Israeli Star Chef Faces His Biggest Challenge Yet: Tasteless American Vegetables

Ahead of opening of latest branch of his Miznon pita-restaurant chain in New York's Chelsea Market, the blandness of American produce has Eyal Shani genuinely worried about its chances of succeeding there

Haim Handwerker
Haim Handwerker
Israeli star chef Eyal Shani
Israeli star chef Eyal Shani Credit: Moti Milrod
Haim Handwerker
Haim Handwerker

It’s well known that New York fruits and vegetables are a tasteless bunch. Sure, you can find beautiful strawberries and blueberries in the winter, bright oranges in the summer and ruby tomatoes every day of the year. In many cases, though, they are completely bland.

That’s why we decided to travel with outspoken Israeli star chef Eyal Shani to New York’s wholesale market, Hunts Point Produce Market in the Bronx, ahead of the opening of the latest branch of his Miznon chain of pita restaurants, in Chelsea Market.

Known in Israel as the chef of a renowned restaurant, a judge on a reality TV cooking show and, primarily, as someone who is never afraid of sharing his opinions, Shani was shocked by what he found.

“I’ve visited the wholesale markets in London, Vienna, Paris and Melbourne, and I’ve never seen anything like this. They are destroying the tomatoes here! It’s illegal to do what they do to cauliflower. What’s happening with the eggplant is terrible. I’m shocked by what I see,” Shani mumbled sadly to himself.

“What we’re seeing here are basically corpses shaped like fruits and vegetables,” he sighed. “They’ve put out the light on the tomatoes. I can’t look this cucumber in the eye.

Chef Eyal Shani at his Miznon restaurant in Tel Aviv, Israel.Credit: Moti Milrod

“What you see here was harvested three or four days ago. The cold has killed the texture of the fruits and vegetables, and killed the taste at the same time.”

This is the busiest produce market in the United States, with tons of fruits and vegetables streaming into it from huge farms – shipped in by truck, ship and plane. Because of the distances the produce must travel, it is chilled to very low temperatures and put straight into cold storage when it arrives at the market.

“You can’t compare what’s here to what they have in Israel, where the fruits and vegetables come to market in season and the distance between the farmer and consumer is relatively short,” said Shani. “Now I understand why people say the fruits and vegetables in America have no taste.”

He admitted concern about the future of his newest branch of Miznon, which he describes as “haute cuisine in a pita.”

“I need my vegetables to be high quality, and what I’m seeing here worries me a lot. I doubt we’ll be able to find the basic ingredients that we need,” he said.

The Union Square Greenmarket in New York.Credit: Phil Roeder / Flickr

New Yorkers know that if you want good fruits and vegetables, it pays to go to particular markets, like the lovely one in Union Square – though even there, where the produce is local and fresh, the taste isn’t always anything to write home about.

Some supermarkets specialize in high-quality produce, including Whole Foods, Fairway and Citarella. But even there, you need to check carefully to find the best fruits and vegetables.

Our host at Hunts Point quickly learns that his guest is a star chef in Israel. But he’s had experience with a lot of clients, among them top chefs, and tries to calm his guest and potential client. He explains that the temperature in the cold rooms is around 3 to 4 degrees Celsius (37 to 39 degrees Fahrenheit) because that’s what the regulations demand.

“There were cases of people dying of listeria after eating melon,” he tells us. “The regulations were tightened after that, and that’s why we have to keep the produce in strict sanitary conditions, including refrigeration. So yes, if you go to the market, you’ll find tomatoes that got to market at regular temperatures – but what happens if one of your customers gets sick? You’ll be responsible. In the United States, food safety is serious business, and you don’t want to mess with that.”

The visit to Hunts Point ends after a few hours. Shani looks extremely unhappy. “What’s most important to me is that we find good-quality eggplants, tomatoes and cauliflower. If they give them to me at a temperature of zero degrees, I’ve got a problem.”

Shani will have to resolve the problem soon. The mission to find the right produce will be handed to the staff opening up and managing the Chelsea Market restaurant. After they check out the options, Shani will return to make the final decisions. For now, he’s been left with a bad taste in his mouth.

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