LONDON — Yotam Ottolenghi started it, and now the names of Israeli chefs and their cheerful and relaxed style of cooking are as familiar to London foodies as Nigella Lawson and Jamie Oliver.
For the past six years, the annual Gefiltefest has been a celebration of everything to do with Jewish food, and this year’s event, which attracted more than 1200 people, was no exception. But noticeable this year was the showcasing of Israeli chefs and their work.
The new venue for Gefiltefest, JW3, London’s Jewish community center, was a case in point. Its highly-praised restaurant, Zest, is run by Petach Tikva-born Eran Tibi, whose imaginative offerings have won the restaurant rave reviews from the capital’s food critics.
Tibi, like other chefs at this year’s Gefiltefest, is a graduate of Ottolenghi’s kitchen empire. Husband-and-wife couple Itamar Srulovich and Sarit Packer, who run a wildly successful bistro in the city center, Honey & Co, have now two well-received cookbooks to their name and an affectionate funny double act when talking about each other’s work. Srulovich and Packer also used to work for Ottolenghi, as did the newest kid on the block, his former head chef, Or Golan.
Golan is Mr. Salad and his Gefiltefest demonstration workshop wowed the crowds. He called out volunteers to assemble salads such as they have never experienced in London, where a bit of dead lettuce and limp tomato has been the usual offering.
Golan’s signature — as with all the Israeli cooks — is near-profligate use of herbs and spices.
‘The English palate has been crying out for new herbs and spices, and our style of cooking is what they have been waiting for’
“I am addicted to spices,” the Moroccan-born Golan told the audience. “The English palate has been crying out for new herbs and spices, and our style of cooking is what they have been waiting for. In Israel we have layers of influences in our cooking from all of the different waves of immigration – just like in London. Londoners are becoming more adventurous in their tastes, and our dishes reflect this,” he said.
Now he’s joined forces with SOYO restaurant, a new concept in kosher eating in London. It already offers a dizzying array of salads, vegetarian and even vegan foods in Golders Green. Soon it’s going to open a sister venture, with a bakery, in the somewhat hipper neighbourhood of West Hampstead, with the added attraction of a meaty Shabbat meal service for collection or home delivery.
“Food in Israel is the best in the world,” Golan told the Times of Israel. But he acknowledged a disconnect between the enthusiastic embrace of Israeli food by — very often — the same people who have taken part in anti-Israel demonstrations.
Srulovich and Packer don’t really want to have that kind of conversation. Their food, opines Packer, is not really Israeli, but Middle Eastern; in any case, she says, “food transcends politics.”
Introducing shakshuka to London foodies are yet two more Ottolenghi graduates, Joel Graham and Oded Mizrachi, who, with partner Theo Lewis, have been running a brunch-style restaurant, The Good Egg, in east London for the last year.
The star turn at Gefiltefest — apart from its venerated founding patron, Egyptian-born food writer Claudia Roden — was the Jerusalem-based chef Moshe Basson, owner of the Eucalyptus restaurant and cheerleader of the slow food movement and Chefs for Peace.
Sighs of appreciation were heard from the crowd as Basson regaled them with stories from the Bible and tales of his grandmother’s fierce protection of her recipes
Basson delivered a gloriously eclectic workshop in which he whipped up a red lentil soup, and his signature stuffed figs. Sighs of appreciation were heard from the crowd as Basson regaled them with stories from the Bible and tales of his grandmother’s fierce protection of her recipes.
Outside in the JW3 piazza more than 20 food stalls vied for attention, ranging from an unlikely pair of Estonian Jews who have devised an “Is It Kosher?” app for your phone, to a young Spanish Jew hoping to get his supervised kosher olive oil onto the British market.
“Once Eaten, Never Forgotten” was the proud boast of Norwegian company Hansen and Lydersen, which has produced artisanal smoked salmon since 1923. Owner Ole Hansen reckons he uses “the same salt on the salmon that the Vikings used in the 11th century to salt their cod.”
The Israeli influence on food in London is so pervasive that there was even some discussion about why the food festival is still called “Gefiltefest”, as the traditional Ashkenazi recipes are very much left behind.
But there was one stand-out Ashkenazi voice who attracted the crowds — this year’s Masterchef finalist, Emma Spitzer. Spitzer, who made it through to the final three of the TV competition, has two mantras which could serve as Gefiltefest’s slogan. “Confident cooking produces confident food,” says Spitzer, adding: “Jews cook food with love. It is the real soul food.”