We approached Yuval Ben Neriah about a year ago, in the hope of running an interview with the promising young chef for a Haaretz Passover supplement. That was shortly after he left his post as chef of Herbert Samuel, a prestigious restaurant in Tel Aviv, where he worked after stints at other top restaurants: Tel Aviv's Raphael, under chef Shalom Kadosh; Arzack, in San Sebastian, Spain; and Le Bernardin, in New York.
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At the time, the 31-year-old was rumored to be planning to open a high-class Asian restaurant. Ben Neriah refused to be interviewed then, saying the plan for the restaurant was only in its initial stages and that he would rather wait. He added: "I don't want to read the word 'promising' in the context of myself. I'm working on realizing that promise. "
Fast forward to early this month, when the Asian restaurant Taizu opened for a trial run at Levinstein Tower in Tel Aviv (16 Tiomkin St.), after months of preparation. The chef and co-owner is Ben Neriah, and one of the partners behind the restaurant is Bentzi Singer, who has managed the Tel Aviv restaurants Takamaro and Limonada, as well as the Cup O' Joe café chain.
The concept of the restaurant was born following a trip by Ben Neriah to Taiwan, Macau, Canton, Hong Kong, Ho Chi Minh City and Cambodia.
"The general experience we're aiming for at the restaurant is the story of our tour in Asia, and this journey affects all aspects – the design, the combination of tastes and flavors, the colors, the textures, the materials and technologies," said Ben Neriah, who traveled with two other chefs, Eli Stein and Dor Abon. "We tasted nuances and moods. We experienced even extreme Chinese cuisine when we accidentally ate turtles, and in general we came across strange and extremely spicy dishes. Looking back in was a fantastic experience."
Ben Neriah isn't planning on reproducing every aspect of the dishes he encountered, though. "Vietnamese food is delicious but limited, the same dishes appear in every menu, and everything is fried and served with leaves," he said. "Most of what we ate was tasty, but we also came across terrible food, including cuttlefish feet and other disgusting stuff. We were very disappointed by Cambodia. The food wasn't that interesting, lots of curry and crumbling eggs. As chefs, we found their textures and foul-smelling purees very hard to stomach."
Discussing the months of prep time, Ben Neriah said that "in other Israeli restaurants there's no process – first you open the restaurant and then you switch concept according to the customers' demands." In this case, though, "we had a three-month process before entering the kitchen, and then we worked two months on preparing spice and oil combinations, preparing an infrastructure of tastes. We could do that because we had financial backing and could afford a long planning process."
Still, diners at Taizu receive questionnaires after dinner with questions such as: "Which dishes did you especially enjoy? Do you have any comments about the dishes you chose? How would you characterize the structure of the meal? "
A month before entering the restaurant kitchen, the crew gathered in a kitchen in a rented south Tel Aviv apartment every morning and burst into a frenzy of creative activity with Ben Neriah. He recalls that the crew used a variety of special instruments, such as a Chinese oven for roasting pigs.
"Since I prefer to employ Israelis instead of Chinese workers, we purchased several instruments that would take their place," he said. "We do almost everything by ourselves. We dared to try to innovate in almost every area we approached, to find a final format and provide what is missing in Tel Aviv, and I say that without criticizing other restaurants. We all eat all over town and love the food."
A very Zionist move
Foreign investors have put more than NIS 8 million into Taizu, an unusually large amount for the Israeli restaurant business. The investors, according to Ben Neriah, are "Jews with Israeli passports, educated, young, business-oriented, who are looking for a warm home in Israel. From their viewpoint this is a very Zionist move, and they're exploring venues to export the idea abroad as well."
Ben Neriah recalled that a month before he left Herbert Samuel, "I met one of the regular customers who used to sit at the bar, and told him I was about to leave and open my own place, something Asian with my personal interpretation. He asked about investment projections, it was a friendly conversation. The next morning his lawyer called me and said he accepted the offer. But there never was an offer in the first place! From that point on we started negotiating and writing up contracts."
Nadav Laor, a partner at Taizu who was brought in as the director of financial acquisitions and logistical planning, was Ben Neriah's sous chef at Herbert Samuel. "I'm familiar with Yuval's dishes, I've worked with many chefs, but I have never encountered anyone with such broad knowledge and understanding," he said. "I don't want to sing his praises at length, but there's something different about him. He understands flavors and textures, and has a very unique approach."
The best profession
Ben Neriah is the son of Yinon Ben-Neriah, an immunologist and one of the world's leading researchers of the mechanisms that cause cancer, and of Ziva Ben-Neriah, a geneticist at Jerusalem's Hadassah University Hospital, Ein Karem. "My parents forced me to study," said the chef. "I took philosophy and history classes in college, but still have to complete my studies."
Yuval Ben Neriah said he chose the best profession possible: "It is satisfying, creative, involves interaction with other people, and I believe there's no other profession where one can create so many things in such a short time that immediately influence so many people. Many people have a stronger memory of a dish they tasted than of any painting they ever saw in the museum. It also involves adrenaline. There's something semi-martial about it, testosterone; it's very, very addictive. The profession demands that you be hyperactive, crazy, emotional, charismatic and creative – and that suits me just fine. I'm not a person who can work in an office for hours."
12 unique cocktails
The bar manager at Taizu is Itzik Mantzour, who developed 12 unique cocktails for the restaurant that combine premium alcoholic beverages with special syrups, bitters, extracts and some of the exotic spices from Ben Neriah's cabinet.
"We're about to be the most modern restaurant in Israel as far as ice is concerned," Mantzour said. "You can't imagine how much we invested in ice. There will be five different forms of ice, including a 36-millimeter ice cube. As far as I know, the largest ice cube served in Israel is the 32-millimeter ice cube served at the Hilton."
As the restaurant opens, Ben Neriah is tense and worried, as well as pleased. "Yesterday I lost my voice again in the middle of the evening," he said, sipping a glass of wine. After a week, this is one of the first times he has managed to sit down, have a drink and observe how the place looks from the customer's point of view. "From here, everything seems very calm, and that's why I'm sitting here. If I see the kitchen again, I might go crazy."
Ben Neriah is ready to experiment. "I'm trying not to be pleased with anything," he said. "It's my Polish side. I didn't expect sparks to fly from day one. If we're good today, we'll be amazing in two months, and two months later we'll be even more amazing. I try to react to the feedback. There were some dishes that customers really loved, but were rather banal. There were dishes that I thought were amazing, but the customers didn't really fall for."
"The expectations are sky-high," said Bentzi Singer. "The restaurant was designed by [architectural firm] Pitsou Kedem with [interior designer] Sigal Baranowitz, and no other place in town looks like it. I have no fears as to its success. But the most important thing to remember is never to look down at people. Places that succeed sometimes become vain, and then you pay the price. When your business is serving people, you have to reduce yourself in order to enlarge the customer. People often forget that.
"Yuval understands that he's only part of the restaurant – that it’s a large crew, even though he has a large role. Everyone here brings in what he's good at doing."