Secret Meals for Presidents: How I Became a Chef

For the past four years, Limor Laniado Tiroche has been writing recipes for Haaretz. With the publication of her first cookbook, she recalls the days she couldn't crack an egg.

Ella Manor

For the past four years, Limor Laniado Tiroche has been writing the Friday recipe column for Haaretz (Hebrew edition) and suggesting three recipes for weekend meals.

We meet in her home on Hatzedef Street in Jaffa, which she furnished entirely from flea markets and while journeying around the world. Opposite the front door is a lit patio full of green herbs, while her home is full of cozy corners to relax in, art work, antique rugs and children’s drawings. On the top floor is a terrace that overlooks the sea. At the home’s heart is a kitchen decorated with polished white tiles, full of lemons and onions, apples and pears, pots and flowers, antique utensils and a commotion of creativity.

As Tiroche pours water from a metal carafe, she relates that she was born in Tel Aviv. As a girl she was in the scouts, as a teen she frequented nightclubs, and then later became a chef specializing in home-style cuisine. She gives cooking workshops and hosts ambassadors and businesspeople for decadent meals. She is 45, divorced, the mother of two children and in a relationship. We met for a light meal in her home on the occasion of her debut book, “Manah Ikarit” (“Main Dish,” Hebrew only).

Wearing a black apron over a thin tank top and shorts, Tiroche pulls out a pair of disposable gloves and apologizes for not telling the classic childhood story of the Israeli chef who ran away from school to cook in his grandmother’s kitchen, where he learned firsthand the ancient secrets.

Her story is different and more painful. “I was never interested in food as a girl or teenager. After the army, I enrolled in school and worked as a manager for artists. Then my mother, Ilana – who was a very good cook – fell ill with an aggressive cancer. She stopped eating because of the chemotherapy, and I decided that I would go into the kitchen to prepare her favorite dish. I didn’t even know how to break an egg until that moment. The toaster was for cheese, ketchup and white bread, like in the army, a bit of chocolate spread, and deliveries of pasta that I wouldn’t bring into my home today.

Limor Laniado Tiroche. Photo by Ella Manor

“My mother came from Tangiers. My father came from Aleppo, and Mother taught me how to prepare Syrian food better than the Syrians did. There was one dish – meatballs and ground rice, stuffed with a hard-boiled egg – which requires hours of work: grinding the rice, making the meatballs, putting the egg inside, sautéing and cooking. I did that for her, and eight hours later I came out of the kitchen with the dish – and she didn’t touch it. It wasn’t tasty or edible. But in those moments, I received a gift.

“I guess I really needed the rest that the kitchen provided. I was 24 at the time, I had two bachelor’s degrees – in business management and art. I ran a business, I organized show tours and closed contracts with artists, and every night I slept on a mattress on the floor in Tel Hashomer to take care of my mother. My life was hell. But in the kitchen, I had peace and quiet that I’d never had until then.

“I realized that I enjoyed it, and that I was pretty talented at it. As an obsessive person, I went into it all the way and caught up very quickly. Within a year I managed to reach levels of superior cooking. I had subscriptions to all the important magazines in the world and a pile of cookbooks so high I can’t even describe it. I had a desire to get to authentic recipes in the original language. I wanted to learn sushi from a Japanese book, not an English one. I learned paella from a Spanish book with a dictionary next to me.”

Mistakes in the kitchen

Tiroche blanches the asparagus. She gathers a pile of coarse salt in a teaspoon and pours it into a pot full of cabbage. She throws the squash into fragrant oil as she tells me she is making a meal of leftovers. “I took out whatever was in the refrigerator,” she says. As she stir-fries the squash, two small rounds fall to the floor. She says she loves mistakes in the kitchen, which are human – just like food should be. One also learns from them. She grates lemon peel over a bowl and serves an appetizer of squash, stir-fried with ricotta cheese and spearmint leaves.

Limor Laniado Tiroche's lamb chop recipe, from "Main Dish." Photo by Limor Laniado Tiroche

When did you start writing?

“Eight years ago. I got an offer to write a column. I thought I knew how to cook and I knew how to teach, but I didn’t know how to write. I sat for a whole month over a blank page and couldn’t put one sentence together. I was scared. It was the toughest time of my life, the time that I was getting divorced. After a month I told them I was sorry but I couldn’t take on a recipe column – and that was that.

“Four years later I got a call from Galleria [the Haaretz supplement]. They asked several chefs and writers. We sent out a test column and I was chosen. Then I got the second gift of my life. I was asked to photograph the recipes. Just like I hadn’t known how to write, I had never held a camera in my hands. I asked for four months, during which I bought equipment, studied photography, did apprenticeships with food photographers and surfed photography blogs. My photographs began to be published in the newspaper fairly quickly. Since I had to take pictures every week, I improved rapidly. I taught a group about food photography for the first time two weeks ago. It was incredible.”

What’s important when you’re photographing food?

“A food photographer needs to know what he wants to convey in the photograph: the beauty of the dish, its flavors and the way it is prepared. Food photographers who aren’t familiar with the dish have a tough time photographing it. Sometimes they don’t taste it, and they certainly didn’t prepare it. I have a big advantage because I know the genetics of the dish. I know how it should feel in the mouth, how it should be served.

Limor Laniado Tiroche's chickpea salad, from 'Main Dish.' Photo by Limor Laniado Tiroche

“Some blogs have a different perspective from mine. They feed the cook from A to Z. They tell you where to shop, what to buy, and they photograph every single detail in the cooking process. If the instruction is to chop an onion, they photograph a chopped onion. I don’t favor that approach so much. The cook is intelligent, and if he is asked to buy young, good-looking cabbage, he doesn’t need to see a picture of cabbage. One doesn’t need to pile on the words and pictures.”

I have already polished off my appetizer. At this stage, Tiroche pours us a bit of Campari and serves small beets in their peels, steaming cauliflower, and asparagus salad with black lentils and grated hard-boiled eggs.

Tasty, but also accessible

Limor Laniado married Serge Tiroche on the Tel Aviv promenade, and then the couple went to Europe. Serge studied for a master’s degree in France and got a job with Citibank. Limor studied cooking in Switzerland, London and Paris, including at Le Cordon Bleu. After eight years of studying and tasting in the heart of Europe, she returned to Israel in 2002 and began giving workshops.

“I had a large kitchen in Jaffa, and groups of friends, and friends of friends, who wanted to learn how to host or cook like I did. Within a year I was at full capacity, and it’s continued that way to this day. There are also private events here, wild meals, secret visits by presidents, ambassadors or businesspeople who don’t want anyone to see what kind of wine they’re drinking or report what kind of food they’re eating. I can’t give names; I’m not allowed.”

As the title suggests, her book is mostly about main dishes. “Israeli cuisine has gotten loads of momentum, and people have changed the quality of their cooking,” she says. “They try more appetizers, they bake bread, they try new kinds of salad, and the cuisine is developing all the time. But they don’t touch main dishes. At best, they have five or six main dishes that they’re expert in – chicken with potatoes, oven roasts, some kind of salmon with modest vegetables, or paprikash like their mother used to make, and that’s as far as it goes. People are scared to death of trying new main dishes.

“There’s a big difference between restaurant food and home-cooked food,” she continues. “When people cook restaurant food at home, it doesn’t work. It’s the kind of thing people don’t talk about. That’s where I think I’m doing something new. I specialize in home cuisine, but I’m also a culinary consultant for restaurants and know restaurant kitchens just as well.

“When I was 26, I cooked a gourmet meal for my friends to celebrate New Year’s Eve. After 80 hours in the kitchen, I served designer dishes that I had put a lot of effort into preparing. It’s not that it wasn’t tasty, but the feeling at the table was low-energy. It wasn’t fun, it wasn’t pleasant, people didn’t take from the middle of the serving dish, and that depressed me. When people come to your home, they don’t expect you to surprise them with culinary pyrotechnics that restaurants are supposed to do. They want the food to be tasty, but also accessible. They don’t want you to prepare them a chef’s meal that is too good to be true. They just want you to prepare good food.”