She grew up in an Ashkenazi home surrounded by Arab neighbours, lived six days a week as a vegan and ate meat on the seventh. With no formal culinary training, she managed to land a job at London’s Michelin-starred River Cafe. And now, London diners have a rare chance to try Shuli Wimer’s own cuisine.
“It’s time to present the language of my own food — what I cook for friends rather than what I cook at work,” says Wimer, who is still working at the River Cafe but next week starts a 10-day residency at Carousel, a Marylebone restaurant where guest chefs showcase their menus. Wimer packed out Carousel when she cooked there six months ago but her ideas have evolved since then. “That time, I included an extra-long plaited challah for everyone to share at the two long tables, but this time my food will be more eclectic and less obviously Jewish,” she says.
The Arab food she ate in local restaurants every Friday when growing up has been as big an influence on her cooking as the flavours she enjoyed with her Isralei parents and grandparents. Add in the Italian influences which have dominated for the last five years, and you have something unique.
“I actually brought freekeh from the next village to my home in the Galilee as the main ingredient for the soup I’m serving this time,” she says. The wheat grains — which are picked green and then smoked — and many unfamiliar spices were just some of the ingredients she loved at those Arab restaurants. She also developed a taste for meat there.
“My parents didn’t eat meat, fish or dairy for health reasons, so I grew up vegan — except for when I went to my grandparents and ate chicken soup and all that other great Ashkenazi stuff,” explains 32-year-old Wimer, who initially planned a career as a musician. “I got jobs in restaurants to support myself while studying music — then I realised the music was a hobby and the food was the career,” she laughs. She worked her way up to be head chef and kitchen manager at a Tel Aviv cafe-restaurant, but knew she would have to go abroad to reach her full potential: “Israeli food is so great, but I needed to learn other cuisines.”
Wimer arrived in London just over five years ago with her Anglo-Israeli wife and virtually no grasp of English. “It was five months before I could speak enough to ask the River Cafe for a job. During that time, I was learning my first foreign cuisine in a Thai restaurant,” she explains. Wimer was set on The River Cafe partly because of its female ownership — “kitchens run by male chefs like Gordon Ramsay who shouted a lot didn’t appeal”. However, her initial efforts to secure a job there were fruitless. After trying “the English way” — “sending in my CV and getting no response” — she got the restaurant’s attention with what she calls “the Israeli way”. “I took myself to lunch there, the best meal I had ever had, then walked into the kitchen holding my CV.” She was offered a four-day unpaid kitchen internship, during which she convinced the head chefs to let her join a team which has trained culinary greats from Jamie Oliver to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.
Now, after five years at the River Cafe , Wimer has gone part-time to develop her own recipes, with a view to opening her own restaurant. After her stint at Carousel she is looking for a longer pop-up stint to showcase dishes which are a mix of Italian and Middle Eastern like the masabiah (a chick pea based dish like a chunky hummus also known as musabaha) she will serve at the residency: “Instead of chick peas I’ve used borlotti beans; they’re so creamy.”
Also on the menu will be the freekeh from the Galilee, simmered with winter greens, and a stunning gnocchi made from breadcrumbs and pureed artichokes with bone marrow — an old Jewish dish from the Venice Ghetto. It’s Jewish food - hearty, rib-sticking and economical — but not quite as we know it.
Shuli Wimer will be cooking at Carousel on Blandford Street, W1 from 23 January —-3 February.