On the occasion of the 15th anniversary of the Tel Aviv’s popular Falafel Hakosem restaurant, its owner, Arik Rosenthal, who rarely gives interviews, broke with tradition after a brief campaign of persuasion.
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Rosenthal opened Hakosem (the Magician) in 2001 when he was about to begin a degree in social work and needed to make a living while in school. His eatery started out as a tiny stand. His goal: to find the answer to the question of what Israelis like to eat.
No one, including Rosenthal, could have expected the long lines that now snake outside the place, located at 1 Shlomo Hamelech Street.
“Hummus and falafel are totally functional sorts of food," he says. "You get here, you eat and you move on, it’s just a way of satisfying midday hunger pangs."
Fifteen years ago it didn’t necessary occur to us to meet our friends over a falafel, but a glance at the tables here now shows that people linger even for 40 minutes over their pita – something that Rosenthal confirms.
Rosenthal lived in Eilat, Kibbutz Malkiya in the north, Tel Aviv and Belgium – all before the age of 15. That was about when his romance with food began. He started out waiting tables at restaurants, became shift manager and from there moved on to bar manager. Then he moved abruptly into the kitchen, because he wanted to learn about what went on there, and very quickly became a manager.
After his army service he did a chef’s course at the Tadmor culinary school and at the age of 22, he opened a restaurant called Bar Basar in Dizengoff Center, where, he admits now, he made every possible mistake.
“Pricing, costs, things like that. As for the rest, the food was good and there was lots of work. But I was young and there were mistakes along the way.”
Chickpeas from Spain
When did you get the idea to open Hakosem?
"Ever since I started working with food, I thought about what the Israeli public actually likes – or to be more precise, about what the DNA of Israeli food might be. In the end it was falafel, hummus and shawarma. I thought that if I do it well enough, then people will come back. The idea itself came up at the end of the 1990s at Bar Basar, where I started experimenting with tastes."
Rosenthal adds that there was no gourmet fast food in Tel Aviv when he opened Hakosem, certainly not a place where diners spent time and met friends.
“I always thought Israeli street food could be served at the level of a restaurant, whether in terms of organization and cleanliness or raw materials. From the first day I wanted to use the best ingredients around, even if it meant importing them personally. I imported the chickpeas for the hummus personally from Spain or Mexico, depending on the year. The tahini is always Alarz,” Rosenthal says, referring to a popular brand from Nazareth.
Over the last decade or so the success of local street food has surged. It has become very varied, combining local with international tastes, and in many cases is high quality. According to Rosenthal, although there’s a long way to go, the street food revolution has already started.
“Israeli street food just gets better and better. People are looking to get in on it, whether as entrepreneurs or diners. I think this accessibility is welcome and it’s very right, for Israeli culture, for tourists and in general,” he says.
Why falafel? Isn’t it a bit too “simple”?
“Because of why I am, because of my personality I never thought that what society calls ‘simple’ is really simple. It’s all a question of worldview. Nobody will define falafel and shawarma for me. On the contrary, I’ll redefine it.
"I work here 12 to 14 hours a day, and at the end of the day I live well with what I create and convey; I can’t live according to somebody else’s definitions. And today, 15 years later, people like the talented Eyal Shani, [the chefs at] David and Yossef and others are joining,” Rosenthal says, referring to trendy Tel Aviv restaurateurs.
"But it all started from me defining a street food place as one in which to spend time – not only as a place to satisfy momentary hunger. After all, the greatest chefs in the world today are offering their own interpretations of street food at their restaurants.”