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Let's Eat

Israelis return to the table

Just how is hospitality faring post lockdown?

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Israelis enjoy sitting at restaurants in Tel Aviv, on April 04, 2021. Photo by Miriam Alster/FLASH90

Around the world, the impact of the pandemic on restaurants, bars and cafés as well as on catering companies has been devastating.

Israel is leading the way out of lockdown, not only in the vaccination league, but in opening up its hospitality businesses. What has their experience been, and can we learn from them? I’ve been speaking to some of the leading lights in the Israeli food world about the past 12 months, what has changed and their thoughts about the future:

The good news now is that since they ‘unlocked’, restaurants have been full. “After a year of eating at home and cooking for themselves, everyone wants to go out! Restaurants, bars and cafés are heaving — you have to line up just to get in” says Barak Yehezkeli, presenter of television programme On the Napkin and owner of private dining venue, Burek Studio.

However, Barak Aharoni (former head chef at The Norman Hotel now working as a consultant to several new hotels and restaurants) says that it’s not quite ‘normal’ yet: “The Government are paying staff’s salaries until June, so they prefer to stay at home. So many places are understaffed and only working at 50, 60 or 70 per cent of capacity.”

“It’s a bit messy at the moment, but it will be OK” admits culinary editor of food magazine, Al Hashulchan, Orly Peli-Bronshtein, who has been among the crowds rushing to enjoy eating out and listen to live music.

The general consensus is that it’s too early to predict, but some of the experts I spoke to did expect culinary casualties. “Some chefs don’t want to go back to their restaurants — it’s too hard for them” says Peli-Bronshtein.

However, a trend that has been growing has seen top chefs leaving restaurant cooking to set up smaller studios; cooking when they choose and without the weight of expensive premises to rent and nightly service.

Several high-end chefs (including Yehezkeli) had already taken that route to achieve a better work-life balance. Before Israel locked down, he and his team were cooking a seven or eight course meal in his studio twice a week for up to 60 guests; the food made from ingredients picked or foraged that day. “A DJ would play a live set of dedicated music and the evening lasted for about three and a half hours. Our kitchen was entirely open so guests felt part of the experience” he says. He is nervously excited about re-opening next month. “We opened bookings today (April 7) for when we open on May 5, and are already full for the next two months.”

Private chef, Avner Laskin was another early adopter of the trend. He has been hosting restaurant-quality meals from his apartment for six years — since the outset of home dining internet booking site, Eat With (now defunct).

He says the past year of lockdown has boosted the trend of home cooks serving meals: “People are finding all sorts of locations and doing lots of different stuff. They can deliver their home cooked food to you or you can pick it up. Some might be growing their own veg in organic gardens and hosting dinners with those ingredients. It’s very farm to table.”

Aharoni says street food has also grown in popularity this year. “Carmel Market is more and more vibrant with street food joints. There are now almost as many of them as fresh ingredient stalls. There are stands serving pita; salatim; raw fish and there is the most amazing Thai food stall, called Mrs Kotiyo.”

Food delivery went beyond meals with small food businesses mushrooming everywhere. Laskin says initially he saw restaurant chefs using up surplus produce. “At the start of the pandemic, when chefs had large quantities of meat and fish they didn’t want to spoil, they started making bresaola (cured meat) and cured fish. We’ve seen a huge increase in homemade charcuterie.” He says countless foodies have jumped on the bandwagon, preparing artisan products: “Delivery boxes have been popular — a lot of bread — but also jams, flavoured oils, spice mixes, and those growing produce started delivering direct to consumers.”

Peli-Bronshtein also mentions the proliferation of food boxes over the past year. “Chen Koren (a Israeli Bake Off competition finalist) was running tours of Machane Yehuda market in Jerusalem. When the corona started there were no more market tours, so she put all her energies into her Box from Jerusalem business. She sends the packages all over the world, filled with non-perishable treats from the market.”

The boxes shipped around Israel contain freshly baked breads, fruits and vegetables and cheese etc but there’s a special box for those of us needing a taste of Israel, which includes halva; olive oil; spices; fruit teas; tahina and other locally made products.

Koren has set a trend: “There are now others, like Erez Golko, who is based in Haifa and sends boxes from the shuk in downtown Haifa; and there’s Michal Palti and Lilach Rubin’s East Jerusalem Goods company, who also send boxes of foods like halva, spices, coffee, date honey and mamool cookies internationally” says Peli-Bronshtein.

Has the pandemic changed the restaurant landscape for good? Yehezkeli believes the Israeli restaurant scene will return as vibrant as before: “A lot of people thought the industry would change forever, that the whole experience of eating out would be different and we would not engage with people but would sit in separate, socially distant chambers.

“The truth is that when people meet to eat it’s not just about the food, it’s about connecting. If you see what Assaf Granit or Eyal Shani are doing with their restaurants — they sell not just food but an experience. If you eat at The Palomar it’s all about the ambience. In a way that’s our culture — all about sharing and connecting. It comes from the family experience, from the festivals.”

There’s light is at the end of the tunnel and here’s hoping we’re right behind Israel in the lunch queue.

Box from Jerusalem: mamadiali.co.il;

Instagram: Barakyehezkeli; avnerlaskin; orly_bronshtein; eastjerusalemgoodscom; barakaharoni

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