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Innovation has become a key ingredient in Israels thriving culinary scene, with food startups changing what and how we eat

Jonna Bloom
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Want to know how many calories are in your plate of spaghetti, using just your smartphone? Visiting a new city and eager to meet some locals and taste some home-cooked food? Trying to cut down on sugar, and looking for an easier way to really measure the sweetness of your food?

Coffee that conveys a message from Ripples

For all these issues and dozens of more, Israels thriving food scene is the ultimate hub of innovation for gourmands eager for a slice off the cutting edge.

There are so many people trying to do new things on the food scene here, and it opens the door for anyone with a vision for something new, says Benny Graves, a Mexican-American chef who has called Tel Aviv his home for the past decade. People in Israel arent afraid to fail. Its a huge help for people like me, who have a passion and want to try new things on the food scene here.

Graves, who works as a consultant for restaurants looking to elevate their products and produce more unique, cultivated flavors, says that the food scene in Israel — much like the high-tech and start-up scene that has famously earned Tel Aviv the nickname Silicon Wadi — is so chock-full of ideas and eager entrepreneurs, its practically bursting at the seams.

The saturation makes sense. Israeli start-ups enjoyed exits worth $15 billion in 2014 (according to Forbes), and the numbers have only been rising since. In a country whose culture revolves around food, with citizens tracing their roots to all corners of the globe, and a cosmopolitan heart — Tel Aviv — that has seen its food scene enjoy a major genesis over the past decade — it was only a matter of time before the StartUp Nation shared some of its innovation with the food scene.

Chef and food consultant Benny Graves

There are a lot of things that are very unique about Israel, and I think the main thing is the personality of the people here. They come up with ideas, and then they find a way to make those ideas happen, says Keren Brown, a food writer and startup guru who serves as a consultant for a number of Israeli food startups.

Food startups in Israel, Brown says, run the gamut from pipsqueak mom-and-pop businesses to thriving corporate hubs, but none better represents the changes on the ground in this country than The Kitchen, a so-called Food Incubator" run by Israeli culinary manufacturing giant Strauss.

The Kitchen, which is hardly a kitchen at all but rather a series of bright, shining offices and laboratories in the southern seaside city of Ashdod, works to host, nurture and invest in food startups in Israel that are committed to improving the Israeli diet and offering alternatives for food shortages.

Competition for a space in it is fierce, Brown says, because the nation is overflowing with companies eager to innovate how we eat.

Some of the most successful food startups to date? Theres Consumer Physics, a company which — among other ventures — has figured out how to scan a food with a smartphone for a breakdown of ingredients. Then theres EatWith, a deliciously simple concept that functions like an AirBnb for restaurants, allowing diners to book a place for dinner in a persons home (their fans include TIME Magazine and other leading publications), as well as Valiber, which has manufactured a sweetness-measuring stick that you can pop into your food and finally figure out, definitively, how sugary it is.

Then theres Ripples, a coffee art company that is revolutionizing the way hipsters sip their lattes across the United States, as well as China and Korea. Never mind the fancy leaf art or sweet hearts that talented baristas can draw in the foam of your $8 espresso drink — Ripples allows cafes to actually paint a number of customizable images directly on the froth, meaning that coffee drinks can now convey messages, offer punchlines and serve as canvases for artwork.

Among the companies Brown consults for are Douxmatok, which has manufactured a sugarless version of sweetener; Yo Fix, which has generated a dairy alternative for yogurts and cheese; and Steak Tartzare which has honed in on the protein in grasshoppers to create energy bars and smoothies for the more adventurous set.

There is such a strong ecosytem here. Startups is how we live, Brown says.

But outside of the laboratory and back at the humble dinner table, the same innovative spirit is elevating the basic dining experience in Israel, as well.

Etai Sobol is one of the head chefs with the R2M group, the mega-successful hospitality company behind Hotel Montefiore, Brasserie, Coffee Bar, Delicatessen and a number of other popular Tel Aviv haunts. For 20 years, the company has been slowly building up the dining and hotel scene in Israel, raising the bar with attention to detail, hand-sourcing of ingredients and intensive focus on customer service. Their influence, evident in the respect in which R2M properties are held by their competitors and the dozens (or more) of copycat institutions that have cropped up on their coattails, proves that they brought gourmet innovation to Israel at exactly the right time.

We are endlessly seeking perfection, Sobol explains. Every month I make it my mission to focus on a different product — a protein like lamb, for example — and I get out of Tel Aviv and go see growers, and then I meet their friends. This way we keep the kitchen updated and always get the best, cleanest and most natural flavors.

To stay competitive, Sobol and R2M utilize the same strategies as a high-tech startup, just adjusted for the real-world heat of the kitchens they work in.

Thanks to todays technology we are able to get new kinds of vegetables and we are able to apply new kinds of cooking techniques, Sobol says. So when it comes to updating our menus, we work together with companies and growers that offer specific products (an herb, a type of produce, for example) that might give us an edge. They use us as a platform for testing their products to see if there is a demand, and we can use them to experiment with flavors and consider adding or changing what we have on the menu.

For chefs without the backing of a successful corporation, Israel offers other opportunities to innovate.

The restaurant scene in Israel has exploded in the past 5 or 10 years, says Rima Olivera, whose Tel Aviv hotspot, Oasis, is routinely regarded as one of the best restaurants in the city.

Olivera has earned those accolades by innovating the old-fashioned way. Not only are there no laboratory gimmicks or high-tech cooking methods in her kitchen, there also arent any of the regular staple ingredients you would find in any other Tel Aviv kitchen. Her way of innovating is to steer clear of Israeli staples like tehina and eggplant, and instead bring global flavors — thanks to far-flung, shipped-in ingredients — straight to the plate.

My goal for Oasis is to have it be completely unlike any other place, she explains. [Israeli cuisine] is my favorite stuff to eat, but I dont use it at Oasis. I want people to come here and say it isnt like any other place.

Its a challenge that brings special headaches to this head chef, including dealing with suppliers, negotiating the customs and shipping issues of nonlocal ingredients and often having to improvise a days menu on the fly. She does it, though, because she loves it, and she loves feeding the diners of Tel Aviv.

People adapt here — its their nature, and its why high-tech is so big. They dont do things by the book, which means sometimes things can get sloppy but the result is the learning curve is faster and also that we now have some really, really good food going on here.