A tall, bony man works alone in a room that is almost sealed off from the noises of the outside world. There are hours when soft jazz emanates from the loudspeakers behind his head; sometimes one can hear the sounds of kneading and rolling; and there are moments when the almost absolute quiet makes it possible to hear the bread actually singing. When hot, crusty brown loaves emerge from the oven and are placed on shelves to cool, one can hear a concert emerging from inside them, snaps and crackles that are somewhat reminiscent of the sounds of biting into a crust or cutting it with a knife.
The quiet baker is Eran Shroitman, who until recently was known as the chef of leading high-class restaurants such as Tammuz and Orca in Tel Aviv. The space where he works by himself is far removed from the bustling kitchens of the successful restaurants he worked in France and Israel.
Since he decided to devote himself to baking bread, the loaves cooling on trays at the moment have become his signature product: rounded rectangular loaves weighing one kilogram. The cracked, furrowed surfaces sprinkled with flour are reminiscent of snowy mountaintops; they have a crisp, solid but thin crust and a soft interior. I ate this unforgettable bread for the first time in The Dok, chef Asaf Doktor’s restaurant in Tel Aviv, and every time I see and taste the huge brown slices, I recall the bread that sated the hunger of the gluttonous Toad in Kenneth Grahame’s “The Wind in the Willows” – “very hot buttered toast, cut thick, very brown on both sides, with the butter running through the holes in it in great golden drops, like honey from the honeycomb.”
“Everything connected to this bread is on the edge,” said the baker an hour earlier, as he carefully transferred the loaves of delicate dough from straw baskets, where they were left to rise for 60 hours, to the baking surface. “It’s an unforgiving bread. The watery dough, made mainly from wheat flour and a little rye, has almost no fermenting agent, and high percentages of water. It undergoes only a manual kneading, and every extra minute in the oven can cause it to be completely ruined. Everything I do is very complicated, but the long and complex processes provide the added value and uniqueness that I’m looking for.”
The chef who became a baker was born in Jerusalem in 1968. He studied art for four years at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem, began studying philosophy at Hebrew University and then had doubts about the academic career he had chosen. In 1997 he went on a long trip abroad, which included Paris.
“I registered for a 10-week course at Le Cordon Bleu. I didn’t like the studies – they don’t go into the army there, so their army is the kitchen – but I got good reviews, they gave me a stipend and I stayed there for another year.”
After completing his studies, he interned for a year in Paris at chef Alain Passard’s l’Arpege restaurant. “I began with pastries, desserts and bread, and I progressed to the kitchen and to being the chef in charge of fish and seafood. I really liked that.” Then he was asked to be the chef in a restaurant in the Perigord region.
In 2000 Shroitman returned to Israel and acceded to the request of friends he knew from his days at Bezalel to open a chef’s restaurant in Tammuz, a successful café in Tel Aviv’s Neve Tzedek neighborhood. When Tammuz closed, after three active years when it was justly regarded as one of the best Israeli restaurants at the time – he opened Primus, a simple workers’ restaurant with a menu based on cooking on Primus stoves (kerosene burners).
“In hindsight, I switched too drastically from Tammuz to the other extreme, to something too simple,” he deliberates out loud. “And then the people who started Orca turned to me. At first I refused, I didn’t want the noise and bustle again. But they kept on calling, and it was tempting, and in the end I said yes. I put a note on the door at Primus, from one day to the next, that the place was closed, and I moved to Orca.”
“Now they’re closing this space again,” he says, referring to the announcement by chef Meir Adoni of the closing of the Catit and Mizlala restaurants, which replaced Orca, a chef’s restaurant specializing in fish and seafood on Nahalat Binyamin Street in Tel Aviv. It’s not certain that one can draw general conclusions from the story of Shroitman – an exception, in the positive sense of the word, on the Israeli food scene – and mourn the passing of high-class restaurants in Israel. But today, more than ever, it’s clear that they have no future.
“In Orca there was also a constant battle from day one. The restaurant business in Israel means chasing your own tail. The losses are huge.” Orca closed in 2009, and since then Shroitman has worked as a culinary adviser. He doesn’t miss the hectic hours of service work, nor does he miss the glory and attention enjoyed by celebrity chefs. He had no connection at the time with other leading chefs on the Israeli restaurant scene, nor does he now.
Trial and error
In the past year and a half, he has devoted himself entirely to baking bread, and in his scholarly and total way, has devoted months on end to a process of trial and error, and learning. “I had difficulty seeing myself doing service work from the start. Creating, the ingredients, that’s what interests me in the first place, and that’s why I ended up with bread. At Bezalel I started with photography and quickly switched to art. I worked with organic substances – iron, skins and wood. The things I created were very minimalistic and monochromatic. I’m no Jeff Koons. For me working with bread is closing a circle, although I don’t think for a moment that it’s art; it’s a craft.”
Shroitman now bakes a limited selection of breads that are sold directly to a number of Tel Aviv restaurants, most of them relatively small ones offering menus that differ from those of the usual Israeli restaurants. “I want to fulfill fantasies for restaurants, and I work with the chefs until I get a bread that suits them. I have a months-long waiting list of chefs and restaurateurs who want bread.”
At the moment, the exceptional quality is undoubtedly due to the small quantities of breads he creates and his ability to devote a lot of time and effort to each. Plans for the near future nevertheless include building a larger bakery and selling bread to private customers as well, perhaps in the Sharon area where he lives (“I want the bread to be accessible and to reach a wider circle”).
On one occasion when we visited him in the bakery, Shroitman told us: “Today I learned something else about their sleeping time in the refrigerator,” he said, referring to the dough for the pretzel breads. The elongated pretzels, with their shiny color and pointy ends that you just have to pinch and devour, have also become a Shroitman trademark. (They aren’t made from classic pretzel dough, but from a thin, airy dough developed by the baker himself.) “That’s one of the problems of a chef – you get drawn into the service work in the kitchen, tune into a frequency and continue there. The good thing that happened to me when Tammuz and Orca closed is that I have time to learn things.”