Backyard Crops

Several local chefs have begun growing vegetables and herbs for their own restaurants. Often the new crops among them end up in retail markets too.

Yariv Malili welcomes the diners at the Thai House restaurant in Tel Aviv. Among them are tourists who are staying nearby, Israelis who have visited Thailand, as well as Thai diplomats, all of whom want to taste the cooking of Sunan Malili, Yariv's wife, and the restaurant's head chef. Together with five Thai chefs, she tries, in her words, "to share Thai culture, as opposed to just serving the familiar stir-fried noodles."

Thai diplomats dine at the restaurant for a number of reasons - among them are ka nah, long broccoli-like stalks with large leaves; pa ka nah, a vegetable characterized by a pleasant bitterness and used in soups; Thai basil; kaffir-lime leaves, whose flavor dominates seasoning; as well as the Thai eggplant served with rice. All this produce is grown by Malili - who first encountered Thai cuisine in the early '90s - in a medium-sized plot of land near Rehovot. For two years now, he has been growing trees and herbs from Thailand; he is still amazed by every shrub that takes root and regularly experiments with large pots of noodles and soups. "The days are long gone when we served broccoli instead of pa ka nah, lettuce instead of other herbs and the ordinary eggplant in place of the Thai one," he says.

Malili belongs to the increasing number of chefs who grow vegetables, fruit and herbs exclusively for their own restaurants. Some favor the fact that the produce becomes identified solely with them, others do it for the quality. Organic sprouts? Baby carrots ordered specially for an event? Rows of special curly lettuces and baby pumpkins? Everything is possible - all you need is a few months' notice.

While Malili challenges the plot of land in Rehovot with crops from distant lands, other chefs try to improve the yield of local vegetables. Ezra Kedem - the chef at Jerusalem's Arcadia restaurant, a devotee of Israeli herbs and vegetables and the terrifying host of the TV show "The Kitchen" - follows in Gordon Ramsay's footsteps not just when it comes to scolding contestants. A few months ago, Ramsey proposed a bill that would forbid serving non-seasonal fruit and vegetables in British restaurants, so as to prevent the costly shipping of personal crops and the artificial consumption of unseasonal produce. It isn't clear what will become of the British bill, but Kedem would be happy if Israeli chefs, too, were to insist on serving only seasonal fruit and vegetables, preferably grown nearby the restaurant.

Kedem and his former chef and baker, Yaron Winkler, today the owner of an independent bakery and catering service, purchase a large share of their produce from the home-grown plot of Maggie Rosenberg from Nataf. In her two-dunam (half-acre) plot, Rosenberg grows vegetables and fruit according to permaculture principles, which she defines, with a smile, as "more organic than organic. It is not because I am a fanatic - it just happened that way," she says. "Instead of using pesticides, I know what to plant next to what. Worms that are attracted to cabbage are repelled by coriander, so I plant the coriander next to the cabbage and solve the problem. I don't use any pesticides, and the yield looks great. Otherwise chefs, for whom a dish's appearance is important, wouldn't approach me."

Rosenberg is a seasonal grower, working also by order, and provides baskets of seasonal vegetables and fruit to those interested. Winkler, for example, ordered 40 baby pumpkins for an event ("I served a seafood soup in them - they make beautiful dishes," he relates). Rosenberg is currently growing, among other things, yellow tomatoes, and beans and peppers, and takes pride in the dozens of different sprouts, "for which I built a sprouting apparatus that looks like a spaceship." Every time Winkler and Kedem come to place an order and to pick, "the visit ends with lunch in the garden," she says, "because they know what to prepare from the crops, and I learn from them." Rosenberg says that she grows herbs all year round, "and that is how I got in touch with Yaron and Ezra, who are always looking for what to pick in the area."

Husam Abbas, the chef and owner of the restaurants Elbabor and Eltanor, the former in Umm al-Fahm and the latter at the Reineh Junction, knows no other way, he says. He harvests his own olive grove, and uses the crop to make the olive oil for his restaurants. In addition, he works with a pomegranate orchard in Kafr Kana, which is now also growing spinach, pumpkin and mallow leaves (malukhiya). Abbas also keeps lamb and goats in a pen in Nazareth, intended exclusively for his restaurants' needs. "I know that many Israeli chefs are now growing their own produce, but it was always like this for us," he laughs. "Even if you yourself did not grow the crops, your neighbor grew them for you, or you knew where to pick them. In my opinion this is a must for becoming acquainted with and getting closer to the land - what many Israelis are now discovering. It is local cuisine done the right way."

The person responsible for further developing the phenomenon of "backyard produce" is chef Guy Peretz, the owner of a culinary consulting firm that also develops menus. The 12 staffers of his company work with about 60 restaurants across the country. Peretz lives in Moshav Shapir near Kiryat Malakhi, "within a field of artichokes, to be precise," he says. Peretz approaches growers from around the country and places special orders. "It all began when I got married, six years ago," he says. "I returned from a continuing education program in France, where I worked a lot with fresh baby carrots. I knew that I wanted this for my wedding and so approached Kibbutz Shluhot. They grew 4,000 carrots just for me. I remember it was in the winter and the farmer arrived covered in mud, but I got what I wanted.

"The question is usually financial," says Peretz. "A good, proficient farmer knows how to grow everything. It's a budgetary matter. If someone wants something and is willing to pay for it, you can grow anything. As such, I ordered the baby carrots twice more. For the Netanel restaurant in Moshav Sgula, for which I developed the menu, I had hearty tomatoes, eggplants and herbs grown specially. The difference in taste is tremendous. Many people have realized in the past year that they want something that tastes different."

The beginnings of the local-harvest phenomenon began more than a decade ago, argues Eyal Israeli. His company, Asif, began as a plot of land with a single tower, underpinned by commercial sensibility and access to food; today it is a full-fledged produce marketing company encroaching on the country's restaurant supply market. Israeli relates that he was the first to grow cherry tomatoes, curly lettuce, chicory, shallots and ginger. He predicts which vegetable will next take over supermarkets, even though for now only chefs are ordering it - za'ironim [literally, "ultra-tiny"], small, fleshy leaves, chock-full of taste, "especially favored by, for example, chef Segev Moshe.

"This is how every process occurs in every field," Israeli says. "Chefs study abroad, they lack a particular vegetable or fruit, they get on my case, request personal harvests, and the vegetable gradually enters the market. As a result of a request by chef Emil Gatlan from the Casba restaurant on Tel Aviv's Yirmiyahu Street, which operated two decades ago, we started growing chicory in Israel, before anyone knew about this bitter vegetable and its uses. Israel Aharoni ordered bok choy from us, a Chinese vegetable that resembles white cabbage, and due to his insistence, demand for the crop grew. We grow it till today; the Giraffe restaurant buys large quantities of bok choy from us. The same was the case with ginger. The Israeli diner takes a liking to something he tastes in a restaurant, he asks the local grocer, the grocer asks us and that is how interest is created."

Only time will tell if Malili's pa ka nah and Thai basil or Eyal Israel's za'ironim will enjoy a similar fate.