What does Wizo have in common with Jamie Oliver? You’d be forgiven for thinking it might just be a penchant for hearty food with a Mediterranean flavour produced in the flagship catering college they sponsor, to judge by the feast their alumni served up recently at an event in London.
But the more accurate answer is philanthropy. The Women’s International Zionist Organisation operates much like Jamie’s Fifteen, specifically seeking out disadvantaged youngsters who would be likely to fail in life without a break, and teaching them to cook to top international standards.
Unlike Oliver, Wizo may not have its own fashionable restaurants for successful students to segue into, but they do make it into Israel’s hot dining spots. Eliezer Kimyagrov, for example, is at 27, sous-chef at popular Tel Aviv brasserie Rokach73. He’s come a long way since making aliyah from Bukhara, in Uzbekistan, aged nine.
Fellow chef Chaled Tawafra had to overcome dyslexia and severe ADHD as well as the stresses of being in an extreme minority in Israel as a Muslim Arab. Yet he landed a job running a restaurant in Jerusalem at 19 — within a year of graduating from the Rebecca Sieff Vocational Training School — the college named after a key Wizo founder.
The boys’ mentor is Yaniv Gur-Arye, whose company, Nachalot — Culinary with Five Senses, is one of Israel’s most innovative private catering operations:
“These kids have the benefit of a group of top chefs who go into the school and show them what new Israeli modern cuisine is all about, then bring them into our kitchens to work with us,” he says.
That particular benefit throws up another challenge, which is the incredible diversity of Israeli cuisine — drawn from perhaps the world’s most multi-national society.
While at the Wizo college Kimyagrov was forced out of his central Asian comfort zone to learn about the complexities of Mediterranean cuisine, while Tawafra had to move beyond hummus and falafel to tackle Ashkenazi specialities.
“We call it peace on a plate,” smiles Francine Barsam, Wizo.UK’s marketing director. “It’s the chance to learn how cultures can come together over food. And we want to make the point that Wizo looks after all the citizens of Israel, irrespective of religion — one reason we brought Chaled over here.”
The young Arab born in Beersheva confesses he was cocooned until the age of 15 in a world of Sephardi staples before the college broadened his culinary horizons, and that he would have flunked out of any ordinary school.
“I would have exploded, because I was just so hyper. I needed to do something active, and cooking was the obvious choice, given that my father was a chef and everyone cooks in our family.”
Tawafra evolved into a lover of fusion food, which he serves in Jerusalem, but still relates to the Middle Eastern dishes of his childhood, pointing out: “Arab hummus is more rough than creamy, with whole chickpeas left in, and more lemony than you find outside the Arab communities in Israel.”
Surprisingly, considering he comes from a landlocked country, Kimyagrov took easily to the fish dishes Israelis love so much:
“We actually ate fish all the time in Bukhara; in fact I used to catch my own in the rivers. And I also related to the kebabs which are so popular in Israel; we ate them at home, too.”
In that sense, the two students from such different backgrounds are both best represented in Gur-Arye’s dish of lamb kebabs served on a typically Middle Eastern rough hummus topped with masbacha — the mix of whole chickpeas, tomato, onion, garlic and lemon so popular in Israeli hummus joints to lift the bland, basic mix of chickpeas and tahini in the same way Italians lift meat dishes with a gremolata of chopped parsley, lemon and garlic.
Other dishes served at a recent Wizo event at London’s 1701 restaurant at Bevis Marks synagogue, to showcase their star pupils, included pastilla — the North African dish of crisp filo pastry stuffed with poultry — in this case duck rather than the more traditional pigeon — mixed with roasted almonds, caramelised onion and the Moroccan spice mixture ras-el-hanout. There was also a version of Tel Aviv’s favourite take-away, sabich — the uniquely Iraqi-Jewish concoction combining fried aubergines, hard-boiled egg, tahini and tomatoes in a pitta.
But the sublime dessert of halvah, made with tahini mixed with coconut cream as well as sugar, on a bed of strawberry coulis and garnished with kadaif, the Shredded Wheat-style Middle Eastern pastry, and chopped pistachios is a dish you could only find in Israel — a product, if you like, of the melting pot barely a century old.