The dining room at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel was full of American chefs, and they were engaged in one of their favorite activities — eating breakfast.
For this crowd of celebrity chefs, including James Beard winners, familiar faces from TV kitchens and cookbook covers, the classic Israeli breakfast was a treat they weren’t going to miss.
“I grew up on a kibbutz,” said Naama Shefi, who founded the Jewish Food Society , a non-profit organization that works to preserve, celebrate and revitalize Jewish culinary heritage, and who is one of the only Israelis in the group of culinary experts. “Breakfast is the core — it’s so important in Israeli food culture — and it’s a cliche, but people are so excited to eat vegetables for breakfast.”
The group is here for a Celebrity Chef’s Birthright trip, organized by culinary producer and entrepreneur Herb Karlitz.
The chef trip was named for but not connected to the Birthright trips to Israel, which bring 18 to 26-year-old Jews to experience Israel, often for the first time.
Over plates of herbed omelettes, Israeli cheeses and salad, Karlitz told the group that he was “blown away” by Israel’s culinary scene when he visited last year, and “how it had changed from my first trip, more than 20 years ago, when I left ‘schnitzled’ out and underwhelmed by the lack of variety.”
After eating great food and seeing the changes the country had undergone in terms of ingredients and technique, Karlitz said, he wanted to share Israel’s food story with his fellow culinary colleagues.
He ended up bringing a delegation of senior US chefs, food critics, stars of popular dining programs in America, and owners of well-known restaurants to explore the local food experiences. The group includes chef, food writer and last editor-in-chief of the now shuttered Gourmet Magazine Ruth Reichl, baker and restaurateur Nancy Silverton, chef and TV personality Marc Murphy, chef and restaurateur Jonathan Waxman, and chef and “Chopped” judge Amanda Freitag.
It’s a first trip to Israel for many, but not for all.
Murphy said he was last here when he was 13, with his family, as his father was an American diplomat. He remembered floating in the Dead Sea, visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and possibly buying a leather jacket. This trip, however, is a little different.
“This is a no-brainer,” said Murphy. “I want to come and see the country and showcase us from what we do and pick up what we can from here and talk about it.”
Both Reichl and Silverton have been here more recently; Reichl was in Israel in June, Silverton has been here twice in the last four years.
Still, said Silverton, “it’s an excuse to come back.”
“I was so blown away, it’s so damn delicious,” she said of her last two trips, which made her add whole roasted vegetables, creamy labane and other Israeli flavors to her Los Angeles establishments. “It’s great to be back.”
Her friend and traveling partner, Reichl, said she was compelled by the food technology elements of their itinerary.
Reichl noted that Israeli tomatoes had been on the cutting edge, and in general, “Israel has always been so out in front” on agricultural technologies. “Now it’s so important, because of water issues. I feel like we’re going to see some of that.”
The group’s itinerary included a country lunch at Hedai Offaim’s farmhouse, and a demonstration and dinner at L28 Culinary Platform, the new culinary space opened by Start-Up Nation Central. There is more standard tourist fare as well, but this is a group that gets excited about the culinary details.
View this post on Instagram
Fabulous @ofaimme opened his heart and home and hosted #celebritychefbirthright to lunch and talk about #sustainablefarming and #farmtotable in israel. What a feast! #loveonthetable #topchefs @viasabra @naamashefi @chefjwaxman @chefmarcmurphy @edeneats @gailsimmonseats @adeenasussman @nancysilverton @cooklikeafox @jen_davidsonnyc @bulublog @nuracooking @karlitz_co
Their first meal as a group was at the Tower of David Museum, and it was “amazing,” said Amanda Freitag.
“There was no bread last night, which was amazing,” said Jonathan Waxman. “There were gorgeous chocolates for dessert, one with za’atar, another with coconut. You can tell I really hate chocolate.”
The trip was financed by several partners, including The Paul E. Singer Foundation, the Israel Export Institute, Israeli-Canadian philanthropist Sylvan Adams, social activist Raya Strauss Ben-Dror, Dan Hotels, El Al, Kirsch Foundation and Loren Fried, founder of Food for Good.
Jenn Louis, a chef, restaurant owner and cookbook author who has been to Israel several times, said she has found that each trip deepens her exposure and understanding of the local food scene.
“It’s always something new, even though the country is so small,” she said. “Every nook and cranny has so much depth, I just learn so much.”