At a seder in Tel Aviv, a night of liberation for foreign workers
Welcoming a modern exodus

At a seder in Tel Aviv, a night of liberation for foreign workers

Top chef Alon Gonen's Passover meal hosts 165 guests for whom freedom is a daily concern

Chef Alon Gonen started the tradition of an annual seder meal for foreign workers four years ago. (photo credit: courtesy, Alon Gonen)
Chef Alon Gonen started the tradition of an annual seder meal for foreign workers four years ago. (photo credit: courtesy, Alon Gonen)

The beautiful thing about Alon Gonen’s annual seder meal for foreign workers is that it came about so naturally, almost by accident.

Four years ago, the chef was curious as to what the undocumented foreign workers who cleaned the dishes at his El Barrio restaurant did for the holiday. He discovered that they had nowhere to go on seder night and, with stores, cafes and restaurants closed, no idea of what they were going to eat. So he called a chef friend, and asked him the same question: What do the foreign workers in your kitchen do for the seder? His friend replied that he had no idea.

So, Gonen told him: I’m hosting a seder at the restaurant for my workers (mostly from Eritrea) and my family, and you should bring your employees and family too. They were not interested in a makeshift seder, one that comes days before the real event. “I wanted an authentic seder for them, to have one day on which I give them a chance not to clean or work but to be my guests, to really enjoy the special holiday,” explained Gonen.

That’s how Gonen’s “seder tradition” was born.

That first one was small. Gonen and his friend cooked a little extra to give their foreign compatriots a taste of what the seder is all about. There was Israeli music (the likes of Chava Alberstein, Ricki Gal, and Naomi Shener), dancing, and a lot of wine — and a touch of reading of the Haggadah, the story of Passover.

When the next year came, Gonen had the same idea — except this time, he told his employees to tell other members of their communities. There was quite a turnout, he said. The real turning point, however, was the third year, last year, says Gonen, when he prepared to host 150 workers from all over the world — China, Thailand, Eritrea, Sudan, India — for their first Passover meal. One problem: El Barrio wasn’t big enough to fit them all.

So he called his friend, a high-ranking police official, who — rather than scolding Gonen for hosting illegal workers — offered him his villa in Herzliya Pituach, an affluent suburb just north of Tel Aviv.

“Don’t worry, Alon, no police are going to show up,” he joked. “The place is yours,” he said, leaving him his keys.

They had a blast, and the experience left a mark on Gonen. He described it as incredibly moving. And this year, he’s gone bigger still. Gonen is cooking a Friday seder meal for 165 people, including 62 children, at a Flamenco studio in south Tel Aviv.

“I have a lot of help from my kitchen staff” he chuckled, over a beer, in an interview on Thursday. “Teperburg [an Israeli wine manufacturer] sent me 80 bottles of red wine, and Tulip, another Israeli wine franchise that employs people with special-needs, is sending five representatives to bartend.”

Chef Alon Gonen (photo credit: courtesy, Alon Gonen)
Chef Alon Gonen (photo credit: courtesy, Alon Gonen)

Passover is about Jews escaping slavery, said Gonen. “I don’t need Passover anymore,” he said, “We have Israel. We aren’t slaves anymore… But these people [the illegal foreign workers] need it. They are the ones who aren’t free and who are struggling, and that’s what Passover is all about,” Gonen explained. He said that the situation among undocumented foreign workers is bad — and that many of them face severe hardships when they enter a limbo state between on one hand, not being deported, and on the other, not being granted working permits either.

Yet what made him really come alive during our conversation was describing the children at his seders.

“It’s just amazing. The kids who come speak Hebrew fluently. They’re Israelis! Their parents are from another world, but these youngsters are so Israeli. They know the songs, and they have such a good time,” said Gonen. He added that the children get presents after the meal, “just like other Israeli children.”

A fair chance

Gonen’s seder tradition does not have the feel of a contrived humanitarian gesture. That it seems to come so naturally to him may have something to do with his views on giving people chances.

Gonen recalled his time as an apprentice chef at a two star Michelin restaurant in Chartier, south of Paris — a program he was supposed to be on for one month which turned into two and a half years. “When I was in France, no one treated me like I was an Israeli. I was a cook — just like everyone else — and we all worked together,” he said. That was his chance, he said.

Perhaps his army service affected him too. Gonen served in the IDF for nine years as an officer and in a bomb squad unit. He has the army-inculcated precision successful chefs often have, and believes in meritocracy.

He said that many of the foreign workers do really tough jobs — the kind many Israelis would not stand for — and do them well. “To me, washing dishes is one of the most important jobs in the kitchen. I depend on it,” he said. He wasn’t patronizing them, but rather, commending them.

“I had an Eritrean guy who washed dishes a few years ago, and I noticed him watching me in the kitchen. So I finally asked him why he’s staring at me, and he told me that in Eritrea he was a cook,” recounted Gonen.

“So I told him to show me, and the first thing he did was pick up the hot pan with a paper towel — the sign of an experienced cook (who knows a handle could be hot) — and finished cooking my shrimp dish. I knew right away that he was good, and let him work as a cook on my staff,” said Gonen. From that point on, explained Gonen, the man comported himself entirely differently at work. He was excited, he was confident — and he blossomed. “Unfortunately,” said Gonen, “he went back to Eritrea to get married — but I told him that if he’s ever back in Israel he has a place in my kitchen.”

Gonen explained that he can’t control whether some of the foreign workers will be deported if the Interior Ministry decides to expel them — but what he can do is embrace them and bring them into his culture, and not make them feel like they’re outsiders. He can give them a fighting chance.

“Israel is a homeland for the Jews,” Ganon said, “but it’s not a Jewish land — in my opinion, anyone can be an Israeli.” Indeed, at his seder, 165 foreigners are treated just like ordinary Israelis, except that their dinner — featuring finely roasted chicken and matzah-stuffed tiramisu — may be a a tad tastier than that of the average Israeli.

Alon Gonen is the executive chef at the Crowne Plaza City Center restaurant, The 11th Floor, in the Azrieli Towers in Tel Aviv. He is a wine critic and is also working on a cook book.

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