For Israeli chefs, pandemic means pivot

When COVID-19 emerged in Israel in March, Nofar Zohar started making sandwiches.

Not just any sandwich, of course, but a carefully calibrated chicken schnitzel creation piled high with fried eggplant, her signature tomatoey matbucha, and hot peppers that sold out each week from her Tel Aviv popup shop.

It was a far cry from the chef’s previous work at some of Tel Aviv’s best restaurants, where she worked with such celebrity culinarians as Meir Adoni, Eyal Shani and Ran Shmuely.

But now that Zohar has tasted what it’s like to work normal hours and from her home kitchen, she’s never turning back. “I do it from love now, and my life is happy,” she says.

Zohar may be one of the last satisfied chefs left in the country.

The profession is one that is nearly impossible to manage right now, particularly for those who own restaurants and have been dealing with repeated coronavirus closures, suffocating social distancing regulations and a public that hasn’t been all that eager to return to eating out, even when allowed.

“We’re doing as much as we can to serve [food] with whatever rules we’re given from the government,” said Asaf Shinar of the Tzuk Farm Delicatessen, a farm-to-table cafe situated in Tel Aviv’s Shikun Lamed neighborhood. “We need the government to be very clear. Someone up there needs to open their minds and think.”

Asaf Shinar of the Tzuk Delicatessen has pivoted, in more ways than one, during the coronavirus, but is frustrated by the government’s lack of empathy and helpful ideas (Courtesy Asaf Shinar)

Chefs and restaurateurs have been grappling with six months of last-minute decisions to close down the economy, shuttering businesses and forcing them to throw out vast amounts of produce and raw materials.

Posting a photo of his preschool-aged daughter, chef Tomer Agay at Tel Aviv’s Santa Katerina wrote on Facebook: “I have to find a way to explain to her why on Rosh Hashanah eve, I’m embarking on a war to save my livelihood, and that I may need to break the law as part of this thing.”

Agay hasn’t flouted the rules by opening his restaurant during the current closure. Instead, like many others, he turned to pre-holiday catering, churning out his signature eggplant salad, Cornish hens in pomegranate sauce and gefilte fish, a meal that costs about NIS 100 ($29) per person for a family of four.

“This is what I can do,” he said. “For now.”

A Chen Koren Box from Jerusalem for Rosh Hashanah (Courtesy Chen Koren)

Shinar, similarly, pivoted his popular northern Tel Aviv eatery to catering and takeout in order to sustain the business.

He gained his cooking chops at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, before working for the original farm-to-table chef Thomas Keller in Napa Valley and making a few other stops in the US. He then returned to Israel and took over the Tzuk Delicatessen, which grew out of the Tzuk farm in the Ella Valley.

Shinar’s heart and soul are dedicated to the concepts of farm-to-table dining, and his all-organic menu is based on carefully calibrated salads and juicy hamburgers made from two kinds of free-range beef raised in Israel. There’s also a menu that allows diners to fress on whatever Shinar and his chefs decided to create that day.

When the coronavirus hit, he had to figure out how to recreate his 100-seat restaurant for takeout.

“It was a new business entirely,” said Shinar, who added Friday night dinners to his options when the economy reopened from the initial lockdown in May, with strict limits of 20 diners inside and 30 outside.

A Tzuk Delicatessan DIY Rosh Hashanah roast, part of the restaurant’s efforts to earn money in new ways (Courtesy Tzuk)

For the High Holidays, Shinar created cook-it-yourself baskets, featuring a leg of lamb and spice rub, or a beef shoulder with plums and chestnuts — side dishes and desserts included.

“We had grandmas calling us and ordering meals for all their children in all parts of the country,” said Shinar, who already has his Yom Kippur menu up on the Tzuk website.

Zohar also turned to holiday cooking, creating a kosher menu of authentic Moroccan home-style food, based largely on what she felt like cooking at the moment.

The mains include beef cheeks slow cooked with wine, lamb patties with garbanzo beans, organic chicken legs braised in homemade pomegranate syrup. Alongside salmon chraime (fish in a spicy tomato sauce) and 14 opening salads that includes eggplant cream, chopped liver and her 20-hour-cooked matbucha, a tomato and red pepper salad that’s more like a jam, she also offered three kinds of desserts, classic date-filled maamoul cookies, a semolina cake with cherries and whipped cream and a spice and nut honey cake.

“All the chefs had no work when coronavirus started and I just left my ego behind and started cooking,” said Zohar. “I’m the cook and the dishwasher and the shopper and I don’t have to deal with any overhead.”

Much to her delight, Zohar is overloaded with orders, and had to be strict with herself and customers about deadlines for Rosh Hashanah orders, to avoid having to run out for more supplies.

But rebranding for self-catering and takeout doesn’t solve all problems, particularly for venue owners.

Shinar pointed out that government unemployment grants given to some of his staff created a disincentive to work. He’s also peeved that the government allowed large crowds to gather to pray together during Rosh Hashanah, but not to eat in restaurants.

“You hear calls for mutiny because you can’t really trust the decisions being made,” he said. “If they give us two hours’ advance notice [on new rules], that is a very big problem.”

Chen Koren, who moved from market tours to market crates in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market (Courtesy Chen Koren)

Chen Koren, a Jerusalem chef who initially earned her living with tours of the Mahane Yehuda market, found herself broadening a sideline created last Rosh Hashanah, her Box from Jerusalem business, wooden crates stuffed with all the local products beloved from the outdoor food market, from cheeses and rugalech to nuts and stuffed grape leaves.

“The boxes just went up in demand,” said Koren, “and we were ready for it.”

Well, mostly. The first coronavirus-era holiday was Passover, and many stalls were closed, but Koren worked with whoever was open.

“It was a little more complicated, and we had to be kosher for Passover, but that allows me to be seen a little and help the market sellers,” said Koren. “With every box I wrap and every product I place, I think about who made it.”

This year’s High Holiday baskets included classic honey cookies, fruit cakes, local wines, apricot fruit leather, pralines, a sweet bread from the Teller Bakery and a recipe book by local food bloggers.

“We’ll just keep doing this,” said Koren. “We can send them around the world, until people can come back and do market tours.”

Tripolitania Chreime (a Nofar Zohar classic, from her mother’s recipe)

4 filets of perch (or a 1-kilo fish cut into steaks)
Lemon juice from half a lemon
Dash of salt

¼ cup canola oil
1 head of garlic, separated into cloves and minced
1 hot green pepper, diced fine (for those who like their fish spicy)
4 tablespoons tomato paste
1 tablespoon sweet paprika
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1-2 cups water
½ teaspoon cumin
½ teaspoon caraway
Juice from one squeezed lemon

1. Put the fish in a pan, add lemon and salt on top.
2. Mix a little, cover with plastic wrap and put in the refrigerator.
3. Place minced garlic and oil in pot and place on medium flame. Add hot pepper, if using, until garlic starts to bubble, about 20 seconds.
2. When garlic is golden but not brown, add tomato paste and paprika and stir constantly for about half a minute.
3. Add salt and sugar and the water until it reaches the consistency you want for the sauce.
4. Bring to boil, cover, and cook on a low flame about 25 minutes, stirring regularly.
5. Squeeze in lemon, cumin and caraway. Stir, add salt if necessary, and place fish on top of the sauce, adding some water if necessary so that the sauce is at the height of the filets.
6. Cook on a low flame for ten minutes.

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