mutual Israeli friend, Pelles got to work whipping up a gorgeous meal: tuna tartar on a bed of avocado mash with baby radishes and ginger marinade followed by sautéed black bass over parsnip puree with cilantro-mint-jalapeño oil. His ambition was even more impressive considering he prepared this in a kitchen not larger than a port-o-potty, with dull knives and a mini stove, using a wooden breakfast table as his cutting board. 

“The thing I’ve learned about the kitchen is the only thing that changes is you,” Pelles said. “Pots and pans will be pots and pans, heat will be heat. You control it. People that f— up a dinner will always make an excuse like, ‘Oh the pan was too hot.’ But the pan was not too hot — you forgot it on the flame.”

Pelles left Israel in 2014 to attend New York’s Culinary Institute of America, one of the premier cooking schools of the world. “I think it was setting up a high standard for myself,” he said of the school’s prestigious but cutthroat reputation. Serving in the Israel Defense Forces prepared him well for the intensity of the professional kitchen, he explained.

“Kitchen life and army life are very similar,” Pelles said. “There’s a known hierarchy; you have to act fast and move fast, you have to move as a unit rather than an individual. There is one goal, and everybody helps each other.”

Pelles developed his love of cooking by spending time in the kitchen with his mother. He recalls childhood memories through descriptions of her food — her perfectly spiced shakshouka, her seasonal tomato soup, the smells that wafted around the block. “As early as I can recall, I was looking at my mother in the kitchen,” he said. “She says that when I was 3 years old, I had a habit of taking all the pots and pans out of the closet and then reorganizing them and putting them back. She used to set [them] out on the lower level so I could reach them.” 

Perhaps two decades of feeling at ease in the family kitchen prepared Pelles for the rigor and perfectionism he’d encounter at Jean- Georges.  

“I remember the first time I entered the kitchen there, it was like entering a Ferrari,” Pelles recalled. “Everything is copper pots and marble floors and spotless, shiny stainless steel tables and ovens. And all the cooks wear white tall hats and white aprons, and they’re moving at a pace that seems like dancers on a dance floor. It was different than anything I knew before it.”  

As we sit, Pelles pours a Jean-Georges ginger sauce over thin strips of ruby-red tuna, and within seconds, I am moaning over the flavor. “Food equals art for me,” he said. “And when you experience good art, you experience emotion and senses. With food, all your senses are awakened.” 

As the New York skyline glistens behind us and a painterly meal is plated before us, our senses are so charged we begin to talk about the place — hamakom — that we all have in common. The meal is so delicious and the company so lovely, I feel sorry for Israel that one of its best and brightest has left. It will always be home, but for now, some Israeli dreams are in New York.

“New York is very fond of Israelis,” Pelles declared with a big smile. “It’s not a shame to say you’re from Israel when someone asks you — compared to other places I’ve traveled. Sometimes I was a little cautious saying I was from Israel, but here it’s easy. Everybody likes us.”

Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.