Acre-born Arab Chef Takes His Place at New York’s Trendy 12 Chairs Restaurant

Haim Handwerker
Haim Handwerker
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12 Chairs Cafe, Manhattan, New York.
12 Chairs Cafe, Manhattan, New York. Credit: ישראל קסטיו
Haim Handwerker
Haim Handwerker

While Israeli cuisine is flourishing in New York, Arab cuisine is stagnating. The “Israeli” restaurants operate in more “prestigious” areas in Manhattan and even in Brooklyn. The so-called Arab restaurants operate in more remote neighborhoods – for example, in Queens. The Israeli restaurants are much more expensive. Prof. Krishnendu Ray, head of the Department of Food Studies at New York University, once told Haaretz that New Yorkers are willing to pay 2.5 times as much for Israeli food as for Arab food.

But now at 12 Chairs Cafe, one of the most popular Israeli eateries in the city, they have decided to take an unusual step. Osama Dalal, an Israeli Arab chef from Acre, has been chosen to demonstrate the wonders of Palestinian cuisine, in a private room at the restaurant, for one week beginning Wednesday (November 6).

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 47

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Ron Keren, one of the owners of 12 Chairs, who divides his time between New York and Israel, says the plan is to bring over young chefs from Israel so they can show their stuff.

“Not everyone can allow himself to open a restaurant in New York,” says Keren. “There are many successful young chefs in Israel. The cuisine in Tel Aviv is naturally ‘farm to table,’ a style that in recent years has also become very popular here.”

Osama Dalal, October 30, 2019. Credit: דנה גור

The owners of 12 chairs, explains Keren, “looked for the right person to be the first one. I didn’t want to bring a celebrity chef. And then one day I met Osama Dalal, whom many in Israel consider a culinary wunderkind. We thought it would be great to bring an Arab chef here as the first chef in this project. Israeli and Arab cuisines are very similar; we go hand in hand in the kitchen. The respect Dalal pays to the raw ingredients is amazing.”

Dalal had a small restaurant in the Acre marketplace that was named after him, and later served as chef at the Maiar restaurant, named after his partner, in the Elma Arts Luxury Hotel in Zichron Yaakov. Maiar, which featured contemporary Middle Eastern cuisine, operated for about a year and then closed due to disagreements between the managers and the hotel administration.

In the past Dalal has worked with Michael Solomonov – the U.S.-Israeli chef who won the James Beard award, the Oscar of the American restaurant industry – who owns Israeli restaurant Zahav in Philadelphia. Now Dalal says he a freelancer, and serves as an assistant to the manager of Cantina, in Tel Aviv.

Over the years there have been some underlying signs of “tension” between Arab and Israeli cuisine: Israelis believe they are behind the success of hummus in the United States and in New York, in particular, but the Lebanese, for example, claim that hummus actually originates in their country and that Israelis are taking undeserved credit for it.

At one point there was an attempt at Manhattan’s popular Nur restaurant, co-owned by Meir Adoni and Gadi Peleg, to pay tribute to Arab cuisine. One of the dishes served was called Palestinian tartare; apparently, there were a number of instances where diners were displeased with the inclusion of the word “Palestinian” on the menu of an Israeli restaurant. At the time Israeli rapper Yoav Eliasi, aka The Shadow, even called it “left-wing fawning.”

In a conversation with Haaretz, Dalal says: “I don’t know whether to describe myself as an Israeli Arab or a Palestinian. I’m Palestinian to the same degree that I’m Israeli. I’m Palestinian as a fact, and in my identity, but I live in the State of Israel. But what’s important is that food enables people to reveal themselves to one another.”