The concept of an Israeli farm-to-table empire may sound like a paradox — empires being sovereign and controlling — but Hedai Offaim has managed to keep his family’s wide-ranging culinary venture well-grounded, thanks to deep roots and a continual quest for spiritual fulfillment.
It’s been six years since he and his brother, Yinon Offaim, established their sustainable farm-to-table empire (spelled Offaimme) that now encompasses a 67-dunam (16.5 acre) farm in the desert, a herd of goats, three cafes and a soon-to-open bar in a former goat shed near one of the cafes, in Jerusalem’s Hansen House.
The menus in the three cafés — in Maccabim near the central Israeli town of Modiin, and in two Jerusalem locations — are similar, platters of hard and soft goat cheeses, fresh salads, egg dishes, freshly baked goods and breads.
Most of what’s served is made from ingredients raised or grown on their farm in the Arava in southern Israel and eaten on wide-planked farm tables — and the occasional bathtub covered with a glass top (at Hansen House) — for a very literal iteration of the farm-to-table concept.
“It all has to be local and fair,” said Offaim of the cafes’ food, some of which is supplemented by neighboring farms.
Offaim, whose name is translated as branches, is all about reaching out. He does nothing alone; it’s with either his brother and two other business partners; his wife, Eti Libman Offaim, who was his high school sweetheart; or other friends and family.
The concept for the sustainable farm comes from his teamwork with his brother, Yinon, who lives on the Arava land with his own family. They feed their goats on date leaves, hatch one and a half million organic eggs each year, and harvest dates, mangoes, vegetables and herbs. Everything grown there is organic and uses solar energy, recycled water and natural fertilizers.
The brothers were raised in Haifa by their Holocaust survivor father and kibbutz mother, staunch Hashomer Hatzair Zionists with deep roots in Kibbutz Yagur, the nearby Haifa farming cooperative where their mother was raised.
“We’re one generation from the European shtetl, and we’ve come full circle,” said Offaim.
Offaim tells of his first cousins, the kibbutzniks, who would race barefoot on their bikes through the citrus groves to where the sweet clementines grew. He didn’t have the stamina to make it all the way there, so he developed a liking for the nearby grapefruits, and eventually for farming.
The Offaim brothers began exploring Israel’s south when they were young, turned on by the desert and its opportunities for farming and a pioneering lifestyle. Yinon Offaim established an organic farm, raising red peppers for export and creating an industrial setup for produce that was exported to massive supermarket chains in Europe and the US.
Hedai Offaim, meanwhile, a self-trained chef, founded a tourism company, wrote food columns for Israeli newspaper Haaretz as well as several cookbooks, and hosted cooking workshops.
Then a tragedy, the 2009 death in Gaza of Ehud Efrati, a reserve duty officer who was one of Yinon Offaim’s best friends, made them rethink their career paths. Yinon Offaim was taking a sabbatical year in India with his family when Efrati was killed, and he flew back to Israel for the funeral.
At the funeral, said Hedai Offaim, Efrati’s father stood by the grave and spoke about Israel, Zionism and pioneering, noting that he would do it all over again even knowing this tragic outcome. It made the two brothers think.
“I had forgotten all of this,” said Offaim. “My brother and I had both been officers in the army and had become citizens of the world but it struck us all of a sudden, and my brother turned to me and said, ‘This isn’t what we had in mind — our workers are Thai, we don’t speak their language, we produce food that we don’t eat.’”
That was the start of their farm-to-table concept, which included plans to work the land in a more sustainable manner, sell their produce locally, and sustain their families in the process.
Within months, they had dismantled the pepper farm in favor of a wide-ranging family farm that now employs 138 local workers, raises imported Alpine goats for milk and organic chickens for eggs, and includes research and development as to how to feed their animals and sow their crops without importing feed and supplies from far-flung locations.
Everything they grow is sold at their cafes and at stores on the farms.
“We call it seed to table,” said Offaim. “We turned to it as pure poetry, but we also have to sustain our families, if not for generations, at least for decades, and have to do so locally.”
They were one of the first local farms to introduce an Australian system for feeding the goats hydroponically.
“We’re organic, but high-tech,” said Offaim.
They’re also socially conscious, paying their workers above minimum wage, hosting agricultural students from 17 third-world countries to learn their methods, and creating fair trade agreements with smaller farmers for certain products and crops they don’t have.
The brothers and their two business partners opened the first Offaimme shop in 2012 inside a Lehamim Bakery branch in Tel Aviv. In 2014, they opened in Maccabim, and then expanded to Jerusalem neighborhoods of Beit Hakerem and the German Colony.
They’ve stumbled here and there, said Offaim. Their purebred Alpine goats were stolen; most were dead by the time they were found. Now they’re about to receive a flock of Spanish goats that produce rich milk that will make even better cheese, said Offaim, who’s a glass-half-full kind of guy.
Offaim isn’t religiously observant, but he’s a spiritual explorer, studying Jewish texts three mornings a week before his kids wake up, and serving expansive, although not necessarily kosher, meals at his long, wide kitchen table every Friday night, where the food, talk and singing can go on until two in the morning.
He lives with his family in Moshav Tzafririm, a former farming community in the Ella Valley between Jerusalem and country’s center, where they grow dozens of herb bushes and fruit trees — including figs, loquats, olives, lemons and grapefruits — on the 28-dunam property. (They stay in a renovated, Ottoman-era train car when at the farm in the Arava.)
The massive kitchen looks a lot like the various Offaimme locations, with wood floors, a carpenter’s table doubling as an island and a wall of hanging pots and pans — a still life of cooking possibilities.
The center of their home, however, is the expandable table, or tisch, the Yiddish word for table that Offaim likes to use, which can open to seat anyone who shows up for Friday night dinner. It’s the central event and theme of Offaim’s life.
“I just want enough time to play piano, read books, work the land and make food, but just for eating, not as a foodie,” he said. “When you notice what you eat, when you notice your physical surroundings, how the people around you feel, it’s a rectification for who you are spiritually. This is what we’re trying to do.”