Let's Eat

I need to feed a Zest for success

Zest Chef, Eran Tibi has taken kosher out of the ghetto and into the mainstream.


Scroll to the end of this article for details on how to win a bespoke meal cooked for you by Eran Tibi

Zest at JW3 is undoubtedly the best kosher restaurant in the UK and up there with the world’s finest. Chef, Eran Tibi (who set up the restaurant with fellow chef Josh Katz in October 2013) has taken kosher out of the ghetto and into the mainstream. He has even won critical acclaim from the harshest of critics — his Jewish customers. And, on top of that, he has garnered two successive nominations for best up and coming chef in the very English ‘‘establishment’’ Tatler restaurant awards.

“I was so excited — it’s a real coup for a kosher restaurant even to be recognised,” he enthuses. The outspoken, thirtysomething Tel Avivian — who fizzes with energy — admits that running a kosher kitchen has been a challenge. “It’s the toughest. As a gay, non-kosher Israeli, I was an unlikely candidate to lead the best kosher restaurant,” he jokes. Tibi explains the two factors that he has found particularly demanding. Firstly, the extortionate cost of kosher ingredients.

“Ricotta cheese is £50 for 1.5kg and double cream — £9 for two litres. I’ve had to work around that by becoming a gastronomic researcher and developing recipes that avoid dairy.”

He has also brought some molecular gastronomy to play to try to introduce some of the more intense non-kosher flavours to the kosher world. “I wanted to make a bisque — really concentrated and usually made using shellfish. So I tried red mullet scales, which are huge and usually something fishmongers and chefs would throw out. They made the most fabulous, rich stock.”

Tibi hasn’t been shy of challenging the regime. With co-founding chef Josh Katz and restaurant consultant Nick Lander, they managed to negotiate non-shomer kitchens with licensing body, the Sephardi Kashrut Authority.

“Instead, there are cameras so they can see what we are doing at all times. I did not want my team — most of whom are not Jewish — to be intimidated by someone watching over their shoulders in the kitchen.”

That said, he and Tomer, his front-of-house manager, ensure that each member of staff is up to speed on the do’s and don’ts of kosher food. “We even teach them some good Yiddish words to throw into conversations” he laughs. He may sound flippant, but Tibi takes his responsibilities as an Israeli seriously. During this shmita year for Israel — during which the most observant believe certain produce from Israel may not be consumed — Tibi was told that, halachichally, he could buy nothing imported from Israel.

“I was not prepared to accept a blanket boycott of my own country’s produce, so I established which banned products were ones I actually use and just stopped buying those. I still buy other ingredients from Israel.”

He is proud of his homeland and recently starred in a prime-time documentary for Israel’s Channel 2 on Israeli chefs in London. “I’m enjoying being an ambassador for my country. Israel has a bad PR and Israeli people who do good things should shout about it although I do believe that there are no politics in food.”

The programme brought plenty of kudos from friends and family — “I had messages and emails from people I’d not seen in 15 years”.

He has no issue with being in the spotlight — a born entertainer, he feels food and hospitality were in his blood. “I was one of five, and the fourth boy. We all had jobs — mine was to help my mother in the kitchen. I remember cutting the tips off the okra, setting the table and other kitchen jobs.”

His Tunisian father opened a bakery in Petach Tikva 20 years ago after a career in the army, and his grandfather owned a club in Tunis called the Moulin Rouge, in which his father had played in the band.

“It was a very Jewish bakery — he made breads, pitta, rugelach etc. As the son of a baker, I was the most loved person in the whole world — it was amazing!”

It was this though, that eventually turned him off the food industry.

“After 18 years as a baker, my father had two heart attacks in two years — the second one almost killed him. So we closed the business. I was in my early 20s, doing engineering at university at the time and was the one who closed it all down. My family was falling apart, I was miserable, and at that point I eliminated the food industry from my life.”

Tibi launched himself into corporate life. Marketing (successfully) for a mobile phone company, for years. But he says a bug grew within him during that time. “I’d invite people over constantly. It hit me that it was in my blood to be the entertainer.”

At 29, he decided to take a year out, took all his savings and enrolled at London’s Cordon Bleu cookery school. He ran out of money after three months, but met a friend who had been working at a chain called Ottolenghi.

He went for a trial — “they said, ‘you’re crap but we’ll take you,’” he laughs.

He must have improved because a few years later, he joined friend Josh Katz (another former Ottolenghi employee) as Katz’s sous chef in the kitchen at Made in Camden at London’s Roundhouse to great critical acclaim. “We got rave reviews. A A Gill, the Sunday Times critic, gave us four stars and even rated us fourth in his six best restaurants in the world! We were laughing and dancing around when we read that!”

The project had been overseen by Nick Lander who then introduced the pair to JW3 to consult on Zest. The rest, as they say, is history.

What Tibi also brings to the table, is a sense of fun and irreverence.

“Food should be about the whole experience. I adore Nigella because she’s all about fun. She loves to entertain — her face, her language, her choice of words — she is all about the experience.”

For Tibi, what is on the plate is just part of what he wants to offer and that, for him, Zest is a work in progress.

He wants to continue the work of the succession of Israeli chefs bringing their own brand of fusion cooking to kitchens all over the world.

“The food has to combine with the surroundings, with the hello and the goodbye. I want to bring here some of the charm and friendliness we offer in Israel. I’m the wind of chutzpah” he says.

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive