Until recently, Israel had not been famed for its cuisine. The idea of an Israeli chef being sought after in London would have been laughable. To cater a kosher function maybe, but a draw for foodies? Never.
But Israel is rapidly becoming known for its great food and its chefs have started exporting their talents.
Trend leaders Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi and their Ottolenghi chain of restaurants have been the hottest ticket in town for some years. Now others are arriving to introduce bolder, punchier flavours and a raft of new ingredients to London diners.
Meet Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich, the husband-and-wife team behind the Honey & Co restaurant. Packer is a former head of pastry for Ottolenghi and executive head chef at Ottolenghi’s restaurant NOPI. Srulovich also was a chef at Ottolenghi.
Primarily a lunch spot — with occasional invitation-only dinners — Honey & Co, located just off Tottenham Court Road, changes its menu frequently. Favourite dishes include stuffed violet aubergines with tomato, maftoul, herbs and goat cheese; cauliflower baked in yogurt and tahini sauce; chicken tagine with chestnut, raisins and date molasses.
Israeli home cooking is a key part of the restaurant’s philosophy. Packer says: “The food we cook is the food we grew up on and grew to love; it is our mums’ and aunties’ food, the street food we always crave, the food we tried at our friends’ houses and the things we miss from our childhood.”
She adds: “In Israel everything is about food. It is in our blood. We wanted something that was like coming to our house for dinner, like sitting in our living room. We also wanted to show what is happening in the modern Middle-Eastern food scene.”
According to Packer, Israeli food has reached new levels because so many of the country’s chefs are willing to “travel, taste and try” — in other words, visit other countries and sample their cuisines.
Another factor is the quality of ingredients at the disposal of Israeli chefs. “Israel is a seasonal country which leads trends in terms of growing and agriculture,” says Packer.
Eran Tibi, acting head chef at Made in Camden, is another member of the growing Israeli foodie family in London. The Tel Aviv-born 34-year-old left Ottolenghi — where he worked for both Packer and Srulovich — to become sous-chef to Josh Katz at Made in Camden. Six months ago he became the main attraction.
Tibi’s basic skills were acquired growing up in his parents’ bakery in Petach Tikva, before studying engineering at university. It was only after he moved to London four years ago that he became a professional chef. “My grandfather owned the Moulin Rouge restaurant in Tsfat. I didn’t realise that cooking was in my blood,” he says.
While the food at Made in Camden is not strictly Israeli, Tibi believes everyone in the kitchen adds a bit of who they are. “We are a whole group working together and this influences the recipes.”
He adds that the secret of Israeli food is its simplicity, and the quality of the ingredients. “We use fresh flavours that play with your senses — this is the food scene in Israel,” he says.
It is not just exciting food that Israelis are bringing to Britain. Baristas like Roee Yekutiel are now showing off their exceptional coffee-making skills in London.
Yekutiel worked as a barista for five years in Israel before moving here in 2008 and now whips up gourmet espressos and cappuccinos at Primrose Hill’s Melrose and Morgan artisan grocer and kitchen.
His training has been intense. “I started in Café Hillel where we were doing 60 hours a week. The coffee scene in Israel is thriving and I learned a lot there. Israeli customers are demanding — there are a million ways to make coffee as everyone wants it in a specific way. English customers are much easier by comparison,” he laughs.
Yekutiel explains that Israel’s coffee culture started when chain coffee companies came from Italy demanding high standards from their staff. This created a generation of highly skilled baristas who in turn branched out to open their own cafes.
So why has he and his contemporaries moved to London? “The independent coffee scene is now better in London than in Israel. There are so many places to get great coffee. I have learned so much here,” he says.