Start-Up Nation Central turns to chefs and urban farming, with in-house bistro

Start-Up Nation Central turns to chefs and urban farming, with in-house bistro

L28 stands for 28 Lilienblum Street, the address of the non-profit’s Tel Aviv headquarters, and also of its for-profit restaurant that acts as a chef accelerator

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

The rooftop, urban garden of L28 Culinary Platform, the latest experiment from Start-Up Nation Central. (Courtesy Start-Up Nation Central)
The rooftop, urban garden of L28 Culinary Platform, the latest experiment from Start-Up Nation Central. (Courtesy Start-Up Nation Central)

Start-Up Nation Central, the non-profit organization that grew out of the bestselling 2009 book by Saul Singer and Dan Senor, has done much in the last five years to connect the globe with Israeli innovation.

Now it’s turning to the culinary world.

The high-tech matchmaker recently opened L28, a chic Tel Aviv restaurant that offers a platform for emerging chefs to establish themselves.

The idea is to be more than a restaurant, explained Amir Mizroch, director of communications for Start-Up Nation Central. L28 is a culinary platform, a place where Israeli foods, ingredients and menus can be conceived and developed, enriching Israeli cuisine and offering professional development for the chefs running the kitchen.

The chefs, who are selected every six months for L28, are chosen by the Yarzin Sella restaurant group, a Tel Aviv firm that operates 23 restaurants and dining services for companies such as Google, Apple, Facebook and Dropbox.

“We take up-and-coming chefs and we give them full stack support,” said Mizroch. “A very good kitchen, excellent kitchen crew, a restaurant manager, mentoring by the top of the culinary industry, public relations, an urban farm, suppliers. It’s like culinary venture capital.”

Or a chef accelerator.

For the new chef, it’s a professional opportunity of a lifetime, a fully-staffed and paid residency where the budding chef is at the helm, learning how to run a restaurant, without the worries of raising enough money to survive.

“We’re trying to do this for culinary innovation,” added Mizroch. “There’s been this huge burst of culinary innovation in Israel, the talent is outrageous, it’s taken over the world. In London, in the US, Israeli cuisine is making a name for itself and we want to promote it. We want to ask the new chef that question every six months, what is Israeli cuisine. We’re not interested in the answer, but in the pursuit of it.”

That question, what is Israeli cuisine, has followed many Israeli chefs around the world, particularly as names like Michael Solomonov, Eyal Shani, Yotam Ottolenghi, Assaf Granit, Meir Adoni and others have opened restaurants and created menus that diners make reservations for months in advance.

At L28, the answer is in the menu, and the young chefs creating the dishes.

The current chef on deck is 27-year-old Gabriel Israel, a former tattoo artist turned professional chef who brought his tattooed forearms and flavors of North Africa, Asia and Europe to a menu rich with Mediterranean flavor and spice.

He’s also part of the L28 chef search team and plans on helping out behind the scenes once he’s left L28.

“I’m trying to show the whole picture of what is Israeli cuisine, all the colors and the shades,” said Israel, who was born in the US and raised in Israel.

Gabriel Israel, the current chef at L28, offering up his brand of Israeli cuisine. (Courtesy Start-Up Nation Central)

Chef Israel moved to the US where he attended the Culinary Institute of America, leaving to work at Daniel Boulud’s Manhattan Mediterranean fine-dining restaurant, Boulud Sud and later opened the Shuka Truck, which served green, white and red shakshouka, before being hired at Green Fig, the restaurant of Yotel in Hell’s Kitchen.

Now at L28, Israel is serving a selection of his favorites, including a succulent grilled loaf of dewy fresh baby jam lettuce topped with feta cheese, capers and zucchini; dense, cured kohlrabi seasoned with parsley, sage and pickled mustard seeds; and a flavorful plate of King oyster mushrooms, sprinkled with sage, barley, smoked eggplant, pickled cauliflower, mustard greens, tahini and onions.

There is poultry and beef on the non-kosher menu (no seafood or pork, although meat and milk are mixed at L28), but it’s focused primarily around what is grown in the restaurant’s urban garden, set up on the roof of the three-story building.

The rooftop kitchen farm is a challenge the culinary incubator took on when it opened L28, and one that’s more complicated than it looks, said Mizroch. There’s a towering building next door that cuts off a lot of sunlight, and the Ritz Carlton will soon begin construction on a 27-floor hotel across the street.

“Urban agronomy is hard, there’s chemistry, micro climates, lots of insects and pollution,” he said. “We use the stuff in the restaurant, so it’s gotta be good.”

There’s also a wet wall at the entrance to the restaurant, utilizing the method of hydroponics to grow some of the greens used on the menu. Many of the other vegetables, lettuces and herbs served are grown in the carefully groomed beds of soil built on the roof, handled by an urban agronomist.

The entire concept of the restaurant was one born out of necessity, as the Start-Up Nation Central headquarters, located on Lilienblum Street in Tel Aviv, included a large storefront on the ground floor that had to be used in a for-profit, consumer-based venture, according to the contract. The restaurant is named for its address, 28 Lilienblum.

It took some time to figure out what to do with the space, said Mizroch, but a restaurant, particularly one that helps establish budding Israeli chefs, seemed like an obvious solution.

“So now we’re a non-profit with a part of the organization that runs this as a for-profit restaurant and culinary platform,” said Mizroch.

Dinner at L28 has the feel of a typical Tel Aviv dining experience, with careful waitstaff attention, a casually dressed crowd and the pitter patter of multiple languages scattered throughout the dining room furnished with a mix of dining tables with chairs, and low-slung couches where meals are served on coffee tables.

The chic dining room at L28, Start-Up Nation Central’s latest venture, in Tel Aviv. (Courtesy Start-Up Nation Central)

A large portion of the diners, at least on this particular Monday night, were part of a Start-Up Nation Central delegation from Europe, currently in Israel to visit with several startups and companies, and taking advantage of L28 to experience yet another facet of Israeli innovation.

The restaurant wasn’t created to cater to the organization’s delegations, but it doesn’t hurt to have this feature, either, said Mizroch.

“It’s an experiment, we’re trying something,” said Mizroch.

The restaurant, which also serves brunch and lunch, aims to showcase a wide range of Israeli cuisine. Its first chef was Shuli Wimer, who created a mix of Israeli Galilee-Italian dishes, leaning on a heavily farm-to-table menu that echoed her own Galilean upbringing.

The next chef is actually of Druze descent, said Mizroch, although he wouldn’t divulge her name just yet.

The chefs don’t have to stay in Israel once they’ve completed their six months at L28, “there’s no strings attached,” said Mizroch. “They just have to work on their interpretation of what is Israeli cuisine, although, it could bomb.”

Hopefully not. And not to worry, there’s always the reliable wine list.

L28 Culinary Platform, 28 Lilienblum Street, Tel Aviv.

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