Yonatan Roshfeld made Israel’s version of Masterchef one of the most viewed television programmes in the country’s history. The bald, blue-eyed, baby-faced chef has garnered loyalty in a town where the hottest places are often the newest ones.
Yet it remains as hard to get a table at his signature Tel Aviv restaurant Herbert Samuel — named after the street on which it is situated — as it was when Roshfeld opened the doors in 2007. Bookings are also in demand at his Tapas 1 restaurant, French bistro Yavne Montefiore and the new restaurant in the lounge of the city’s most upmarket boutique hotel, the Alma.
The big news for observant diners, who have a limited choice of where to eat in secular Tel Aviv, is that Roshfeld is going kosher. Every five-star hotel in Israel has a kosher kitchen capable of meeting the tastes of the most sophisticated guests, and the new Ritz-Carlton opening in Herzliya in December will be no different — the jewel in its crown will be a kosher branch of Herbert Samuel.
Difficult, you would think, after years of cooking without any form of culinary restraint, but in a rare interview, Roshfeld told the JC:
“The transition will be a very natural one due to my familiarity with southern French cuisine. The kosher kitchen uses so many of the same key ingredients as French gastronomy — olive oil, vegetables, herbs and fish, while playing down the use of butter, cream and other dairy products.
“In recent years Israeli, like all international cooking, has been gravitating towards a healthier and lighter gastronomy. At Herbert Samuel Tel-Aviv I have been using less dairy products in my menus.”
However Roshfeld, who has cooked in many French Michelin-starred restaurants — including l’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, Lameloise and Le Royal Gray — knows he has a lot of diners, non-observant Israelis as well as non-Jewish tourists, to convince they will not be missing out if they choose to dine at Herbert Samuel Herzliya.
“Our greatest challenge will be the general stigma that surrounds kosher restaurants. The view today is that they are old-fashioned, basic, use lesser quality ingredients and are inferior to non-kosher restaurants. I intend to change that perception by showing that the Herbert Samuel at the Ritz-Carlton meets the highest international culinary standards — and just happens to be kosher.”
Given that it has been food which made him famous, it’s surprising to learn Roshfeld was originally destined for a career as a classical musician: “I grew up on a kibbutz, but studied piano, mandolin and conducting at the academy in Jerusalem.”
Living on his own from the age of 14, Roshfeld — now approaching 45 — started cooking for himself and reading up on fine food and wine.
It led him to an odyssey in France which was to change his focus forever: “I headed for Cannes, worked at the two-star Le Royal Gray, then embarked on a gastronomic tour of the country. I found myself at the stove in more and more Michelin-starred kitchens.”
Returning to Tel Aviv after three years, Roshfeld took the number two slot at the popular Tapuach Zahav before the travel bug hit him again.
“I went to Tokyo instead to study with the masters. And then I lived in Paris before returning to open a signature restaurant in Tel Aviv after two and a half years of planning.”
The restaurant, Herbert Samuel, overlooking the Mediterranean, opened in 2007 and is famous for its fish and seafood and signature dishes like veal cannelloni — a dish which has been adapted, for the new kosher kitchen.
Even more famous is the salad of multi-coloured, succulent Israeli tomatoes Roshfeld threw together when a special dinner for chefs fell foul of a power cut that put the stove out: “It was an accidental dish born of necessity, yet now it’s the most popular dish on the menu.”
It was Israeli food magnate Adi Strauss, who bought Herbert Samuel and who encouraged the chef to expand his Tel Aviv empire.
“Tapas 1 was opened with the idea of creating a Spanish atmosphere rather than serving Spanish food, while Yavne Montefiore satisfied my desire for a bistro.”
Then came the lounge restaurant at the classy new Alma Hotel, where Roshfeld is often to be seen between service honing his plans for the new Herbert Samuel with Strauss.
He feels confident that opening a kosher incarnation of his most famous restaurant will please a certain breed of observant gourmets he knows who have long berated him for excluding them.
“All those religious Israelis who for years have come up to tell me they admire my cooking, but haven’t felt able to eat one bite in my restaurants — until now.”
Herbert Samuel in the new Ritz-Carlton Herzliya is due to open in December