'They send me notes afterwards, like I'm the hero'

The way to their hearts: Volunteers cook for soldiers and wartime needy

Tel Aviv cooking workshop partners with World Central Kitchen, Asif Culinary Institute pivots to soldiers, and one-man show Rob King of BBQ smokes meat for troops

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

Sisters Aliya Fastman (left) and Shaendl Davis of Citrus & Salt, Tel Aviv cooking workshop that partnered with World Central Kitchen to feed those in need during the 2023 Israel-Hamas War (Courtesy)
Sisters Aliya Fastman (left) and Shaendl Davis of Citrus & Salt, Tel Aviv cooking workshop that partnered with World Central Kitchen to feed those in need during the 2023 Israel-Hamas War (Courtesy)

On October 7, Aliya Fastman mourned. On October 8, she volunteered, and on October 9, she started cooking.

The deadly Hamas assault sent Israel into a state of war and created a need to house and feed the tens of thousands of people evacuated from their homes in border communities, provide morale-boosting meals for soldiers at the front, and generally help those in distress and need.

Some 10,000 meals later, Fastman’s Tel Aviv business, Citrus & Salt, has partnered with World Central Kitchen, a global organization created by chef José Andrés after the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti. World Central helps with funding and logistics: It arranges the recipients of Citrus & Salt’s cooking, and specifies the amount of protein relative to carbohydrates and vegetables in each meal.

Citrus & Salt volunteers cook the food and drive it to its destinations, including Sderot, Beersheba and the Golan Heights, as do the other 20 restaurants and eight catering companies partnering with World Central around Israel. (World Central is also getting food to people in south Lebanon and Gaza, working with non-Israeli food organizations.)

“We had the space and the network and ability to cook, so it was very grassroots at first,” said Fastman. “Volunteers came, I gave them my credit card and they gave me receipts. It was very clear that we needed to lean into our skills.”

Fastman, who grew up with rabbi parents in Berkeley, California, founded the Tel Aviv cooking studio in 2016 to teach tourists about Israeli food and culture. Fastman’s partner is her sister, Shaendl Davis.

Cooking workshop Citrus & Salt partnered with World Central Kitchen to feed those in need in Israel during the 2023 Hamas-Israel War (Courtesy)

When a friend suggested partnering with World Central Kitchen, the idea made sense to Fastman, knowing that the organization supports disaster areas and makes it easier to carry out the mission.

World Central only covers costs for food made for civilians, so any food cooked for soldiers is handled by Citrus & Salt. It has been fundraising in order to cover the costs of ingredients, boxes and upkeep of its kitchen space.

Fastman first came to Israel as a lone soldier and cooking for soldiers is a priority for her.

“We plan to keep going until the war is over,” she said. “It doesn’t make sense to me that part of our county is putting lives on line and another part is going back to normal.”

Ditto for Rob (Eisenberg), the so-called Rob King of BBQ, who was driving some 80 kilos (around 175 pounds) of smoked Denver and chuck roast to feed 700 soldiers at the Gaza border on Sunday.

Coming from his home in Petah Tivka, Eisenberg had 700 pita breads sliced in half, ready to be stuffed with meat he’d smoked in his Big Green Egg ceramic charcoal cooker, along with some entrecote that he planned on grilling on the spot.

Rob Eisenberg of Rob King of BBQ schleps around his carefully smoked meat to feed hundreds of soldiers during the 2023 Hamas-Israel War (Courtesy)

“The soldiers go nuts,” said Eisenberg. “I bring the energy, I get them hyped up and then they send me notes afterwards, like I’m the hero.”

Eisenberg came to Israel from Philadelphia in 2011, when he studied in a yeshiva briefly and then enrolled in the MBA program at Tel Aviv University.

After long days at his tech company job, he would often entertain friends at home, soaking entrecote in Jack Daniels or smoking it in his big green egg, as the cooker is called. Those evenings eventually morphed into private events at home and nearby.

When the war broke out, Eisenberg fed soldiers during one event he paid for himself, and then raised funds through Instagram and Facebook.

“All the kids I knew from elementary school donated, and then someone rich would sponsor a whole unit,” he said.

The events spiraled from there, and he’s done 15 so far, including one for an air force unit and another for an Iron Dome team.

Tel Aviv’s Asif Culinary Institute is also pivoting from the thousands of meals its kitchens prepared for evacuees over the past few weeks, and created Chefs in Shifts — Food for the Frontlines, preparing nutritious meals for combat soldiers.

“When I visited army bases and saw soldiers receive a warm meal and a warm hug from our volunteers and from restaurant workers, I was moved to tears,” said Chico Menashe, Asif CEO.

Asif Culinary Institute chef Erez Pinchas and volunteers preparing food for Chefs in Shifts — Food for the Frontlines during the 2023 Israel-Hamas War (Courtesy)

The homestyle meals are a morale boost for soldiers in the assembly areas and army bases in the south, where there’s no infrastructure for cooking. Soldiers generally eat battle rations, often for days or weeks on end.

Local restaurants and chefs are part of the Asif effort too, using a central kitchen to prepare food for soldiers that is later transported to army bases in the south.

The effort allows restaurants to contribute to the war effort while retaining their workforce during a time when many restaurants aren’t open to customers.

Citrus & Salt’s Fastman said she was considering trying to fund stipends for some of her regular volunteers. She has nearly 900 in her group, with about 30 to 40 working each day.

Citrus & Salt cooking workshop volunteers spend their downtime at nearby Hamashbir bar during the 2023 Israel-Hamas War (Courtesy)

As part of the local community of English-speaking immigrants, she wants to provide a place to gather, rather “than stay at home and doom scroll,” said Fastman.

She’s also provided sessions with therapists and Shabbat dinners at a local Tel Aviv bar, Hamashbir, which offered its space as a meeting point for native Israelis and immigrants.

“I’m a Zionist who cares deeply about Israel and finds the only way to cope with the horrifying realities of the situation is to do what I can,” said Fastman. “Volunteering helps me.”

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