It was foodie heaven last weekend, which 10 well-known American chefs — including Philadelphia’s Mike Solomonov, cookbook writer Joan Nathan, Chipotle culinary manager Nate Appleman and New Orleans chef Alon Shaya — spent tasting hummus and tehina and sniffing spices in Tel Aviv’s Jaffa, Carmel and Levinsky markets.
“They loved the spices,” said Inbal Baum, whose food tour company, Delicious Israel, shepherded the chefs around the food sites of Tel Aviv. “They loved the olives, and the hummus, obviously. What was neat was watching them buying and then cooking with what they’d bought — how they were taking their recipes and making that into food for dinner.”
It had been Mike Solomonov’s idea to bring fellow chefs for a trip to Israel, as the Tel Aviv-born chef — who infuses much of his cooking at several of his Philadelphia restaurants (Zahav, not kosher; Citron and Rose, kosher) with a Middle Eastern flavor — wanted to cook a tribute dinner commemorating the 10-year anniversary of his brother’s death. David, who was near the end of his IDF active duty, was killed in 2003 by a sniper.
Solomonov ended up bringing along 22 friends, including Shaya, a fellow Tel Aviv native who now lives and cooks in New Orleans; Moroccan-born chef Mourad Lalou; and Simone Cormier, the spice buyer for natural supermarket chain Whole Foods.
“He was the leader of this thing,” said Baum of Solomonov. “He kept wanting to do it, but he kept opening restaurants.”
The non-chefs in the group “loved everything,” said Baum, but the chefs were a tad more particular. “They’re used to amazing products.”
That said, Cormier loved the local paprika, and was looking into sourcing some paprika grown in the Negev, while the chefs “had a shopping bonanza,” said Baum, buying from a pair of Yemenite spice purveyors in the Levinsky market.
“They were buying the stuff from the back of the store,” related Baum, “from the bushels. A lot of cumin and the range of red spices.”
When it came time to cook, they kept it simple and local. A “huge, man-sized pumpkin” was halved and grilled, vegetables were stuffed, and served alongside lamb and meat patties. There was also an avocado, guava and onion panzanella made with a beigele, the long, oval-shaped bread, a freekeh salad with pomegranates, and braised chicken with olives and turmeric.
“It was served in aluminum pans, outside in the dark, and you couldn’t see everything but it tasted great,” Baum said. “And it was all for Mike’s brother.”