'Preserve it, cook it, practice it to know how to make it'

Ingathering of the victuals: Israeli cuisine from all over gets a home in Tel Aviv

Part restaurant, part research institute, part incubator and part archive, the Asif culinary library gathers people along with food

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

The deli and cafe at Asif, Tel Aviv's culinary center housed in Start-Up Nation Central. (Courtesy: Asif)
The deli and cafe at Asif, Tel Aviv's culinary center housed in Start-Up Nation Central. (Courtesy: Asif)

It’s always about food at Asif.

Asif, the Hebrew term for harvest, is a culinary center that opened in Tel Aviv in July 2021, dedicated to cultivating and nurturing Israel’s food culture, and, yes, stating unequivocally that there is such a thing as Israeli cuisine.

“We’re in a moment in time when we need to recognize and protect and celebrate our culinary heritage,” said founder and director Naama Shefi.

This culinary library with revolving exhibitions, cooking workshops, a rooftop farm and café is a joint venture of the New York City-based Jewish Food Society, also founded by Shefi, and Start-Up Nation Central, an organization that promotes Israel’s tech ecosystem. It’s operated by the Puaa restaurant group from Jaffa and housed in the lower level of Start-Up Nation Central, on Tel Aviv’s Lilienblum Street, where the L28 eatery once spotlighted emerging Israeli chefs.

The Asif café serves updated local classics for breakfast, lunch, and light dinner, such as freekeh-based mujadara with black lentils, chicken schnitzel and baked goat cheese with grilled nectarines.

A small deli tucked between the open kitchen and dining area holds shelves of carefully curated local cheeses and olive oils, spices, wines and liquors for purchase. An upper floor houses a public library with 1,500 research books visible to the diners below. And rare varieties of herbs are grown on the vertical rooftop farm, in collaboration with the Agriculture Ministry’s Agricultural Research Organization-Volcani Center.

Weekly tours of the Asif space are offered.

Food, cookbooks and chefs form the basis of Asif, the culinary center in Tel Aviv. (Courtesy: Asif)

The aim of Asif, much like Shefi’s Jewish Food Society back in New York, which has collected thousands of Jewish recipes for its digital archives, is to explore local food culture and provide a home for culinary research and dialogue.

People interested in cooking come from all over the country to avail themselves of Asif’s resources. Shefi is delighted, for example, to find a pastry chef from the north poring over a stack of books. The library, she said, has become a meeting point for chefs.

“You know how many times it’s packed with people from Ashdod and from Safed?” she said. “I literally meet people who are driving here to use the free library. It’s another element that can help accelerate food scene here; we’re still a little isolated here.”

The library includes an archive of recipes recommended by Asif’s expert panel of culinary stars, which includes Michael Solomonov, Claudia Roden, Johnny Mansour and Gil Hovav. There are always a few recipes regularly featured on the Asif website.

The Asif culinary library shelves hold 1,500 cookbooks and culinary guides, open to any visitor. (Courtesy: Asif)

The library also serves as the location and background for Asif’s weekly events, which have included a recent talk with chef Sami Tamimi, author of “Falastin” and former cooking partner of Yotam Ottolenghi, in his only public appearance in Israel in the last 17 years, a look at the kitchen and recipes of the late first lady Nechama Rivlin, and a discussion about Israel’s first cookbooks.

Palestinian chef Sami Tamimi (right) with Ha’aretz food writer and Asif exhibition curator Ronit Vered at Asif culinary center in Tel Aviv. (Courtesy: Asif)

Shefi, the curator of all this, is a kibbutznik currently living on New York City’s Lower East Side. A filmmaker by training, she founded the Jewish Food Society somewhat by accident, based on a Friday night dinner at her now-husband’s Turkish grandmother’s home.

Shefi herself had grown up eating in what she remembers, grimacing, as a “horrific” communal dining room. “It’s army food, people don’t understand.” Her parents, though, were happy to encourage her more sophisticated palate and would borrow a kibbutz Subaru to eat out in nearby villages and cities.

So she was inspired by the offerings of “lush, generous, delicious food” at her husband’s grandmother’s home, all based on the places she had lived as she made her way to Israel.

“With each dish, she told the story of her immigration journey,” Shefi said

Naama Shefi, the founder and director of culinary center Asif in Tel Aviv, as well as the Jewish Food Society in New York, where she lives. (Courtesy: Asif)

That experience sowed the seeds for the Jewish Food Society, particularly once Shefi and her husband, secular Israelis, relocated to New York for film school and sought to retain their Judaism in some manner.

“I moved to New York and thought, ‘what now?’ she said. “I saw that people, especially young people, deserved another platform to engage with Jewish culture. Food is an inviting, deep, emotional, delicious way to engage with our heritage. You need to preserve it and cook it and practice it to know how to make it.”

The Jewish Food Society took off in 2017, with the help and funding from philanthropist Terry Kassel in 2017, who also sits on the board of Start-Up Nation Israel.

The idea for Asif was born during the pandemic, when Shefi became involved with a Jewish Food Society project to help frontline workers and restaurants suffering from closures. Kassel raised over a million dollars and, utilizing the Jewish Food society network of restaurants, they worked with 22 small and large New York City eateries to create and deliver lunches to frontline workers, totaling 80,000 meals in those first weeks.

When the two thought about supporting the food community in Israel, Shefi landed on the idea of a library.

“I think about it in relation to an art gallery, like a collection of artifacts. The library is quite literally a collection, an osef,” she said, using the Hebrew term for collection, which comes from the same root as asif. “And when you’re here, it’s the collection of people from Israeli society.”

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