The story of Israeli bakers finding success in London is hardly big news.
Anyone worth their cake knows that the most recent success stories in the life of the loaf have been Israeli — Gail’s, Ottolenghi and Baker and Spice all have Israeli founders or co-founders. Israelis are to be found in many bakery kitchens.
English food writers are full of gushing praise for Israeli breads, terming Tel Aviv a hotbed of great baking. Such is the craze for all Israeli baked goods, that it has reached high streets across the UK, with Marks & Spencer launching a range of Israeli-style breads.
But it is not all about bread. Israel is also churning out expert patissiers. David Mendes trained in Herzlia’s Tadmor Central Hospitality College. “I originally wanted to be an architect,” he says — even so, he became the head baker at London’s Savoy hotel.
Mendes started his career making cakes and desserts at two Tel Aviv hotels — the Sheraton Moriah and Crowne Plaza. “I also worked at the Crowne Plaza’s chef’s academy, where I trained other pastry chefs.”
He moved onto restaurant kitchens. After working in top Tel Aviv restaurant Messa and briefly in Moscow, Mendes returned to Israel before deciding that London was where he needed to be to further his career. “I arrived in London with £300 in my pocket and stayed with a friend while I looked for a job” he smiles.
He spent some time at Michelin-starred, Mayfair restaurant, The Square. “The chefs there made Gordon Ramsey look like Garfield the cat. It took away all the fun,” he complains.
After producing Asian fusion delicacies such as green tea ice cream at sister restaurants Zuma and Roca, he took on a role at the chic chocolatier and bakery, Cocomaya. “I started work every day at 2am to bake croissants, Danish, chocolate cakes and rugelach — the best thing on earth,” he enthuses.
Despite having chosen to make his living baking sugary treats, he admits to not having had a particularly sweet tooth. “I was the only student in my year to have never baked a cake before,” he says. His interest in pastry work is more about the science and order needed. “Pastry is much more organised and thoughtful than other areas of cooking. You need to plan and always follow the recipe. It’s all about the chemistry,” he explains.
Like his fellow successful baking brethren, the flavours of his Israeli youth have found their way into his food. “My mother is Egyptian and my father from an Israeli-Spanish family, so we ate a lot of spices at home. I love to put these flavours into pastry and desserts. I make a thyme-scented creme brulee that is so delicious I could just drink the custard it is made from. Milk chocolate also works really well with sesame.”
He recently demonstrated his indulgent milk chocolate sesame oil mousse with caramelised bananas and lime on puff pastry at the annual South Bank chocolate festival.
The good news is that Mendes is willing to share his skills, offering consultancy services to bakeries, restaurants and hotels on menu development, staff training and kitchen design. He also advises home cooks, for whom, he believes, anything is possible.
He insists that “most things can be created without special equipment” and that the best way to learn is to do it all yourself. “I just supervise and explain”. The pupil is left with the recipe and an impressive array of goodies knowing that they have done it themselves.
“If you do it yourself in your home environment, it gives you the confidence that you can do it again,” he assures.
He explains that the only limit on what can be achieved is time. “Croissants, for example, take two days of rolling, rising and resting the dough. For those, you would take the professional course which is over a few days,” he explains.
France may have given birth to the art of patisserie, but Israel’s chefs are giving them a run for their Euro.