Cockroaches, rodents and customers seem to be the three least-wanted guests in restaurant kitchens. But quite a few Tel Aviv restaurants have begun allowing customers into their kitchens and even letting them do some of the cooking as part of Chef for a Day, in which restaurants allow a guest to arrive in the morning, run the kitchen, chop and cook, and even fill the restaurant with friends to enjoy his cooking.
Customer-run evenings of this kind have already been held at Wine Bar, Cordovero, Cucina Tamar and Baccio. The guests have included ambassadors, architects, tourists, artists, fishermen and a few amateur chefs who always dreamed of having their own restaurants.
Tamar Cohen-Zedek, the owner of Cucina Tamar, says that so far she has hosted two members of the band Electra and Meir Aharonson, the chief curator of the Museum of Israeli Art in Ramat Gan, who prepared an evening of Italian cuisine. “It was lovely for us, and also for the people who were hosted in the kitchen. They are home chefs, customers or friends who love the restaurant and know it well.”
But the events present quite a few challenges. “It was a huge amount of work for me,” Cohen-Zedek says. “Every week I had to build the menu from scratch, meet with people, buy ingredients. And they got excited and called me every day before their evening. Those two months were extremely intense. When I’m building the menu, everybody has the dishes that they prepare at home and think are the best ones. They won’t always be at restaurant level. It was difficult for them as well − suddenly they found out how many hours they had to be on their feet, and afterward they had to host people, too. At the end of a day like that, they asked: How do you do that every day?”
Gedera 26 has already held five such evenings. Last week, the guest was director Uri Dagan, the owner of the ZeeK film production company. Dagan, a frequent customer, has known the owner, Amir Kronberg, since they were children in Jerusalem. “It fulfills the fantasy I had to be a chef,” he says. “I cook a lot at home and host meals every Friday. Cooking is a part of who I am, part of being a creative and creating person.”
At home, Dagan prefers to prepare simple meals such as meatballs, stews and cholent in winter. But for this special evening, he wants to challenge himself. “Over the past few weeks, I did a marathon of experiments with dishes that I’m going to prepare this evening. There were a few spectacular failures, and I drew the appropriate conclusions. I feel comfortable with the menu we’ve put together,” he says. His menu includes Austrian chicken soup and pancake strips, oysters, ceviche in rice paper, quinoa and tofu salad, filet of mullet in pistachio sauce, and pappardelle in lamb confit and tomato sauce.
“Evenings like this are even better because we host people for whom this is their dream,” Kronberg says, “not someone who comes for another day of work with all his mannerisms. That happens in a lot of places, and it’s not at all what I’m after.”
The mother-in-law’s verdict
It is still morning. After finishing the menu for the evening, they sipped coffee and headed out to the Carmel market. There, Kronberg introduced Dagan to his butcher, stopped off at the Asian grocery and visited the stalls selling vegetables, fish and spices. They went on a desperate search for fava beans and snacked on burekas as the egg yolks dripped onto their shirts, and they were content. “I feel like I’m in the amusement park,” Dagan said. “I don’t know whether my food is worthy of a restaurant, and I want to prove that it is. There’s one dish on the menu, the chicken in tomatoes, that is a kind of gesture to my mother. It’s a dish I remember from my childhood, when my mother was alive, and I felt I wanted to include that memory.”
Three hours after he went into the kitchen and worked hard alongside the cooks, Dagan allowed himself to complain. “I’ve been working non-stop since 12 O’clock, busting my butt. I was promised countless staff, but I found myself peeling carrots, Jerusalem artichokes and sweet potatoes, and chopping garlic and herbs. I’m preparing 13 dishes that have to be up to restaurant standard. But soon, my adrenaline will kick in again and I’ll be able to get up the strength to prepare the rest of the dishes. Now the kitchen staff is getting everything ready again, and then we’ll go back into battle.”
Amir joins in, and they agree that all they have left to do is roast sunflower seeds and put them in the oven, peel avocados, fry chicken wings, skewer beef, spice and cook quinoa, cook pasta, rice and potatoes in the oven, and reduce the pear sauce for the tarts. “Piece of cake,” they say, and Dagan is dragged back into the kitchen.
At 7:30 P.M., the restaurant is full. After handshakes and hugs, the orders start arriving. On such a wintry, family-friendly evening, the most popular first course is the Austrian chicken soup and pancake strips. Uri wears a white chef’s hat and a starched cook’s uniform. His family sits around a table opposite the open door to the kitchen, looking fascinated by what’s happening.
“It’s stressful to look around and see a restaurant full of people eating my food,” says Uri. “I’m less than pleased with the way some of the dishes came out. The soup, for example. I’m pleased with the rest. I worked like a horse, cutting and chopping and mixing, preparing sauces, getting screamed at and tyrannized, and now they’re serving me wine,” he says with a satisfied smile.
When his uncle asks for a picture with the chef, Uri comes out of the kitchen for him. He walks around, apologizing for the soup, and his family encourages him. In the meantime, the other cooks are working. One prepares filet of mullet in pistachio sauce alongside potatoes and Jerusalem artichokes. Another takes out a skewer of beef rump in chimichurri sauce. A Clash tune plays in the background, and the cooks work to the rhythm, throwing pullet paella into a frying pan and heating up pappardelle in lamb confit.
The dishes stream out of the kitchen as Uri meets more old friends. “I haven’t even tasted some of the dishes yet. They were put together here for the first time when customers ordered them,” he says. “I’m very curious to know what people really think, but I realize that they won’t tell me the truth.”
So what did the guests really think of the food? It seems that only one opinion counts. “In articles like these, the most important thing is to ask the mother-in-law what she thinks about the food,” says Uri’s mother-in-law, who enjoyed every moment.