Middle East peace might be dead in the water between Jerusalem and Ramallah, but it’s alive and well—and delicious—in Turin, Italy.
Last evening, Oct. 24, five chefs, two Arab Israelis, three Israeli Jews, prepared a five course meal for sixty guests at the Le Meridien Art + Tech Hotel restaurant.
The chefs are part of Chefs for Peace, an Israel-based group of 14 chefs—Jewish, Muslim and Christian—who aim to set an example for peaceful coexistence by coming together in the kitchen and at the table.
“Instead of using our land for conflict, we’re using it to show the great products it produces for all of us,” Chef Nadav Malin told the diners before the meal began. “Instead of showing people how we use knives and fire to kill each other, we show them how we use them to create food.”
The chefs came to Turin as part of the week long Terra Madre conference and Salone del Gusto exhibition, organized every two years by the Slow Food movement.
Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini’s mantra is that eating is an essentially political act. But last night’s dinner carried what was arguably the most overt political symbolism of the entire event. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t, first and foremost, delicious.
The five chefs prepared a first course of traditional Middle Eastern appetizers: humous, tahina, bab ganouj, homemade pita, leben with za’atar, walnuts and chili. To wash it down, they served guests a non-alcoholic tamarind juice and an arak and lemon juice shooter.
Second came fresh grape leaves stuffed with veal in broth with pomegranate syrup, then a filet of sea bream (orata) with lemon salsa and a barley almond pilaf. A orange and rose water granite arrived before the main course: a seared lamb chop with caramelized fig in a wine –hibuscus reduction, along with freekah (a toasted wheat-like grain) and black lentils. Dessert was a millefeuille of halvah and mocha cream, date and halvah cookies, and traditional Arabic coffee flavored with cardomon.
This being Italy, each course was paired with a wine provided by the Castello Banfi vineyards in Montalcino, Tuscany—from a sparkling Alta Langa Cuvee Aurora 2004 to start through a Poggio alle Mura Brunello di Montalcino 2005 to wash down the lamb, finishing with the region’s oldest grape, a Moscadello di Montalcino Florus 2008.
For many in the mostly Italian audience, it was the first exposure to Middle Eastern food.
Italians tend to stick to Italian food, one guest explained. “If we eat sushi, we think we’re really being exotic.”
Malin, who is in his third year as a student at the University of Gastronomic Sciences near Turin, took pains to describe the eotic ingredients in fluent Italian. While the chefs used local meat and produce, they packed their own staples from the Holy Land: tahini, Turkish coffee, freekah and za’atar. Tel aviv’s Earth Market, a Slow Food project, contributed the halva and tahini.
In fact, the menu featured a passage in Italian from Leviticus, detailing the seven species of fruits and grains that the Children of Israel would find in the Promised Land. The chefs took pains to make sure all the species were represented in the dishes, reflecting the 2010 Terra Madre theme linking food to territory. “Those are species that existed in our land for thousands of years,” Malin said. “They are the local products of this land.”
Malin, who is 26, said one of his aims in taking on the dinner was to show people “a different side of Israel” than what they see on the news.
It was Malin’s mother, Anat Lev Ari, who co-founded Chefs for Peace in 2001, along with Kevork Alemian, an Armenian Christian Arab from Jerusalem.
At the time, Chef Lev Ari had helped open a small farmer’s market in Jerusalem under the auspices of Slow Food Israel. It was Petrini himself who invited the two to take part in a Slow Food event in Positano, Italy. Originally they were billed as Chefs from the Holy Land. While there, they came up with the idea of Chefs for Peace.
“We wanted to show that we can live and learn and work together,” said Nabil Aho, who is the head chef at the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center, the Vatican residence in Jerusalem’s Old City.
“In cooking you use the same ingredients to cook different recipes, but you have the ingredients in common,” Aho said. “We all have something in common.”
The group attracted attention early on, cooking at high profile events in Argentina, Germany, and Israel. Aho said they get along very well.
“We never discuss politics,” he said. “We talk about food. We are friends outside the kitchen too.”
If issues arose, they also came outside the kitchen. Palestinian officials will often refuse to come to events in west Jerusalem, the Jewish part of the city.
“They won’t come in their ‘official’ role,” he corrected himself, with a grin. “But they stop by as friends.”
The chefs were not the only Israelis at the biennial Terra Madre conference, which brings together some 6,000 food lovers and activists from around the world.
There are 18 members in the Israeli delegation, mostly from the most active Slow Food chapters in the Upper Galilee and Tel Aviv, said Malin.
“We hope this conference will kick start interest so we can inspire a chapter in Jerisaem,” he said.
The Slow Food movement, founded in 1986, promotes food that is “good, clean and fair.”
By bringing people around a common goal—delicious, sustainable food— founder Petrini is clearly happy to cross the barriers erected by poltics. At the Terra Madre’s opening ceremony, a representative of the Israel delegation marched in—and sat beside—the Iranian representative.
When the five chefs came out to great the diners, the huge dining room erupted in sustained applause.
“It’s more than good food,” Odeh Abu El-Hawa, the executive chef at the Hotel 7 Arches restaurant in East Jerusalem, said later. “We’re showing how coexistence in possible.”