What the Food Menus at Netanyahu's Official Banquets Reveal About Israel's Cuisine

New revelations may disappoint lovers of the local kitchen

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Chef Segev Moshe poses in front of the dinner he prepared for U.S. President Donald Trump, his wife, Melania,  Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his wife, Sara, and son, Yair, at the PM's residence.
Chef Segev Moshe poses in front of the dinner he prepared for U.S. President Donald Trump, his wife, Melania, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his wife, Sara, and son, Yair, at the PM's Residence.Credit: No credit
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered

Chroniclers of history frequently draw on written and material testimony – such as dinner menus and shopping lists, or tools and mechanisms of production – to learn not only about people’s lives in different eras also about their cultural identity, worldview, desires and dreams. We don’t know how the information left by the people of the 21st century will be preserved for future generations. But whatever the nature of it will be, a suspicion arises that a future historian who examines the menus of official meals hosted by Israel’s prime minister is liable to conclude that the chief ingredients of the Israeli kitchen were fillet of beef, salmon, goose liver and truffle oil spray; that the national vegetable was asparagus; and that berries, among them raspberries and blackberries, were the most coveted fruits – available fresh, of course, all year round.

Moreover, our historian will think, mistakenly, that in early-21st century Israel there was no developed phenomenon of small-, middle-sized and large wineries that produced a range of interesting local vintages. Otherwise, how can one explain the fact that the product of only one winery appeared on the table of the country’s chief political leader time and again, in 34 of the 38 meals in which wine was served, during a recent two-year period.

This month the Hebrew website Meida La’am, a platform that publicizes information compiled by nonprofit organizations and activists, published the menus of the official dinners held in 2017-2018 in the Prime Minister’s Office or in the prime minister’s residence, on Balfour Street in Jerusalem. The menus are exclusively those of official banquets, in which the premier hosted heads of state, leaders and senior diplomats – as opposed to private meals for family and friends that took place in the residence or office.

The request to publish all the menus was submitted two years ago by the Movement for the Promotion of a Fair Society, following media furor over the publication of menus of the meals that chef Moshe Segev cooked in the Balfour Street kitchen. One was the banquet held in honor of U.S. President Donald Trump in May 2017, which included dishes inspired by American cuisine, with no hint of the local kitchen; and the other was the dinner served to the prime minister of Japan in 2018, when a dessert served in the form of a shoe offended some of the guests.

“Following the famous shoe scandal, we submitted two requests – to the Foreign Ministry and to Prime Minister’s Office – for the relevant information to be made available to the public,” says Elad Man, the organization’s legal adviser.

“We wanted to understand how the chefs are chosen, who gets invited to the dinners, what the budget is, and also get the menus. The choice of food and drink that is served to official state delegations is meaningful,” he adds. “It’s interesting to understand what is selected and what that selection reflects culturally. The Foreign Ministry acceded to the request within a few months. The Prime Minister’s Office delayed – they’re known for ignoring freedom of information requests – until a few months ago when, after repeated requests that went unanswered, we submitted a preliminary petition to the Jerusalem district attorney’s office. It was only then, two years after the original request, that the information arrived.”

A single female chef

The Prime Minister’s Office officially hosted 45 dinners in 2017-2018 – some in the building that houses the office itself, others in the premier’s official residence – on average every two to two-and-a-half weeks, consistent with the rate at which official foreign delegations are hosted here. The average total cost per diner, including all overhead, wines and other expenses, can reach as high as 500 shekels ($142, approximately), which is reasonable when broken down into its components and not unusual in the local catering/social events market, considering the costs restaurateurs and chefs have to bear. That sum has to cover the raw ingredients; wine; the work of the team of cooks, waiters and dishwashers; and the transportation of both the staff and the food, in some cases at the expense of more profitable work elsewhere.

Neither the Prime Minister’s Office nor the residence maintain a chef and a permanent kitchen staff who can meet the demands of preparing and serving state banquets. (Some countries, including France and the United States, have a permanent staff of such professionals.) Thus, chefs – usually proprietors of local restaurants who have a kitchen for the preparations and staff to serve and clean up afterward – are hired to prepare and serve the festive dinners.

According to some of these chefs, the basic price suggested by the Prime Minister’s Office is supposed to be about 350 shekels per diner – but that’s without all the overhead and other expenses noted above.

“Absolutely, there is no economic profit here for chefs,” says Yossi Shitrit, who with his partner Dudu Elmakayes from David and Yossef, a Tel Aviv restaurant, prepared four meals served in 2017-2018. “But I didn’t do it for the money,” he says.

Cooking for global VIPs and top local leaders translates today, as always, into symbolic capital that’s difficult to quantify into concrete coin. The Prime Minister’s Office is not obligated to ask for a public bid in choosing the chefs who are given the honor (due to the meager size of the budget, apparently). Any chef can propose him- or herself for the job – as long as he/she meets the budgetary, logistics and security requirements.

Most local chefs who cooked meals in 2017-2018 and earlier as well say they didn’t put themselves forward for the job, but rather received a call from the Prime Minister’s Office. No clear criteria for the choice exist, “but we live in Israel,” Shitrit says. “What really matters isn’t whether you’re good at what you do, but who you know and how good your connections are.”

A perusal of the menus for the given period reveals that the banquets hosted by the prime minister were cooked by 12 chefs who represent nine restaurants (or groups of restaurateurs), 11 of whom were men. The only woman who received the honor was invited to cook a traditional “national” dinner, not a prestigious and more creative chef’s dinner, like her male colleagues. In addition, all the chefs were Jews. The most invited chef was Lior Hafzadi (14 meals), followed by Moshe Segev (nine) and Zakai Hodja (eight). Many of the chefs and restaurateurs were from Jerusalem – logical, given the complex logistics involved – but chefs from other locales, such as Tel Aviv and Herzliya, were also welcomed.

Food as a symbol

As sociologist Claude S. Fischer has observed, food is not only a biological need, it is also a subject of symbolic import. Human existence doesn’t consist only of the carbohydrates, proteins and fats we consume as material food; it also entails the spiritual and symbolic significance we attribute to it, and the central place it occupies in perception of our personal and collective identity. What significance, then, accrues to the ingredients and dishes chosen for the table of the present prime minister when he hosts senior figures from other communities? And what features of Israel culture find expression in these dinners?

Before diving into the menus, raw materials and dishes served, it’s important to recall a number of objective limitations that partially dictate the selections on the menu. Official dinners served by the Prime Minister’s Office are subject to the laws of kashrut, which limit the recipes, ingredients (and in certain cases their quality as well) and cooking techniques used. The choice of menu is determined by the preferences and the medical and moral restrictions of the guests (details that are not contained in the information made available to the public). And the physical conditions, both in the Prime Minister’s Office and the private residence, are not ideal, to say the least, for the preparation of professional chef’s meals.

“In both cases we’re talking about home kitchens,” says chef Moshiko Gamlieli, who together with his partners, in a group that includes the Jerusalem restaurants Mona and Anna, prepared four state dinners in the two-year period. “The kitchen in the Prime Minister’s Office is almost a small office nook, and there are no gas cookers in the Balfour Street kitchen, only electric burners, and no real oven. To cook complex, creative dishes and serve them simultaneously to nearly 20 diners, is extremely difficult.”

He’s seconded by chef Hafzadi. “The kitchens are old and poorly equipped, it’s shameful that the prime minister has a kitchen like that,” he says.

Shitrit: “The prime minister of Israel, whoever he may be, and whether he’s from the right or the left, needs a properly equipped kitchen with a private chef and a staff. I don’t think it would be very complicated or expensive to install a kitchen there and get someone to be in charge.”

Because of the conditions in the kitchen and the professional requirements, most of the meal preparation usually takes place in the kitchen of the chef’s restaurant. Only the finishing touches and preparation for service are done in the kitchen of the premier’s office or the residence. The staff of cooks in the kitchen of the restaurant is accompanied throughout the day by personnel from the Prime Minister’s Office (“security guards,” according to Moshiko Gamlieli; “two girls,” says Shitrit, “whom we dubbed the ‘cover your ass kids.’ In practice, if I’d wanted to harm the prime minister or one of his confidants, no one would have known or felt it”).

By their nature, diplomatic dinners generate indecision. Because food is the major representative of culture and identity, the question arises as to whether the menu should pay homage to the cuisine of the guests’ country, or should reflect the kitchen and culture of the host country. There is also a middle ground, such as to serve foods that have taken root in the human consciousness as “global,” or dishes associated with national cuisine, such as that of France, for example, which are considered universal representatives of bon ton, prestige and status.

Sushi for the Japanese

Veteran chef Shalom Kadosh cooked for Henry Kissinger in the 1970s (“a true gourmet”) and for Francois Mitterrand (“I sent the head waiter to check whether he was finishing his dish; at the end of the dinner, [Prime Minister Menachem] Begin told him happily that ‘there actually are chefs in Israel’”). He has a tremendous amount of experience, although his name doesn’t appear on the 2017-2018 list of chefs.

“Two dinners, held relatively close together, stick in my memory and influenced the way I think about putting together the menu for state dinners,” Kadosh recalls. “I once prepared a sushi dinner for a high-ranking Japanese personality, and not long afterward, when we hosted the Egyptian foreign minister, I added mulukhiya (a Middl Eastern vegetable) soup to the menu of the state dinner as a gesture to the Egyptian guest. At the end the foreign minister thanked me, but noted frankly that when he goes abroad he expects to taste the food of the place he’s visiting. He has mulukhiya at home, he said. I think he’s right, and I regretted having made sushi for the Japanese diplomat. He did thank me warmly, but I have no doubt that back home he’d eaten a thousand sushi meals that were a thousand times better.”

Kadosh is considered the progenitor of the strict and conservative French school in Israel. However, he maintains, “the true heritage [of the French] is not fillet of beef, truffles and foie gras, but the love and the passion they have acquired for local raw materials and for the traditional foods of their region of birth. There is no reason why in Israel, which has high-quality ingredients and talented chefs, dishes that represent Israeli cuisine should not be served.”

In the absence of organized professional guidelines for the chefs, and perhaps because of the spirit and the taste of those who order them (it’s hard to know, because most of those involved aren’t eager to talk) – the menus at official banquets in Israel in the two years in question look for the most part like a pale imitation of the menus of outdated French and American dinners. Not contemporary, heaven forbid. No one expects innovation and originality at diplomatic dinners with multiple guests who represent different communities and nations.

Still, reading the menus of the official meals hosted by the prime minister is truly depressing for someone who believes that there’s such a thing as Israeli cuisine (which in other branches of the same government – notably the Foreign Ministry and Israel’s embassies – it is considered a first-rate diplomatic asset, and marketed vigorously); for anyone who thinks that official dinners can be leveraged for promoting local food and drink manufacturers; or simply for those who believe that we should try to produce food in a way that is more friendly to the environment, animals and humans, alike.

Fillet of beef was the most popular item on the menu (appearing in 26 of the 45 dinners), even though Israel, with its meager space and pasture land, is not considered a suitable country for breeding cattle. Most of the beef that’s consumed in Israel arrives frozen from abroad, or comes in the form of shipments of live animals that cause them significant suffering and are environmentally harmful to the planet. There is some small-scale, quality breeding here that could serve as an excellent reason to serve beef at official dinners and to draw attention to Israeli agriculture, but no official menu takes pride in serving local beef. (In fact, the word “local,” in contrast to global trends in the realm of food, doesn’t appear at all on the menus that were made available.)

Lamb, which is more typical of Middle Eastern agriculture and diet, and certainly better suited to the cuisine image Israel is trying to market internationally, appears on the menu only three times, in the meals that were publicized. (“Young Israeli lamb, not mature mutton, is loved by a public no less extensive than those who love fillet of beef,” Kadosh says in response to the frequently heard claim that beef appeals to a broader common denominator.)

The fish most commonly served, salmon, is also not local. The grouper, the king of the local sea fish (lokus in Hebrew), swims onto the menu only three times, and Israeli trout but once.

“The dinners are always kosher, with meat dishes, never vegetarian or vegan, despite declarations by the Netanyahu family,” who have said publicly that they offer such food, says Nir Avieli, an anthropologist at Ben-Gurion University in Be’er Sheva. “On top of that, goose liver appears several times on the menus, even though it has become illegitimate because of the cruelty involved in the fattening and production processes.”

Where’s the orange?

It’s important to bear in mind that restaurant menus in the modern world don’t necessarily list all the components of a dish, but key raw materials are often underscored – or at least those that the chef, or host, wants to emphasize. In regard to fruits and vegetables, too, local produce characteristic of this country and its agriculture is rarely served at the state dinners. Asparagus (a vegetable originating in a colder climate, which has become a harbinger of spring in northern countries) makes 15 appearances on the menus, and in every season of the year. That’s three times more frequently than eggplant, a vegetable that has become more identified with the popular Israeli diet, and five times as many as so-called baladi vegetables (a reference to vegetables of traditional heirloom varieties that have become the staple of the Israeli chefs who have won fame locally and abroad).

Even tomatoes and oranges – two of the major symbols of Israeli cuisine in different periods – earned relatively few appearances, considering that they are amazingly versatile and have many uses in the kitchen.

Hummus (the spread, not the chickpea, though it too is a present absentee like its sister lentils) makes only one appearance on the menus of the 45 dinners in question. Tahini shows up five times (the same as goose liver), while olive oil, another raw material that plays many roles in local cuisine, is mentioned explicitly only 12 times, one time more than truffle oil.

“Perhaps precisely in the diplomatic arena, where you have to preserve a statesmanlike approach and not cause controversy, it’s easier to use less common raw materials, such as asparagus and avocado, than olive oil, tahini, hummus and za’atar (wild hyssop), which have become a bone of contention between the Palestinians and the Israelis,” Avieli says.

To which chef Gamlieli adds, “I think there is always a dimension of folksiness in the raw materials identified with Israeli cuisine, and it’s harder to integrate them into the menus of a top-class kitchen that are identified with official state dinners.”

Erez Komarovsky, one of the most influential chefs in terms of shaping Israeli cuisine, disagrees.

“I thought we’d already passed the provincial culinary stage and the attachment to a legacy that says that French cuisine is the most sublime in the universe,” he says. “From my point of view, hummus and chraimeh [spicy sauce] are just as worthy. In general, what doesn’t appear in the menus of those dinners – couscous, purslane, peppergrass and sumac – resonates no less than the ingredients that do appear. I don’t think that when the French president hosts official dinners they serve Italian food, with all the sensitivities for the taste preferences of other peoples and nations. It’s embarrassing, embarrassing, and embarrassing again. It’s as if the whole [culinary] revolution we’ve fomented in the past few decades never happened.”

Another chef who has his doubts is Meir Adoni, who cooked for the Prime Minister’s Office during the tenure of Ehud Olmert (2006-2009).

“Unless it’s being dictated from above, I find it hard to understand these menus,” he says. “It was clear to me when I was asked to cook official dinners that I needed to offer my interpretation of Israeli cuisine. In the dinner I prepared with the staff of [the now-defunct Tel Aviv restaurant] Katit, we served fillet of lamb with bulgur, tomato confit and smoked avocado ravioli. If I were cooking official meals today, I would serve tahini, yogurt, za’atar, eggplant carpaccio, sorrel soup, baladi vegetables – raw materials and dishes that have become distinctly identified with developments of recent years. And I think that a quarter of the chefs who are cooking official state dinners need to be Arab chefs.”

Chef Lior Hafzadi says his “first consideration is for everyone to eat, not necessarily to represent localness. I try to give expression to the seasons, but fillet of beef and salmon appeal to a broad common denominator of people from different places and cultures in the world.”

No guidelines

Chef Yossi Shitrit notes that “there were never orderly guidelines regarding the menu, with the exception of the health restrictions of the participants. You come the first time brimming with enthusiasm and creativity, to cook the best food with the best ingredients, but the attitude of those involved in the Prime Minister’s Office to these meals isn’t serious.”

“When I think of Israeli food, I think of a table covered with mezes, of casseroles, of meat cigars and stuffed vegetables,” Gamlieli says. “But the feeling is that you can’t submit a menu like that to the Prime Minister’s Office for approval – that in the end they want you to serve mainly the fillet of beef and the salmon, and that no one’s really interested.”

In the view of Avieli, the anthropologist, “the menu prepared for most of the guests looks generic, with a strong influence of the global north.” (The global north and the global south are the new east and west in the current academic discourse.) “The German chancellor and the president of Chad both receive the same menu of fillet of beef, salmon and truffles in the traditional French-North American style. The only exceptions to the rule are two dinners, the one for Donald Trump and another prepared for the prime minister of India – two leaders whose political worldviews Netanyahu shared at the time, and in whose honor entire meals were cooked that were an homage to their national cuisines.”

All the chefs who cooked for the Prime Minister’s Office in recent years attest that the it was the office that specified wines that accompanied the banquets (and accordingly, also their how much would be spent on them). As noted, wine was on the menu of 38 of the 45 banquets, and on 34 of those occasions the wines served came from the Psagot winery, which lies in the settlement of the same name in the West Bank, close to Ramallah. The Psagot winery, where U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited last month during his final swing through the region before the end of his term, was purchased a few years ago by the billionaire Falic family, of Florida, some of whose members are among Benjamin Netanyahu’s biggest donors.

The products of Carmel winery, Israel’s largest, and one of the pioneers in the local industry, don’t appear on the menus of the official dinners. Golan Heights vintages, which have played significant roles in the wine revolution in Israel in the past few decades, were served at one of the 34 dinners. The Castel and Recanati wineries’ products crop up sporadically on the menus.

The Prime Minister’s Office has not yet provided an explanation for the criteria by which the wines in the state dinners were chosen. It goes without saying that being featured at an official diplomatic banquet can do wonders for a winery’s international prestige. (One of the famous stories in this regard is of the Petrus winery in France’s Bordeaux region, which gained international repute in the wake of the visit of none other than Queen Elizabeth II of England, in the 1960s.)

“The Psagot winery is less known among the Israeli public, but it doesn’t need that recognition,” says the wine and alcohol expert Tal Hutiner. “The Falic family holds the franchise to duty-free stores in the United States, and most of Psagot’s wine produce is exported.”

“The strongest feeling one gets from looking at these menus is one of disconnect,” says Nimrod Luz, a cultural geographer who teaches in the department of Land of Israel studies at Kinneret College, and has devoted much of his research of late to food.

“The Prime Minister’s Office is the institution that represents the State of Israel, and it is disconnected and alienated from the region and from its daily life. The chefs, who are supposed to be the connecting link, have capitulated to the notions that it dictates, and the menus are, ultimately, anemic and lacking in character,” Luz says. “There’s no connection to the geography and culture of the guest, the host or of the chef. Of course, Israeli chefs don’t have to serve hummus and falafel at every meal for it to be considered Israeli, but most of the menus are completed disconnected from the region and from the chefs’ personal history. Suddenly no one has a grandmother.”

According to Avieli, “the menus made available to the public don’t resemble the menus at Israeli restaurants, certainly not those that gained fame abroad as representative of Israeli cuisine, and they don’t recall the Israeli diet at home. They don’t contain Ashkenazi or Mizrahi food; above all they evoke a menu of the conservative, somewhat old-fashioned American upper class in the New England style. Possible these menus attest less to the collective identity perception of Israeli society, than to the identity perception and the dreams of diner Bibi Netanyahu.”

Lior Hafzadi. Credit: Dan Perez
Erez Komarovsky.Credit: Dan Perez
Meir Adoni. Credit: Dan Perez.
Chef Segev Moshe poses in front of the dinner he prepared for U.S. President Donald Trump, his wife, Melania, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his wife, Sara, and son, Yair, at the PM's Residence.Credit: No credit

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