(ISRAEL21c) – Yolam Ottolenghi, a 44-year-old native Jerusalemite first got tongues wagging for the fare at his chain of London delis. Working with Sami Tamimi, an Arab chef also born in Jerusalem, Ottolenghi introduced British palates to his fusion of eclectic culinary traditions with a decidedly Mediterranean twist.
The Jewish-Arab pair has since published two internationally bestselling cookbooks, “Ottolenghi: The Cookbook” (2008), and “Jerusalem: A Cookbook” (2012). In between, Ottolenghi put out a vegetarian coffee-table cookbook, “Plenty” – which won a Galaxy National Book Award – and writes a popular weekend food column for the Guardian.
The owner and executive chef at Philadelphia’s Zahav restaurant, Michael Solomonov won a regional James Beard Award in 2011. Born in 1978 in Israel and raised mainly in the United States, Solomonov began Zahav in 2008 as a living memorial to his brother, an Israeli soldier who died in 2003.
His idea was to introduce Philadelphia diners to Israeli foods, such as hummus, made with imported Israeli ingredients. Today, the menu is more varied, with original dishes that take off on Israeli prepara- tions.
“We crust beef cheeks with Ethiopian spice mix, braise them in Turkish coffee and then, when they’re cool, cut them into cubes and put them on a skewer and grill them,” said Solomonov. “It’s what I’d call atypical Israeli cuisine.”
World-renowned cake stylist and “Sweet Genius” emcee Ron Ben-Israel comes back to Tel Aviv at least once a year to load up on his sister’s cooking. The 55-year-old baker and proprietor of the award-winning Ron Ben-Israel Cakes in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood said that he enjoys walking the streets of his native city without getting bombarded by fans the way he does in New York.
He was trained not as a baker, but as a dancer. His first foray to North America was with the Bat Dor dance troupe 20 years ago, and he discovered a passion for making pies as a way to earn some extra cash.
Martha Stewart discovered him in 1996, and he opened his shop in 1999. “Dancers have to rehearse every day until it becomes perfect,” he said. “This … discipline helped me become a good baker.”
Unlike Ben-Israel, Uri Scheft perfected his pastry at Lehamim (Breads) Bakery in Tel Aviv before opening Breads Bakery in New York City’s Union Square neighborhood. Scheft offers Israeli favorites such as walnut and olive bread, challah, cheese sticks, bourekas and chocolate rugelah.
Among his non-Israeli specialties that New Yorkers will learn to love are Danish rye bread and smorrebrod, a Danish open-faced sandwich; Scheft was raised in a Danish-speaking household in Israel.
Perhaps helping to pave the way for Scheft, Israeli baker Zohar Zohar established Zucker Bakery in Manhattan’s East Village in 2011 with her husband, Yaniv. (Her maiden name was Zohar Zucker; marrying Yaniv Zohar gave her a distinctive double name.) The bakery café has gotten glowing reviews from New York magazine, the Village Voice, the Forward, Grub Street and Time Out.
Trained in New York, she had previously worked under several Manhattan chefs. Zucker specializes in sweet treats such as alfajores (vanilla and lemon sandwich cookie sandwiches filled with caramel and rolled in coconut), date-clove rugelah, honey-almond fingers, and sticky buns – along with other dessert items she learned to make in the kibbutz kitchen of her Moroccan-Israeli grandmother.
Israel-born Alon Shaya was nominated as 2012’s best Southern U.S. chef by the James Beard Foundation for his expertise as executive chef at the Italian restaurant Domenica in New Orleans. Born in Bat Yam in 1979 and raised in Philadelphia, Shaya was also nominated as Food & Wine’s Best New Chef in his region, recognized as a “Chef to Watch” by Esquire magazine and named one of StarChefs.com’s 2012 Rising Stars.
His culinary approach is to add (mostly) subtle Israeli touches to the Domenica menu. However, he did introduce shakshuka, a spicy poached-egg-and-tomato Israeli dish that has become a favorite. His kosher-style Passover Seder dinner at Domenica attracts hundreds of diners for matzah ball soup, slow-roasted duck, pomegranate-roasted lamb shank and matzah baked in the restaurant’s wood-burning pizza oven.
Heading back across the pond, Honey & Co. co-owners Itamar Srulovich and Sarit Packer are reaping stellar reviews for the cuisine featured in their 25-seat restaurant in London. The married couple honed their skills in London establishments before opening Honey & Co.
The full-service café features dishes as varied as stuffed grapevine leaves, breads and jams, but Srulovich said that the desserts “are the thing we are most proud of. Our cakes are sensational. My wife is a pastry genius – one of the best pastry chefs in the world.”
They source raw ingredients in many Mediterranean countries, including Israel. Their home territory inspired much of the Honey & Co. menu. “It’s the food that we grew up on and wanted to eat – what we miss.”
ABIGAIL KLEIN LEICHMAN is a writer and associate editor at ISRAEL21c.