Israeli chef Roy Ner is a curious mix. Accent unmistakably Aussie, but attitude, pure sabra. Like the food on the menu at his slick Mayfair restaurant, Jeru.
He may be new on the London scene — having opened Jeru less than six months ago — but in Australia, Ner is an established star in the food world and a leading light in Middle Eastern cooking. Born and bred in Israel, with a Greek father and Moroccan mother, his hybrid accent is testimony to how many years he spent down under.
Had the US visa system been easier (and faster) to navigate, his drawl may have been native New Yorker. “I was looking at going to train at the CIA (Culinary Institute of America) but the visa would have taken 10 months. Le Cordon Bleu London was fully booked, so he enrolled at Sydney’s Le Cordon Bleu where he could start immediately.
His love of cooking had begun after his military service when he would work for free at function halls and restaurants in Caesarea and Tel Aviv. “There was no money in it, I just wanted the experience. When I told my mum — who thought it was a phase and that I would be going to university — that I was serious about it, she said I was crazy, and she wouldn’t support it.”
He saved money to train at the best school he could find. Which was how he ended up (in his early 20’s) in Australia. His career leapt forward when he was picked by his class teacher (from a cohort of 200) for work experience at one of Sydney’s top restaurants — Aria, which has two Michelin stars and Gordon Ramsay-style uber chef, Matt Moran, at its helm.
Mezze plates are the order of the day Photo: Hikaru Funnell
“It was like going into the River Café in London — it was massive. I didn’t know what I was walking into.” By the end of day one he was hired full-time, then shot up the kitchen ranks, to sous chef in only seven months. His six years there were life changing. “I rubbed shoulders with the elite of the food world. We got to meet every VIP chef visiting Australia — like Gordon Ramsay and Antony Bourdain.”
In 2012, needing a break from the high-pressure world of a Michelin starred kitchen he left Aria. He took a role in a small Sydney bar and did consultancy work for friends. By the end of the year, he found himself running six restaurants, none of them Israeli/Middle Eastern.
“The menus at the restaurants I was looking after were all European and steak houses. My food had zero connection with the ethnic and heritage food I’d grown up on. People looked down on it. It was a no-no to say anything was Israeli — it was before the big rise [of Israeli food] in Australia.”
A successful shidduch by a friend in PR paired Ner with fellow restaurant consultant, Danny Russolini. The pair went on to open dozens of restaurants together.
When Lebanese chef, Ibby Moubadder, first suggested opening a Middle Eastern concept Ner was initially dismissive. “I told him no chance. At that time there wasn’t one Middle Eastern, Israeli or Lebanese restaurant open in Australia that sold food for more than $20 a head. It was all kebab, hummus and falafel — there was no high end Middle Eastern dining. I didn’t want to make posh kebabs.”
Interiors are simple with a Middle Eastern twist Photo: Hikaru Funnell
Moubadder was persistent and eventually Ner agreed to work with him on a restaurant called Nour which opened in 2016 — but only to consult on the menu, not hands on in the kitchen. “I did eventually cook, and something happened with me — I began to fall in love with my heritage. Something changed in me as a person.”
Within four weeks Nour had been awarded 15 out of 20 by the Sydney Morning Herald, putting them in line for a top hat award which, he explains is on a par with our Michelin star system. The restaurant led to an offer to do a TV show. “It was amazing — before I knew it, we had offers to go to LA to cook with the top restaurants like French Laundry and Tartine bakery.”
A few years before that, elsewhere in the world, things had started to change for Middle Eastern food. Machneyuda had opened in Jerusalem and Israeli flavours were crossing continents. “All of a sudden, there was this massive love in the world. Tel Aviv started growing and being accepted and it was cool to do Middle Eastern food. It was this food with a bit of attitude and flavour.”
Haloumi truffle doughnuts are a favourite Photo: Hikaru Funnell
After three years at Nour he was ready to move on. Following a stint with a hotel company creating (award winning) Tel Aviv-style menus for their in-house restaurants he was ready to open his own restaurant, serving his food in a more formal setting. When the chance to take a site just off London’s Berkeley Square arose, he knew it was for him. The pandemic meant he had work with designers via screens. “I didn’t know Mayfair per se, but I didn’t want a stuffy feel at the restaurant.”
He arrived here from Australia last July year and Jeru took life. The feel is modern, with the main dining room decorated in muted earthy tones. Middle Eastern accents are in details like coloured glass lampshades.
He terms the food Mid/Med — a Middle Eastern/Mediterranean mash up — which is also reflected in the restaurant’s name. “Jeru means a crossroads — I never wanted this to be just Israeli or Jewish, which is why I use the term Mid/Med.”
London’s larder of fabulous produce has been an inspiration. “I wanted to take some of the best products in the world, treat them well and give them a heap of heritage.”
He’s passionate about getting the best from his ingredients. Fish is delivered direct from the boat twice a week — he picks the best of the catch and has evolved a process of drying it out, so the skin dries, and the flesh is tenderised. “It doesn’t give it an over-strong flavour.” On my visit to the restaurant, butterflied sea bass with a cucumber salsa was outstanding.
He has played with fermentation and developed his own chickpea miso and Japanese congee — both of which, he says, provide a healthy way of packing an umami (flavour) punch.
The menu changes seasonally but some favourites are retained. Light and airy haloumi doughnuts with truffle shavings and Levant murtabak (Arab fried bread) stuffed with gooey cheese and a side of lime labneh, showered with red chilli flakes and topped with fresh mint salsa both deserve their regular spot.
His menus are designed to be shared: “I grew up mostly with my Mum’s side of the family, which is Sephardi, and there’s a deep connection with food. Go to my Grandma’s house and there’ll be at least 15 mezze in the fridge and food for 20 people. And that attitude of celebrating people through food is important to me. You need at least three/four dishes on the table.”
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