Chef Eldad Shem Tov points at the little organic herb gardens growing at the edge of every table in Jaffa's Shakuf restaurant.
"There's light now, these are important hours," he says. And indeed, during the day, Shakuf is filled with light and looks very different than it does during its hours of operation, in the evening - a dark space filled by a bar, where food is served on tables lit from within.
Cooks in bright white uniforms scutter about. Soft music emerges from small speakers, and the atmosphere more resembles a lab than a restaurant. Israeli chefs say this is their strongest memory from working in leading restaurants abroad: working in total silence.
At Shakuf, Shem Tov is trying to create a similar ambience - not just through the silence, but also in the precision, hubris and depth. Many in the field argue that Shem Tov's hubris is too much for the Israeli restaurant business, certainly for Jaffa's Magen Avraham Street.
"It's impossible to replicate dishes from gourmet restaurants abroad, you have to adapt them to the time and place," says one colleague. Another claims that the restaurants in Europe that inspired Shakuf are facing financial difficulties. And if Europe's mighty have succumbed, how will restaurants here survive?
One thing is certain: Shakuf, which Shem Tov opened with financing from two U.S. investors, is an adventure; a lab for raw materials and herbs. A restaurant whose chef decisively says he will not grow tomatoes or cucumbers in the next few months because this is not their season, but will invest energy and resources in growing candy-striped beets, for example.
Just about every day Shem Tov hears his fellow chefs clucking their tongues over Shakuf's economic feasibility, but he's not giving - for now. "I want to handle raw materials in depth," he explains. "Otherwise, I see no reason to work with food."
The restaurant staff describe Jaffa fishermen who come to check out "the strange restaurant at the end of the road," neighbors who read glowing reviews and come, too, and good neighborly relations with the locals. Shem Tov himself lives in Jaffa.
Shem Tov designed the restaurant's vast space himself along with interior designer Daniel Hasson. It is relatively modest: light wood from floor to ceiling, with no decoration. Diners sit at a U-shaped bar around the kitchen, where chefs Eldad Shem Tov and Eldad Samuel work with four cooks.
"I wanted to break the chain of chef, cook, dish arrangers and finally the waiter who brings out the food," explains Shem Tov. It feels as if Shem Tov is seeking to create a different type of eating experience: pretentious, adventurous. Diners, who can pay between NIS 150 and NIS 250 each, are so prepared (or not ) for a surprise that one night, a couple sitting next to us at the bar asked if the earth in which the herbs are growing was edible. Some of the diners are enthusiastic, while others don't claim that this restaurant is out of place in Jaffa, but it's hard not to appreciate the attempt.
From photography to food
Shem Tov, 34, grew up in Holon. After his army service, he traveled through Australia and New Zealand, where he developed an interest in photography.
"Very quickly I realized this was my direction," he explains. When he returned to Israel he studied art and photography at Camera Obscura, and then at Hadassah College. He photographed his final project in the United States.
He showed his work to staff members at the School of Visual Arts in New York, where he was accepted into a master's program.
Eventually he dropped photography and went to study cooking at the French Culinary Institute. "I looked into it and was drawn in," he recalls.
After a few years in New York, he yearned to return home. "When I came back to Israel I was hired to work at Herbert Samuel, where I stayed for two years," he says. While working under chef Jonathan Roshfeld, he apprenticed at Michelin-starred residents in Europe, including Noma in Denmark, now considered one of the world's best.
"I saw what a European restaurant looks like, how much the chefs put into it, and I started conceptualizing Shakuf," he says. "I spent a year working on the concept and the vision. I found investors, looked for a venue and spent five months renovating."
"I didn't want to open just another place," he continues. "Israeli restaurants, even the finest ones, work with eight raw materials and four cooking methods. I wanted to diversify. Not another yogurt, olive oil, seared shrimp, beef chunks and lentils on an electric grill. I wanted to study the vegetables around us and give them a different and more in-depth treatment."
When Shem Tov talks about handling raw materials, he's referring to how he serves carrots, for instance: He sears them on the grill in butter, slowly and at a precise temperature, with the dignity befitting a steak. The result is a rich dish, with an interesting, thought-provoking taste.
"We are used to giving preferential treatment to meat, because it's expensive, deluxe. Why not carrots?" asks Shem Tov.
Another interesting dish is the beet soup: a plate is smeared with green mangold paste, in the center of which is a scoop of beet ice cream. The diner is given hot beet soup to pour over the ice cream.
One of the most interesting desserts is walnut ice cream sprinkled with frozen Jerusalem artichoke powder - a surprising but good combination.
Between dishes, we received an amuse-bouche: a small krembo filled with a lightly sweet herbal mousse.
The dishware, which was prepared and designed especially for Shakuf by Odelia Lavi and Dan Hochberg, change based on the menu. There are transparent test tubes, glass straws and rough stone plates. Some of the food is served directly on the light table.
"When I studied in New York, I prepared meals served on light tables," recalls Shem Tov. "I chopped the sauces and spread them on a white table. The result was very colorful, graphic. I have liked light tables since my photography studies. They highlight details and textures and it's impossible to hide anything on them. I always wanted a restaurant where they would serve the dishes like that. The visual side is important to me, and this serving style pays respects to the diner."
In accordance with Shem Tov's vision, the menu does not appeal only to the palate, but also to the mind. "Fellow chefs visit and immediately discuss costs and budgets," he says with a smile. "But I believe in the concept of a stylized restaurant from start to finish, where the dishes match the general design."
Lavi, Hochberg and Noa Dulberg, who did the graphic design for the menu, met frequently with the staff as the restaurant was being set up "so that everyone would be on the same page," says Shem Tov. On the restaurant's second floor, where wine is stored, the floor is completely transparent.
Shem Tov favors organic local produce from the Adam and Eve Farm near Modi'in, where the restaurant has two dunams.
"We grow mangold, candy-striped beets, turnips, cauliflower, broccoli and radicchio," says Shem Tov. "I buy organic chicken and meat from another farm. It is important to me that my cooking staff go with me to pick produce and work at the farm once a week. It's fun, it diversifies the work and it's instructive."
Shakuf seats 60, mostly at the U-shaped bar where people sit alone or in pairs. There are also tables in a separate room, also intended for pairs. This restaurant is not built for groups, but for people who want to focus and experience something. In order to intensify the experience of eating in the dark, the restaurant is only open in the evening.
Shem Tov responds cautiously when asked whether he plans to open Shakuf during the day. "It's not a place that's built to cook for 200 people. Whoever comes here is looking for something different, and I assume that at this stage, we will preserve the intimacy. There is no way to increase the number of diners," he says.
And that, too, is an atypical response for a restaurant owner in Israel.
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