Is Israeli Cuisine Really the Next Big Thing on the U.S. Culinary Scene?

Big-name American chefs, some of whom visited here recently, are at odds over whether Israeli cuisine is making truly significant inroads into the U.S. culinary scene.

Israeli food is the next big thing in the United States, at least if you ask Israeli-American chef Michael Solomonov. And he’s putting his money where his mouth is: To a large extent, he’s betting his career and reputation on it.

Solomonov, 35, is a rising star in the United States culinary scene, thanks in no small part to his restaurant Zahav, in Philadelphia. Since its launch in 2008, Zahav and Solomonov have won multiple awards and recognition for the restaurant’s interpretation of Israeli cuisine. Zahav is one of four restaurants Solomonov owns in Philadelphia, together with his business partner Steve Cook. Two weeks ago, the partners announced plans to launch two more restaurants in the city, including an Israeli-style hummus joint named Dizengoff and what they call a “Diaspora” Jewish eatery called Abe Fisher.

“I feel like Israel obviously gets a bad rap, and I feel like there’s a misconception,” says Solomonov, during a recent interview in Tel Aviv-Jaffa. “Food is a good metaphor for Israel − Israel’s cuisine reflects the mix of cultures that make up its society, from North African to European and Russian to Ethiopian, and of course Arab and Palestinian,” he notes. “From a culinary perspective, you just couldn’t ask for more.”

Ethnic foods are growing in popularity among Americans as they discover one new cuisine after the other: “I think it’s just natural for this to be the next thing,” Solomonov explains. “In a way, I think [Americans] can relate” to Israel and its food − after all, both the United States and Israel are cultural melting pots, he adds.

Solomonov was born in Israel to a Bulgarian-Israeli father and American-Israeli mother; he grew up in Kfar Sava. They moved to the United States when he was a child and returned to Israel when he was 15. In Israel, Solomonov attended a Pardes Hannah boarding school popular among American-Israeli teens and then briefly returned to the U.S. for the start of college. After dropping out, he returned again to Israel, where he got his first food-related job − at a bakery in Kfar Sava. That experience drove him to attend culinary school in Florida, sparking a career as a chef.

“The only thing I enjoyed eating as a kid was my grandmother’s bourekas,” he says, explaining that he began discovering the full breadth of Israeli cuisine only as an adult, once he’d developed a professional interest in food.

Solomonov has been in Israel twice over the past month − first a few weeks ago as part of a 10-day food tour he’d organized with Cook for seven award-winning young, U.S.-based chefs as well as two dozen customers, and then this week with director Roger Sherman to film a PBS documentary on Israeli food.

This is a great time to be focusing on Israeli food, says Solomonov. There are many indications that he’s right.

Israeli cuisine is definitely garnering attention in the U.S., even if the jury is still out as to how big a trend this will become.

The U.S. media have been describing Israeli food as an up-and-coming trend for nearly two decades. “It’s as if some mystical wind from Israel were rustling through the collective unconscious of America’s chefs,” a New York Times article stated in 1994. And earlier this year, the Tablet online Jewish magazine surveyed what it called Israeli cuisine’s “significant mark on the way Americans cook and eat.”

“I’m not sure the full breakout has happened,” says Mitchell Davis, executive vice president of the James Beard Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting culinary arts, which administers awards considered the “Oscars” of the food world. “I think the environment is ripe for it.”

Americans are searching for a cultural context for their food − not just “things that taste good” − and Israeli food fits into that, Davis says. He notes that the growing interest in Israeli food is distinct from the Ashkenazi food revival that’s also going on in the United States. “The Jewish population in America doesn’t recognize Israeli food as having anything to do with them,” he says, noting that Israeli cuisine is part of the greater trend toward Mediterranean cooking: that is, toward food that’s light, relatively healthful and heavy on vegetables. By comparison, the Ashkenazi-Jewish food trend is based on nostalgia and the Eastern European kitchen.

Ethnic cuisines become popular in different ways in America, Davis notes. Chinese restaurants initially existed to feed the Chinese expat community before becoming popular with other Americans, whereas Thai restaurants started by catering to the non-Thai population right off the bat. Indeed, the Thai-American population is very small relative to the number of restaurants, he says, and Israeli cuisine lies between these two extremes.

On one hand, hummus and falafel are “everywhere” in the United States now − something that wasn’t true 10 years ago. On the other hand, while these foods are often associated with Israel, they aren’t exclusively Israeli, and in any event the average American probably knows next to nothing about Israeli cooking. “It seems to depend on where you are,” says Davis, who participated in a food tour of Israel a few years ago.

“New York City seems to be in the midst of an explosion,” he notes. “You see restaurants, you see stores, you see hummus places, you see bakeries and then you see fancier places, [chef restaurants] Balaboosta and Taboon.” That’s a pretty substantial showing, given that the Israeli expat population isn’t large relative to other groups, and given how difficult it is to define Israeli food, according to Davis.

‘Go-to book’

And then there’s been the effect of “Jerusalem,” the cookbook by Israeli-British restaurateur Yotam Ottolenghi and his Palestinian-British partner Sami Tamimi. Released October 2012, the book is already in its 10th printing, with more than 400,000 copies in print in the U.S. and Britain. “That book alone will have a tremendous impact” outside of New York, Philadelphia and other places that don’t have large Jewish or Israeli populations, Davis predicts.

Sophie Brickman, a senior editor at the U.S. food magazine Saveur, says the book has opened a gateway to Israeli food for home cooks. In researching a recent article on cookbook clubs ‏(groups that gather in person or virtually to prepare specific recipes‏) for The Wall Street Journal, Brickman says she discovered that “Jerusalem” was the “go-to book” for such groups around the country. In general, Saveur readers have responded well to her magazine’s coverage of Israeli food, which included a long article about food in the Galilee a few months ago, although they respond well to coverage of international cooking in general, she notes.

Chef Michael Ginor is not nearly as optimistic as Davis or Solomonov when it comes to the potential for Israeli cuisine in the States. Ginor, an American born to Israeli parents, led the first-ever delegation of foreign chefs to Israel in 1993 − exactly 20 years ago.

Asked whether Israeli food is indeed becoming a trend, Ginor responds in a phone conversation from New York, that “I would be the first to jump on the bandwagon and say yes because it’s important to me as an Israeli.” But he’s not holding his breath.

“Although Israeli food has made some inroads, compared to any other international cuisine, it has not made much impact in the United States,” says Ginor, who is a member of the James Beard Foundation’s national advisory board, who

co-wrote a cookbook with Davis and has discussed Israeli cuisine at length with Solomonov.

Israeli restaurants are generally found in Jewish or Israeli expat enclaves, he says, and Lebanese restaurants tend to be much more common.

“You can pretty much count the number of Israeli restaurants [in America],” he notes, adding that this applies particularly to those serving non-kosher, modern Israeli food, meaning other than falafel. “With the exception of Zahav and a couple of others, there are probably five, six or seven nationwide.”

Ginor doesn’t expect that situation to change any time soon, either. Generally, he explains, one of the great difficulties facing Israeli food abroad is that it’s still so hard to define. “The only thing that really makes [a restaurant] Israeli is having an Israeli head chef,” he says, adding that he doesn’t expect to see American chefs launching Israeli restaurants, and that the many Israeli chefs in the U.S. aren’t specializing in Israeli food.

The question of whether Israeli food is becoming a real trend in America may hinge on how one defines a trend. For Ginor, it means being able to find restaurants specializing in contemporary Israeli fare in cities across the United States. In other words, he says, 30 to 50 serious Israeli restaurants ‏(not just falafel places‏) opening within the next two years in the country − and that’s not going to happen.

Hidden inspiration

In any event, both Ginor and Davis agree that Solomonov’s Zahav is unique. “Michael has done more than probably anyone in America to raise the profile of Israeli cuisine,” says Davis.

Zahav’s menu includes Israeli-inspired dishes such as Yemenite soup with a rather unorthodox addition of pickled onions; grilled duck hearts with green chickpeas, falafel and amba-flavored tahini; hummus; and grilled meats and vegetables.

Solomonov, for his part, says his customers are ready and willing to try new things. “I think people are willing to eat anything,” he says, noting, “We’ve served grilled [duck] testicles at Zahav. We sell them, people like them.”

When visiting Israel, he still discovers new things. Asked whether he’s found any specific dishes that he wants to put on his menu at Zahav during this trip, Solomonov says that process is more complicated. “It’s more abstract, it’s more interpretive. Generally speaking, we like to take ideas and concepts here and turn them into something,” he says, sitting at a contemporary-looking coffee shop in Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market.

But a little while later, in the market, the chef reconsiders. He’s found a new flavor combination. “Poppyseed halvah ice cream − we’re doing that,” he exclaims.

Even chefs who don’t specialize in Israeli dishes may go home with new influences after visiting the country. Of course, the source of a chef’s inspiration may not be immediately obvious, as some of the chefs themselves point out.

One side effect of the trips to Israel that Ginor has organized for chefs is that the
participants have learned about products including ptitim, known as “Israeli couscous” abroad, notes Jewish food expert Joan Nathan, who was in Israel with Solomonov last month.

“Because the chefs wanted it, producers started getting it for the chefs ‏[in the U.S.],” and then it became available to home cooks, explained Nathan.

Solomonov says those who participated in his recent culinary tour here are highly influential − “probably some of the best chefs in the States.”

The group included Moroccan-American chef Mourad Lahlou, chef at San Francisco’s Aziza, the first Moroccan restaurant to win a Michelin star, and Nate Appleman, the chef of the 1,500-restaurant fast-food chain Chipotle and a contestant on “The Next Iron Chef” show. Several participants said they would likely take back something they learned.

“The ingredients themselves are inspiration to me,” said Jason Marcus, who has two restaurants in New York, pork- and shellfish-centered Traif and Mexican-inspired Xixa. “I’ll come back and I’ll use them.”

He was, for example, struck by the use of spices in Israeli cuisine: “The food here has been a little bit more subtle” than Indian or Moroccan food, Marcus noted, adding that “there’s an individual appreciation for individual spices” like cardamom − not just spice mixes.

“The simplicity of the cuisine is astounding,” said Chipotle’s Appleman, whose chain serves Tex-Mex style rice, beans and salads. He took special note of the strong, satisfying flavors of vegetarian food here, such as hummus, adding that many Americans perceive vegetarian or vegan food as being bad. Although he did not expect this visit to directly affect his work at Chipotle, he noted that launching a chain focused on Israeli or Mediterranean cuisine struck him as a “viable business model,” since “it’s healthy but it also has flavor.”

In general, though, Israeli cuisine has a long way to go in the United States. “People don’t know the kind of food that is served in Israel. They really don’t. I think they think it’s based on Eastern European cuisine,” Appelman said, when in practice it’s much more Middle Eastern. “I think they’d be shocked to find that out.”

Liz Steinberg
Jason Varney