Creative, but Is It Edible?

Local chefs sometimes go to great lengths to come up with new and innovative dishes. Where does their inspiration come from?

Dafna Arad
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Dafna Arad

The diners gaze with revulsion at the dish that has arrived at their table. "What was he thinking?" they ask aloud, hoping the chef will hear. They're afraid to touch the dish with a fork, they can't identify its ingredients and its aroma does not evoke any childhood memories. This is some sort of culinary innovation, no doubt about it. But is it edible?

These days the bar is set very high for creative chefs, and it's getting higher every day. It's very difficult to come up with something new, but they still try to meet the challenge - often without regard for what diners want. Where do their innovations come from? How do they get ideas for new dishes? And what motivates them to put so much effort into developing new cooking techniques?

Gnocchetti sardi at Cucina Tamar. Credit: Boaz Lavi

An accusing finger could be pointed at chef Ferran Adria, of the recently closed El Bulli restaurant in Catalonia on the Costa Brava in Spain. For a quarter-century, Adria, the inventor of molecular cooking, has been an uncompromising advocate of ongoing innovation. Each year, he would close his highly regarded restaurant for up to six months, turning it instead into a culinary laboratory. During this time, Adria met with chefs from around the world, artists and other creative professionals. Together they invented new dishes and came up with pioneering culinary techniques. Adria has a slew of avid admirers in Israel, who have sought to emulate the attempt to challenge and innovate, and do not take any ingredient for granted. Among the most well-known are chefs at several Tel Aviv restaurants: Jonathan Roshfeld (Yavne Montefiore ), Yoram Nitzan (Mul Yam ) and Meir Adoni (Catit and Mizlala )

"Chefs who reproduce recipes exactly from cookbooks are at the lowest level. They may be geniuses when it comes to execution, but they lack creativity," says Tomer Niv, chef at Rama's Kitchen in Nataf, outside Jerusalem, explaining the creative pyramid described by Adria in his books about El Bulli. "The next level above them are the chefs who do their own interpretations of dishes that are familiar to them. The third level is comprised of chefs who integrate new flavors and textures into their dishes that have not been experienced before. On the forth level, the creative apex, are those who invent new cooking techniques and new dishes."

Niv aspires to work at the third and fourth level, as they do at El Bulli. But, he says, "As a consequence of the economic situation in Israel, at our restaurant there are also dishes and ingredients from the second level. But I try to be creative all the time and not to copy anything."

Rama's Kitchen's answer to El Bulli's six months of creativity is a two-day period each week of alchemy, in which his staff ponders, invents, updates, cooks, tastes, tosses out and develops new dishes.

Culinary spontaneity

When do chefs come up with new dishes? Some say "all the time," but Asaf Granit of Machaneyuda in Jerusalem admits that it usually happens when chefs decide to come up with a new menu for their restaurant. In that case, and if they are also pressed for time, "they use their own personal encyclopedia of flavors and extract from it things they know the public likes," he says.

But at Machaneyuda, which has earned a reputation as the liveliest and most spontaneous restaurant in the capital, there are also surprises. "Last week, there was a married couple and four young women here for a bachelorette party. We quickly got into a very interesting discussion and I decided to prepare a dish of beef tartare for them - right in their hands," says Granit. "We put on their hands a layer of beef, onion, parsley and capers, all minced. We squeezed on some fresh lemon, drizzled a little olive oil, and all they had to do was lick their fingers."

Culinary spontaneity is also blooming in Ashdod. Nati Shafrir, chef at the Balzac restaurant there, designed a new dish for his menu of specials that was inspired by a glass ashtray. "I was at a store in town shopping for things for the kitchen and I came across it and it struck me how aesthetic it would be to serve a dessert in it: [pastry] cigars filled with nuts and honey. The salesperson didn't know what to make of me," he laughs.

Eating out of an ashtray? Are you sure that's such a good idea?

Shafrir: "I don't know how this dish will be received. We're currently working on an edible version of cigarette ash. It will be made of roasted coconut or cinnamon and cloves. My creativity is reflected in my cuisine - this is where I express everything I can't express on the guitar. I try to create a twist in every dish."

"Enough bullshit! Israeli chefs have a simple way of inventing new dishes: They travel abroad to the most chic restaurants, and come back and make exact copies of the dishes they ate there," says one person in the restaurant industry.

For one, Osnat Hoffman of the 44 restaurant in Tel Aviv is unapologetic about her fondness for gastronomic travels. She recently went to Vietnam and returned very inspired: "I don't try to copy exactly what I ate there, nor could I obtain the same ingredients, but I do try to recreate the experience of discovery, innovation and the slightly different way of thinking that they have there, and to create similar qualities here."

Do you consider culinary work to be a type of art?

Hoffman: "In this profession there's a creative and dynamic element, but I don't think that cooks or chefs are artists. 'Craftspeople' is more like it. To my mind, someone who builds a chair with a high level of carpentry is on the same level. There are a handful of geniuses who are able to do something that no one has ever done before. Not me. Most things have already been done, combinations of flavors have been investigated and most methods of preparation and serving have been tried. You just have to travel to encounter them."

Local ice-cream parlors are also constantly coming up with new flavors. Itai Rogozinsky of the Vaniglia chain says that among those he is most proud of is the yogurt ice cream with rosewater, roasted pistachios and apricot jam - for him, a nostalgic reminder of his childhood in Kochav Ya'ir. Back then, he went on excursions to Nablus, Qalqilyah and Tul Karm. "It's an ice cream that has a real taste of Nablus," he says. Rogozinsky is still an intrepid explorer when it comes to inspiration for new ice cream flavors. "I like to create flavors out of my life experiences," he explains. But he admits that customers aren't always so enthusiastic about his latest creations. "Israelis are looking for fun and what they've already come to like. When they come to an ice-cream parlor, they want things they know. I try to nudge them in more mature and sophisticated directions - like ice cream with oak slivers, but there's always a demand for childish flavors like cookie dough and Snickers."

Cooking for profit

Tamar Cohen-Tzedek of Cucina Tamar in Tel Aviv acknowledges that it's a lot easier to think of new dishes within the bounds of traditional cuisine.

"For me," she explains, "the inspiration is always Italy. I love to go to the Emiglia Romana region where I worked in a restaurant in a rural area, outside Bologna, to meet my local friends there. They always take me to new restaurants. I taste things, I smell things, and I get ideas and inspiration for new dishes."

But David Frankel, chef at Pronto in Tel Aviv, feels that his restaurant's dedication to Italian cuisine limits him. He regrets that he can't go wild at Pronto and that he has to respond to patrons' desires even if they are not much to his liking. He tells this story from when he was training at Orca and learned a valuable lesson from chef Eran Shroitman.

"Sometimes the dish you don't like to prepare is the most popular dish in the restaurant. The poorest dish can earn the restaurant a lot of money. In that case it was a fillet of fish with eggplant and yogurt. He explained that sometimes chefs have to think about dishes in economic terms, too, and to create something whose purpose is to be profitable - and to leave creativity aside. At the time I thought it was crazy, but now I understand that he was right," says Frankel.

Chef Jonathan Borowitz of Cafe 48 in Tel Aviv thinks the best way to create a new dish isn't to imagine the final outcome, but rather to begin with an ingredient and then decide what sort of flavors would work best with it. He likes to think of a recipe as a secret, a formula that contains precise components and tested flavors, that come together and are perfectly balanced.

"I try not to just make up anything," he says. "I'd rather rely on things I know. The big difference is in the execution. A million restaurants can offer spaghetti Bolognese, but you have to understand the dish and prepare it the right way."

Other chefs don't wander very far from home to find inspiration. For Avivit Priel of the Tapeo restaurants in Herzliya and Tel Aviv, most of the creative process occurs when her head is lying on a pillow.

"I dream about dishes and then I go to the kitchen and try to create them," she says. "I also daydream, when I can't fall asleep. That's how I came up with the dish of ceviche on gazpacho, for example."

Like Priel, Meir Adoni doesn't need to get out of bed. But he apparently does a lot more interesting things than sleep there. "Sensual people like sex and food. For a lot of people, sex is the most emotional thing. I try to get there or as close to there as possible in my cooking," he explains.

Adoni cites mother's milk and other such bodily fluids as elements that have given him culinary inspiration: "If I could obtain liters and liters of breast milk every day, I would make desserts from it - creme brulee, for instance. It's the most delicious thing there is, like condensed milk from a pastry tube. When my wife decided to stop nursing, I started to cry. There is more inspiration below the chest level ... you find amazing salts, minerals, textures and fragrances."

"When I'm working on new dishes, I try to look for the finest and rarest ingredients around, combining the minimum ingredients required, and to use the right technique for cooking it, inspired by my grandmother's kitchen," says Rafi Cohen of the Rafael restaurant in Tel Aviv. "Some people want to break the mold with every dish, and then you eat it and you say: Hmmm, it's interesting, but not necessarily so tasty," he concludes.