Let's Eat

Uri Buri - Akko's Mayor of food

Israeli star chef Uri Jeremias (aka Uri Buri) has spent the pandemic supporting locals


Coronavirus has had a devastating impact on restaurants in Israel. With tough restrictions in place, some are open for takeout, while others have been forced to close indefinitely. But it will take more than a global pandemic to stop Uri Jeremias, better known as Uri Buri, the legendary Israeli chef with the eponymous fish restaurant in the ancient walled town of Akko in northern Israel.

Since September 2020, he and the team from Uri Buri restaurant have been delivering meals to elderly people in Akko.

During Rosh Hashanah, when Jeremias realised many of Akko’s elderly citizens had nobody to celebrate with, he approached his team about delivering meals to them. They later decided to keep it up during the lockdown, extending the service to the elderly from all denominations.

Jeremias is something of a local celebrity. With his Santa Claus-style beard and twinkling blue eyes, the ever-smiling chef dubbed the unofficial mayor of Akko is impossible to miss. At present, he and his team make twice weekly deliveries to between 45 and 50 of Akko’s elderly residents. They come from all walks of life – Jewish, Arab and Christian – and most are aged between 70 and 95.

“Many of them are younger than me!” jokes Jeremias, who, at the age of 76, shows no sign of slowing down.

Working out of a kosher kitchen lent to them by Akko City Hall, the team prepare meals that are low in sugar and sodium, easy to chew, but no less tasty.

“Yesterday, we served a rich minestrone soup made from chicken stock and very finely chopped, slightly overcooked vegetables, and, one of my personal favourites, chicken baked in coca cola with rice. For dessert, Israeli milk pudding, or malabi, made from coconut milk,” explains Jeremias. Other typical meals include mansaf, a Middle Eastern rice and meat dish typically made with lamb, but, in this case, made with minced meat; fruit salad, and halva.

“The team don’t just deliver the food and leave, they are happy to stay for a chat and listen to people’s problems. It’s a win-win situation as it allows us to give back to the community while keeping the team together.”

Whenever he talks about his “team”, the pride in his voice is unmistakable.

“Without a good team, a brilliant chef can’t achieve anything,” he says. “I don’t hire professional people with restaurant experience, I hire young people, people in need, newcomers to Israel, kids who’ve been kicked out of school or home, who are roaming the streets. All I want to see is their desire to work.”

The result is one of the longest standing teams in the Israeli restaurant business.

Acting chef Ali Mar’i, a Muslim man from northern Israel has been working in the kitchen at Uri Buri restaurant for 18 years, while the sous chef, Ahmed Chadra also a Muslim Arab, has been there for seven years.

“I don’t think of people as Jewish or Arab or Chinese or religious or non-religious. People who are good are good regardless of their colour, religion or sexual orientation. I define people by their character, their heart and the glow in their eyes,” says Jeremias.

“Respect is the necessary ingredient for co-existence,” he adds.

This philosophy is nothing new for Jeremias. When he was four years old, his parents brought an Arab girl to live in their home. Her town on the Lebanese border had been evacuated during the war and she and her family were refugees. Since her parents were unable to care for her, the Jeremias family took her in.

“She grew up as my sister and remains a member of my family to this day,” he admits, adding that she later became the first Arab nurse in the Galilean hospital in Nahariyya.

His approach to people is also reflected in his food, which is multi-faceted, multi-ethnic and unbound by culinary convention.

But it has not always been this way. Jeremias says that, when he first opened Uri Buri restaurant 33 years ago, fish in Israel simply meant fried fish.

“It wasn’t just fried, it was fried to death,” he recalls. And while he too served fried fish in the early days, he gradually built a customer base that allowed him to expand his repertoire. These days, visitors to his restaurant can expect to sample dishes ranging from tuna on yoghurt with spicy olive oil, to sea bass in coconut milk, with chili and apple, and, of course, his show-stopping salmon sashimi in soy sauce with wasabi sorbet.

“Today, I don’t cook anything I don’t like to eat,” he says.

So, what is Israeli food?

“Like everything in Israel, ask two people and they’ll have three opinions,” he chuckles. “For some people, Israeli food is what their Moroccan grandmother made, for others, it’s their Polish grandmother’s cooking. For me, Israeli food is like the country – a melting pot of different cultures and flavours.”

Asked when his restaurant will reopen, Jermias does not miss a beat: “Sunday!” he exclaims. “I just don’t know which Sunday.”

Uri Buri is currently closed

EDITOR’S NOTE: if you want a fix of Israeli Food, Uri in Netflix documentary Go Feed Phil is a must!

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