Gone are the days when visiting American tourists were satisfied being served a colorless, uninspired boiled chicken in an Israeli hotel dining room. Today, when tourists sit down to breakfast or dinner in a five-star hotel in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv or Eilat, they are virtually guaranteed colorful kosher culinary experiences comparable to those of the finest restaurants in Los Angeles, New York or Paris.
As if to underscore the quantum leap in the Israeli kitchen, Israel’s Channel 10 recently televised a local take of the popular reality TV show “Iron Chef.” In the Israeli version, a top-ranked Parisian chef was flown to the Jewish state to challenge local hotel and restaurant chefs in an array of steamy cook-offs. Much to the Frenchman’s surprise, his Israeli counterparts were more than a match for his culinary expertise.
“I daresay that the food in our hotel and several other Israeli hotels is better than anything you will find in New York, London or Paris,” said Avigdor Brueh, longtime executive chef at the chic Tel Aviv Hilton Hotel (hilton.com). “Just in the last 10 years alone, the quality of what is being served in major Israeli hotels has improved tremendously. The top chefs imported concepts and ideas from abroad.”
Oved Alfia, executive chef at the nearby Dan Tel Aviv Hotel (danhotels.com), said forward-thinking hotel managers have allowed a handful of creative chefs to become local celebrities by giving them the freedom to open high-quality restaurants within luxury standard hotels.
Alfia said he’s able to use some of the finest ingredients, including kosher prime rib entrecote and filet of beef, at the hotel’s new HaYarkon 99 restaurant.
“The hotel manager gives me complete freedom to order the best ingredients, even if that means flying in premium red tuna by plane from Europe.”
Although both the Tel Aviv Hilton and Dan Tel Aviv play host to some of the best-known pop stars and Hollywood celebrities — including Jerry Seinfeld, Lady Gaga and Leonard Cohen — chefs Brueh and Alfia say they are rarely called upon to prepare something special for their sometimes-finicky guests.
“Lady Gaga appeared to be quite comfortable with our menus and didn’t ask for anything special, while Leonard Cohen’s tastes are very simple — chicken soup and chicken schnitzel,” Alfia said.
Jerusalem Savoir Faire
Not to be outdone by their Tel Aviv colleagues, innovative chefs at Jerusalem’s luxury-class hotels, such as Itzik Barak and Roy Antebi, are setting the pace in the Holy City.
“In order for someone to be considered a true chef, they must have passion, chemistry and talent,” said Barak, executive chef at the Inbal Jerusalem Hotel (inbalhotel.com). “I can teach you day and night how to make things in the kitchen, but if you don’t possess the experience or the talent to create culinary works of art, then you’ll never be a world-class chef. Reality television actually exposed audiences to the differences between top chefs and those who pretended to be chefs. Those shows influenced our industry as well.”
Barak boasts one of the most impressive culinary resumes in the business.
After training under Leonardo Plaza-Jerusalem executive chef Shalom Kadosh, working as the executive chef for the five-star Sheraton City Tower in Ramat Gan and managing the kitchen staff at the Herod’s Hotel complex in Eilat, Barak traveled the globe to see, taste and understand the latest trends.
“I was fortunate to work in several of Manhattan’s top restaurants, including Le Bernardine, and visited luxury hotels in Tokyo and Hong Kong. Executive chefs in Hong Kong’s premier hotels are treated like gods. They literally have every new kitchen tool at their disposal. These are the places where one can see that a top chef is a respected culinary artist,” he said.
Barak praised the Inbal Jerusalem Hotel’s management for providing him with the freedom to create whatever he desires in the kitchen and within the hotel’s posh Sofia restaurant, where he tinkers with the menu to entice diners, which have included the likes of former Soviet and Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev.
“Gorbachev told me that he was not only surprised with the selection of quality foods, he wanted to ‘savor every bite,’ which obviously made me feel real good,” Barak said. “Henry Kissinger and actor Jon Voight, who’ve also sampled my food, offered their compliments as well.”
Roy Antebi, executive chef at the Mamilla Hotel (mamillahotel.com), said he constantly challenges himself and his upscale guests.
“I had worked only in high-class, nonkosher restaurants such as Catit in Tel Aviv. So coming to a new high-class hotel such as Mamilla, where only kosher food is served in the dining room and the restaurants, takes a lot of creativity,” he said. “The owner of the hotel, who lives in Tel Aviv, specifically sought out a professional restaurant chef such as myself because he knew I could make a real difference in the way guests perceive hotel food.”
Antebi presides over the Holy City’s most unique outdoor brasserie-style restaurant. The Mamilla’s Rooftop outdoor lounge and restaurant offers diners a breathtaking panoramic view of the Old City, as well as a sumptuous menu that includes pickled entrecôte and veal sweetbreads.
Antebi says he works closely with the hotel’s sommelier in order to offer guests a wide array of fine Israeli wines that complement their meals.
“This is an almost unheard-of standard in Israeli hotels, but it is an integral part of the quality restaurant experience in Tel Aviv and other cosmopolitan cities across Europe, Asia and America,” he said.