In order to cook for tens of thousands, Tel Aviv restaurants kasher their kitchens

At least 100 restaurants in Tel Aviv combine forces to cook nourishing food for soldiers, hospitalized patients and evacuees from south, along with similar effort elsewhere

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

Making food for soldiers, southern evacuees and anyone who needs it at Ofaimme in Jerusalem, October 10, 2023 (Courtesy Offaime)
Making food for soldiers, southern evacuees and anyone who needs it at Ofaimme in Jerusalem, October 10, 2023 (Courtesy Offaime)

On a regular day, the Haachim Restaurant on Tel Aviv’s Ibn Gabirol Street is loud and boisterous, full of diners ordering from the upscale steakhouse menu of hummus and meat skewers, labane topped with artichokes and hunks of whole roasted cauliflower.

This week, it’s become ground central for a massive food supply line, as some 100 restaurants in Tel Aviv have gathered forces, cooking for soldiers, hospitals and the surviving evacuees of the Gaza border communities.

Over the last five days, this restaurant team alone has turned out some 20,000 meals a day, with the help of around 300 volunteers in an effort started by Haachim owner Yotam Doktor on Saturday night, when he realized the unfolding tragedy would require all kinds of supportive efforts.

Working closely with the Brothers in Arms protest group, which is handling the complicated logistics of figuring out who needs food and where, Doktor’s team, which includes chefs, packers and organizers, are cooking, packing and sending tens of thousands of kosher meals from Haachim around the country, with another 7,000 or so meals from other Tel Aviv restaurants.

After one truckload of 2,000 meals was tossed on Monday because it wasn’t kosher enough for its intended recipients, Dok, as he’s known, realized he wanted to be able to supply food to whoever needed it.

Now Haachim, along with several other usually nonkosher restaurants, received temporary kosher certification from the city’s rabbinate this week, in order to provide kosher food.

Tens of thousands of meals are being cooked, packed and delivered each day from Tel Aviv’s upscale steakhouse Haachim for soldiers, reservists and the injured in the aftermath of the Hamas massacre on October 7, 2023. (Courtesy: Haachim)

It’s an emergency kosher certification, valid this week through Friday, and then he’ll have to renew it next week, said Doktor.

“The rabbinate understood it has to participate in this,” he said. “We have a kosher supervisor who’s helping us figure it all out.”

It wasn’t a small matter to convince the Tel Aviv rabbinate to create an emergency kosher certification process, said Shalom Simcha Elbert, a head chef at OCD, known as one of Israel’s best restaurants, where meticulous care is usually poured into each dish of the nightly tasting menu.

The Jerusalem-born and raised Elbert, who studied in a yeshiva high school where he first learned cooking skills, realized on the first day of the war that participating restaurants would need kosher certification.

“Two-thirds of the people we’ll be feeding are kosher,” said Elbert.

On that first day, the OCD kitchen took all dairy products out of their kitchen, and began working with alternative kosher certification organization Tzohar. They quickly realized the army wouldn’t accept food made with Tzohar supervision.

Elbert dug in, spoke to a rabbinate kosher supervisor in Tel Aviv, brought him to the OCD kitchen to make it kosher, and had an emergency, one-week certification the next day.

And then, the assigned kosher supervisor had a panic attack, said Elbert.

“For about seven hours, we had to hold 10,000 meals because we didn’t have the certification,” he said.

Elbert got President Isaac Herzog on the phone, who contacted former chief rabbi Yisrael Lau, who issued a Jewish law decision to allow non-kosher restaurants to have emergency kosher certification for this period.

“So now we’re closed on Shabbat,” said Elbert. “We don’t believe in keeping kosher and it’s not what we do day to day, but we want to feed people in a way that honors them.”

Volunteers packing up meals Asif, part of the Tel Aviv restaurant effort to make thousands of meals a day during the 2023 Gaza-Israel war. (Courtesy: Asif)

Asif, the Tel Aviv culinary center with a popular restaurant on its first floor, is also in the process of getting a temporary kosher certification, said Chico Menashe, the Asif CEO.

Asif’s kitchen staff is working with Gil Ackerman, a Tel Aviv caterer, who brought another 100 volunteers and with logistics led by Haachim. The restaurant, which usually has three chefs in the kitchen, now has 15 in the open front and another ten in back to prepare some 8,000 meals a day.

Instead of their usual sophisticated fare, they’re frying schnitzel stuffed into pita and big containers of warm comfort foods for hospital patients.

Next week, the plan is to help the hundreds of surviving families from the south who are being housed in hotels, and the plan is for “more homey food,” said Menashe, who has been using donated ingredients but is also ordering from local producers in order to ensure continuing income for those farmers and businesses. “You know, food for families.”

At OCD, the chefs are cooking regular food for their donations, but they’re still sticking to quality over quantity.

“I can make 20,000 meals in my kitchen but I would rather do 10,000 with chefs who know how to make tasty food that is nourishing and plentiful,” said Elbert.

Tel Aviv kosher smash hamburger joint Bodega is making and delivering thousands of burgers each day for soldiers since October 8, 2023, with a ‘groundswell of ordinary people” helping deliver, said owner James Oppenheim, whose staff includes seven of his 9 children, with two on reserve duty (Courtesy Bodega)

It’s important to get vegan or gluten-free fare to those who need it, said Merav Yaari at Meshek Barzilay, the vegan takeout delicatessen and restaurant in Tel Aviv’s Neve Tzedek. Yaari and her team are supplying vegan meals, mostly to hospital patients and soldiers who “want our kind of food,” said Yaari.

“We’re slowly finding our groups,” said Yaari, such as army officers working in local hospitals 18 hours a day and who are gluten-free or vegan. “You know, hospital food is a little less good for them.”

They’re also in contact with reservists and soldiers with Meshek Barzilay volunteers making a daily delivery to army bases down south.

Even when cooking for thousands, healthy, fresh foods are vital, said Hedai Offaime, whose restaurant group includes three cafes in Jerusalem, including at the Israel Museum. The usual Offaime menu is based heavily on dairy products made with goat milk from the farm he and his brother own and run in the Negev.

The Offaime food logistics operation is mostly based out of their Hansen House location in Jerusalem’s German Colony, with 8,000 meals a day right now and plans to reach 10,000 to 15,000 a day next week.

Some 90 percent of what Offaime is preparing is going to soldiers and reservists, as well as to hospitals, families who were evacuated from the south, volunteers at Magen David Adom, and “anyone who asks,” he said, “even to homeless people, who are being ignored a lot more right now.”

Cooks are preparing pastas, “thousands and thousands of sandwiches,” said Offaime, along with bourekas, muffins and all kinds of baked goods, created in their pastry bakery and industrial kitchens.

There’s fresh vegetables too, because soldiers may miss that, said Offaime. “In the first days, it’s fun to have Bamba and Cheetos but reservists need fresh vegetables.”

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