If you have spent much time in Israel recently, you will be very well acquainted with culinary personality Gil Hovav. In fact, he was hard to avoid when his TV show, Captain Cook, was on screens every night on Israel’s Channel Two, and a supermarket chain used Hovav’s face on an advertising billboard towering over Tel Aviv’s highways. But Israel’s most famous television chef and cookery-book writer adores all the attention.
“Friends ask me if I’m embarrassed, but I love it,” says the youthful-looking but bald and bespectacled star. Where Britain has Jamie Oliver advertising supermarkets, bringing out recipe books and cooking on TV, Israelis have Hovav. He has been credited with changing the image of Israeli cuisine from a country of basic traditional foods into a “gourmet nation”.
The 48-year-old, who lives with his male partner in Tel Aviv, is a bit of a renaissance man — producing his own TV shows as well as writing fiction and even newspaper-editing. He was in London recently with the New Israel Fund, giving talks on modern Hebrew (he is the great-grandson of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the reviver of the Hebrew language), and performing cookery demonstrations. But of course he does not get the same attention over here as he does in his native Israel. “I don’t think it’s possible for me to be a celebrity worldwide,” he admits. “
First of all, my novels are all in Hebrew. I don’t think this will travel very well. The other rule is: cookbooks don’t travel well. We in Israel don’t have any foreign cookbooks apart from Jamie Oliver, who is on TV. I’m based in Israel. I’m good with that.” In his latest show, he sought to find Israel’s best dish by travelling round the country asking experts to judge two favourite dishes from a city, village or kibbutz, and then getting the nation to vote. For all its status as humble street food, falafel was the winner. “Israel is supposed to have gone beyond falafel, but I think we’re coming back to our roots,” he says.
“After the second intifada, and following a financial recession, the posh restaurants closed and we went back to restaurants serving simple Israeli food. Now the economy is doing well, but the food is getting more simple rather than chi-chi.” But he adds that falafel should not be made in the home.
“Personally, I never make falafel. It’s nice, but it’s a street food.” Instead, he talks about one of his signature dishes — butterfly soup. He has named it thus because the tomato-soup recipe — passed on from his grandmother — contains rice that opens up like butterflies. His Moroccan grandmother, whom he remembers as “educated, theatrical and funny”, never let him help her in the kitchen as a youngster, because traditionally it was bad luck for a man to cook. But he watched her like a hungry gannet, and was even allowed to skip school to spend time with her.
“As a kid, I’d much rather stay at home with her than go to school,” he confesses. “I used to tell my mother I didn’t feel well, and she knew I was making it up but she thought I’d learn more with her than with my teachers.” Later he would try out her dishes until he got them right. “I tried and tried for some time to make the soup.
Then one day I remembered she added two carrots, and immediately the soup had that sweetness.” Hovav talks about his love for simple, honest food, but one of his TV shows, Captain Cook, focused on the higher end of the gastronomic food chain by seeking out the best restaurants in the world. His team went to the US, Japan and, of course, Old Blighty, to check out the world’s best restaurants, including Locanda Locatelli and traditional British eaterie Rules. But one chef chucked him out, even though he had arranged to film in his restaurant in advance.
“It’s Gordon Ramsay, you expect that,” laughs Hovav, with more good humour than you would imagine to come from a certain Michelin-starred chef.