Israel's superstar TV chef
Nir Zook's cooking shows are watched by thousands of Israelis.
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At the age of only 35, Nir Zook already has three restaurants, two cookbooks, one patisserie, a magazine column, and a television show under his belt. He is one of the chefs defining modern food in Israel, one of the country's original food celebrities.
Cooking shows are immensely popular in Israel, and Israelis are every bit as enamoured of their chef superstars as their British or American counterparts, with competing shows on prime-time and a quickly growing food media industry.
Masterchef-style competitions typically top the prime-time ratings, but Zook's shows tend to be a bit different. His first show, Zookaria, aired in 2002 and was somewhere between a cooking show and a talk show. Each episode had a variety of guests, from Israeli movie stars and fashion designers to newspaper editors. While Zook prepared a recipe, sometimes inspired by the guest's background, the guests would talk about food and life. One of his cookbooks, Nir Zook Cooks, is a collection of recipes from the show.
His most recent programme, A Chef By Surprise, features Zook arriving unannounced at homes around Israel and preparing a meal based entirely on what the people who live there have in their pantry, fridge and, if available, their garden. He aims to demonstrate that amazing meals can be made simply with what is to hand.
Growing up on his family's flower and fruit farm in southern Israel, Zook ate three home-cooked meals a day with his mother, father, three brothers, and any friends who stopped by. "A normal lunch at my family's house would be like 12 or 14 people," he recalls. "I was much more interested in the food part than the farming."
It did not take long for him to translate a love for food into a career. "It started when I was 13," he says. "I was passionate about cooking and I found a job after school in a restaurant in a small place in our village." As soon as he could he moved to San Francisco, where he spent a year cooking for private dinner parties, then to Paris to polish his techniques and expand his palate.
In 1999 he opened his first restaurant, Cordelia, in an old Turkish building in Jaffa, followed by Noa Bistro 10 years ago and Jaffa Bar in 2003. "Israel is a funny place, because after 12 years I am one of the establishment in the city. And I'm too young to be part of the establishment," he says. But in a city in which most restaurants will not last more than a year, the longevity of this mini-empire is noteworthy.
For Zook, the three restaurants each reflect a different aspect of work. Cordelia offers fine dining in a sophisticated but relaxed setting. "The idea was to make a place that feels like a palace, but a palace owned by your family," he explains. "A place that even though it's exclusive, you feel comfortable." Noa Bistro is the casual outpost, yet still offering impeccable food and house-made breads and pastas, and Jaffa Bar "is a very laid-back, non-pick-up bar".
Even with so many projects, Zook still travels every month and continues to cook for private dinner parties. "Out of 30 days a month, at least 12 I'm not here," he says. "I do a lot of dinner parties outside the country, in the States, Paris, the UK. I've been to Africa, I've been to the Caribbean, I've cooked all over the world. It's fun. You get to meet fabulous people, cook in their houses. It's special."
He has written two more cookbooks, but is in no rush to have them published. He has just finished the fourth season of A Chef By Surprise, and is working on a new TV project. He also writes for the popular online newspaper, Ynet.
When asked about his plans for the future, Zook smiles. "At the moment I'm happy," he says. Which comes as no surprise at all.