Today food media is as big in Israel as anywhere else in the world, with competing prime-time TV cooking shows and celebrity chefs. But 20 years ago Israel was considered a culinary wasteland. Magazine publisher, food writer and cookbook author Janna Gur changed all that when she and her husband - helped by a bit of foresight - started Al HaShulchan ("On the Table" in Hebrew) magazine. It recently celebrated its 20th birthday and no other publication has come close to achieving its status in Israel.
Gur moved from Latvia to Israel with her family as a teenager and studied English literature and art history before doing her mandatory service in the Israeli army. From there she began her Masters degree in translation and became a flight attendant for El Al to finance her studies. She recalls that it was her bi-monthly trips to New York that sparked her early interest in food. With 36 hours on the ground she would sample as much art, culture, and food as possible, and it was a revelation. "In the '80s in Israel" she explains, "there wasn't much going on. The food scene was really very basic and very Spartan."
Despite her burgeoning fascination with food, Gur did not anticipate it turning into a career. She met her husband, Ilan, in 1984. He was an independent publisher of a marine sports magazine and while scuba diving did not interest Gur, the magazine did and she helped with everything from layout to editing. In 1991 they started a food magazine; "a very humble publication for professional chefs. We didn't aspire to anything more than that," she says.
At a time when being a chef was not an esteemed profession, Gur saw the start of something big. "The '90s was the formative decade of the Israeli food scene," she says. "People started to discuss Israeli cuisine. There was wine that was suddenly drinkable and great bread, there was boutique cheese. Suddenly it became very sexy to be a chef." Aspiring Israeli chefs began to attend culinary school abroad and return to open their own restaurants.
"What makes Israeli society so unique on the culinary level," according to Gur, "is that we still cook. Israelis are a cooking nation, we make our food, most of the time, from scratch; and we have this privilege of having access to so many culinary traditions brought to Israel by Jews coming from all over the world, each community or group bringing their own ethnic traditions."
She argues that Israeli cuisine is still in the process of developing; all the ingredients are there, they just need to simmer.
From its roots as a trade magazine, Al HaShulchan has shifted gears slightly to embrace foodies as well as professional cooks, and the brand has expanded to include countless cookbooks, an in-depth website, an iPhone app, and more.
Gur's own cookbook, The New Book of Israeli Food, published in 2008 in English, brings historical perspective and a modern flair to the development of Israeli cuisine, and provides recipes from her own repertoire as well as from top Israeli chefs.
Gur also travels the world giving talks and cooking demonstrations to spread the gospel of Israeli cuisine. Al HaShulchan continues to be the most widely read food magazine in Israel, and Gur remains the greatest champion of Israeli cuisine.