Jewish diners are notoriously hard to please. So, one of the greatest challenges facing the trustees behind the JW3 community centre in relation to their new building was the catering.
The pressure was on, particularly as JW3 trustees are keen that the kosher restaurant and bar in their Finchley Road building would not only satisfy the centre’s users, but should itself also become a destination.
Restaurant consultant and Financial Times food critic Nick Lander advised on the scheme:
“My advice was that because of the particular nature of this project, they shouldn’t outsource the catering but do it themselves,” recalls Lander, who has worked on a number of other high profile projects including the Royal Opera House, Somerset House and the Southbank Centre.
One of Lander’s first moves was to approach chefs Josh Katz and Eran Tibi.
“With both being Jewish and one from Israel, the boys have more experience than just being good chefs,” adds Lander.
And in appointing them, he tapped into a current trend in London food, as both have worked at Yotam Ottolenghi’s eponymously named Ottolenghi restaurant. Any foodie worth his or her Himalayan pink salt will be familiar with Ottolenghi’s colourful Middle Eastern inspired dishes which are bang on trend.
During the development phase, Katz and Tibi were dispatched on research trips to Israel and New York.
“We looked at all Jewish food in New York — everything new, interesting and trendy. We also ate at some amazing vegetarian restaurants and learned about service styles. In Israel we visited a huge list of restaurants and tasted amazing fresh ingredients and bright and vibrant food,” enthuses Katz.
“In Israel you only eat what is in season so, for example, you will get the best tomatoes. And the street food there is divine,” smiles Tibi.
Katz and Tibi both trained at London’s Cordon Bleu cookery school, but first met over the stoves at the Notting Hill Ottolenghi store.
Politics and history graduate Katz had already worked for 15 months at the Galvin brothers’ Baker Street Bistrot de Luxe restaurant, then spent a year running his own catering company.
Israeli Tibi had followed his National Service with a degree in industrial engineering, and nine years spent in mobile phone marketing before training at Le Cordon Bleu. Although he took a circuitous route, he jokes that cooking was always in his blood: “My father was a baker and pastry chef in Petach Tikva so I grew up between doughs.”
When Katz was asked to head up the Roundhouse’s in-house restaurant Made in Camden he brought Tibi. Their success there — including a rare five stars from AA Gill — proved to Lander they were ready for this venture.
Although cooking Ottolenghi-style food, Katz is quick to assert that the new menu will not be simply in his mould. “It will have the Mediterranean/Middle Eastern influences but we have our own identity —- doing stuff that he hasn’t done,” he says.
The food will be Jewish, but not Ashkenazi in style. Smoked and cured fish will have its place but this is more inspired by the melting pot of the Jewish food experienced by Israeli Tibi.
“It will be homely, hearty Jewish food defined in a contemporary way. A little familiar but with a twist,” explains Tibi who has plundered his mother Rachel’s recipes for the project.
All parts of the day will be catered for with a breakfast menu — including shakshuka, a daytime menu which will include street-food inspired dishes, and a dinner menu including dishes like roasted Romano peppers with anchovies, olive oil and oregano; main courses like pan-fried cod with tomato, okra and aubergine stew on a bed of Israeli couscous — or pidim — and puddings like malabi — a rosewater based cream with fruit puree and caramelised pistachios.
“No restaurant in Israel would dream of serving pidim. It’s kids’ food. But Made in Camden diners loved it,” laughs Tibi.
The restaurant will be milky — licensed by the Sephardi Kashrut Authority. In keeping with the ultra-modern nature of the operation, the SKA will oversee proceedings in the kitchens remotely via cameras rather than installing a full-time shomer.
They admitted that following the rules of kashrut have taken dedication: “Kosher is a definite challenge but the kashrut authorities have been helpful and supportive,” says Lander. “We have spent time sourcing the very best kosher products like goats’ cheese imported from France,” adds Katz.
The setting has also been designed in detail. The bar — which is hoped will be an attraction in its own right was built by Cantilever — the company responsible for the bar at the Royal Opera House. And Lander has commissioned from Israel jewel-coloured plates hand-crafted from black clay.
Whether the restaurant — due to open early autumn — makes it as a mainstream destination for all cultures remains to be seen, but it won’t be your run-of-the-mill community centre eatery.