Israel’s top chef talks food and fame
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Israel’s top chef talks food and fame

Assaf Granit, co-owner of Jerusalem's famous MachneYuda restaurant and London's award-winning The Palomar, has big plans for the future

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Chef Assaf Granit, of Mahneyuda and Top Chef Israel  fame, will be one of the main guides to Jerusalem cuisine in the city's first Open Restaurants festival (Photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Chef Assaf Granit, of Mahneyuda and Top Chef Israel fame, will be one of the main guides to Jerusalem cuisine in the city's first Open Restaurants festival (Photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Chef Assaf Granit is a hard guy to reach. And no wonder. As the co-chef at The Palomar, just named one of the six best new restaurants in London by GQ magazine, he’s never where you expect him to be.

Last week he was in London. This week he’s in Israel, but not manning the kitchen at MachneYuda, the restaurant that started it all. Instead he’s at the Neve Ilan studios outside Jerusalem where he’s spending most of the week filming episodes of “Game of Chefs,” the reality cooking show that’s turning Granit into a household name.

And where does he really want to be? At home, with his wife and two-year-old.

“It’s a price I pay for being ambitious, for growing so fast that it has an effect on my personal life,” said Granit. “I just won best restaurant of f*cking London, I’m staring in a prime TV show, I’ll be starring in my own show (based on Gordon Ramsay’s “Kitchen Nightmares”) and the restaurants in Israel are all doing great, and I’m not happy. We’re such a big company and we’re all over the place and being famous is super weird and not fun at all.”

Well, maybe it’s not all that bad.

At the heart of it all in MachneYuda, the group's flagship restaurant (Courtesy MachneYuda)
At the heart of it all in MachneYuda, the group’s flagship restaurant (Courtesy MachneYuda)

Six years ago Granit and his partners, Uri Navon and Yossi Elad, opened MachneYuda, an Israeli bistro in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market that became known for its innovative food and hip, lively vibe, serving mushroom risotto in mini-Mason jars and offering old-fashioned Moroccan fish chreime as a main course.

For months, you could only get a reservation at least two weeks in advance. Even Tel Avivians were making the one-hour trip to try it out.

From there, the reputation grew, spreading first across the street to Yudale, their charming wine bar that serves tapas, and later adding HaSadna at the city’s refurbished train station and then Talbieh, another wine bar, tucked under the Jerusalem Theater.

A Jerusalemite by birth, Granit never considered Tel Aviv as one of his culinary destinations, calling it too small and crowded with chefs. And in all honesty, he shines in the holy city. But when he wanted to expand further, he and his partners began thinking about where they could head outside Israel.

They figured that as long as they were going to put all that energy and money into another top-notch restaurant, it made sense to play in a bigger pool.

“There’s a glass ceiling here in Israel,” he said. “Here, you can be as good as you can be, but abroad, you can reach for the sky.”

The genteel, quiet space that is the Talbieh wine bar, under the Jerusalem Theater (Courtesy Talbieh)
The genteel, quiet space that is the Talbieh wine bar, under the Jerusalem Theater (Courtesy Talbieh)

New York City, however, was too far away. That left Paris, London and Berlin. They quickly dismissed Paris as too traditional. Berlin felt like a good idea, and they were looking into possible space. Then MachneYuda customers Layo Paskin, a London-based DJ, and his sister, Zoe, started talking to Granit about opening a similar restaurant in London, and The Palomar was born.

Now, said Granit, he’s aiming for a Michelin star.

“Just one,” he said. “It’s casual style. But to have one for the MachneYuda [Group], in just six years, it would be pretty amazing.”

The Palomar opened last summer, serving a menu that is nearly identical to that of MachneYuda, offering what Granit calls the “culinary melting pot” that is Israeli cuisine. Manned by head chef Tomer Amedi, they played down the sour and spicy flavors a bit during the first week they were open, but were advised to “pump it up” by the customers, who “go crazy for the spectrum of flavors and tastes they don’t know,” he said.

Now, said Granit, the food is almost a copy of MachneYuda, but a bit smaller.

“MachneYuda is like a train station, the amount of people and the rhythm of the kitchen,” he said. “In The Palomar, you can get to those tiny, small spots of flavor that MachneYuda can’t get to. And the ingredients are better; protein-wise, there are better cows, better lamb, much better fish.”

Behind the counter at The Palomar, the MachneYuda Group's latest restaurant, recently named one of London's six best by GQ Magazine (Courtesy The Palomar)
Behind the counter at The Palomar, the MachneYuda Group’s latest restaurant, recently named one of London’s six best by GQ Magazine (Courtesy The Palomar)

The atmosphere in the London eatery is also calmer, he said. It’s “happening and buzzing” — reportedly with lines out the door — but not quite the same craziness of MachneYuda.

“Everything is at such a high temperature in Israel,” he said. “The political situation, the financial situation and the regional situation. It’s the same with the food; there’s the Polish, German, Ethiopian and Arab heritage” that make their way into the local flavor.

And clearly, the British palates like it, perhaps prepared for it by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, two other Jerusalem ex-pats with their own fiefdom in London.

Chefs Kamel Hashlamon and Assaf Granit were planning on starting a new culinary conversation about precise Palestinian food, part of last season's Jerusalem Season of Culture (Courtesy Jerusalem Season of Culture)
Chefs Kamel Hashlamon and Assaf Granit were planning on starting a new culinary conversation about Palestinian food, part of last season’s Jerusalem Season of Culture (Courtesy Jerusalem Season of Culture)

Now Granit, who’s in the kitchen three days a week when he’s not in the TV studio, said his restaurant group is planning another restaurant in London, a cookbook, plus another one or two more restaurants in Jerusalem.

The next Jerusalem restaurant, which will open at the end of the year, will be based on London chef Jamie Oliver’s concept of working with youth-at-risk, bringing food from the garden to the table. The MachneYuda version will be kosher, a first for the restaurant company.

The other idea the MachneYuda team is toying with is an eatery based on authentic Palestinian cuisine. Granit would like to partner with Palestinian chef Kamel Hashlamon, with whom he was supposed to host a culinary coexistence event during last summer’s Jerusalem Season of Culture, but was canceled due to the political unrest in Jerusalem.

“It would be very precise Palestinian food,” said Granit. “Not hummus and salad and chips.”

Would we expect anything else?

Ultimately, the strive for additional restaurants, producing the MachneYuda cuisine for all the foodies out there, is about the ability to express their creativity to as many people as possible, said Granit.

“TV helps, and so do the awards from GQ,” said Granit, “but ultimately it’s about the food.”

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