Berlin at twilight, March 2020. A scream is heard at Prism – a high-profile minimalist restaurant in the city’s upscale Charlottenburg neighborhood – followed by loud crying. A dishwasher rushes to find the source of the noise – all sounds lead to the restaurant’s office.
Chef Gal Ben-Moshe has just received an email – from the Michelin Guide. The topic is an invitation to a ceremony in Hamburg two weeks later. “Nobody sends a restaurant an invitation to a ceremony unless it’s getting a star,” he explains. Back on that March day, the chef was found moaning by his desk in disbelief.
A few days later, Germany suffered its first coronavirus lockdown. The ceremony was moved to a live broadcast on Facebook. “Two weeks later, we sat in the restaurant with our laptop, with champagne ready, when the announcement came: ‘Prism Berlin, by Gal Ben-Moshe, one star.’ You think you’re getting it, you prepare yourself, you think you’ve cried enough, and then with the announcement it all breaks loose all over again,” he says.
“The tears weren’t over the fact that the kid from Rishon Letzion had finally gained some recognition; I’m not that dramatic. They were over the fact that it was finally happening to somebody who had worked so hard for so many years. I sacrificed a lot to reach that moment,” Ben-Moshe adds, tearing up again – and not for the last time in our conversation.
After becoming the second Israeli chef after Moshik Roth to win a Michelin star, Ben-Moshe, whose name may not be familiar to most Israelis, opened a new page. Since early June he has been managing the kitchen of the upscale Pastel restaurant at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Many eyebrows were raised when that link-up was announced.
The morning after we won our first star one thing was clear to me: The race for the second star had begunGal Ben-Moshe
Pastel opened in 2013 and a year later was declared one of the world’s prettiest restaurants at a design competition in China. From the moment – also in 2013 – when Ben-Moshe opened his first restaurant in Berlin, Glass, he has been asked in interviews whether he would ever launch a restaurant in Israel. His answer is always the same: “Absolutely not.”
What happened all of a sudden?
“I think the sentence I’ve uttered most over the last three years is that I would never open a restaurant in Israel. Before that I also said that I would never cook Mediterranean food, but that was true only until I opened Prism. You mature.
“Pastel is stunningly beautiful, and I love the fact that it’s in Tel Aviv’s cultural center. I’m not a rebellious young guy as I’ve been depicted in interviews, I’m square – someone who has always been attracted to white tablecloths and fine dining. That’s who I am. I actually like the idea of a restaurant at a museum. All over the world there are restaurants with Michelin stars in places like that.”
“My real connection to Pastel isn’t with the restaurant but with its owner, Itzik Hengal. This is a person who runs a restaurant out of a motive I’ve forgotten, a love of the culture of hosting, not as a businessman. When he’s there you feel like you’re visiting his living room. It doesn’t matter if there are 140 seats there.”
And then you arrive and turn his living room into a Michelin-rated location?
“No, no, no. I’m not turning Pastel into a Michelin-rated restaurant. I don’t want to. That was the first thing I told him. I don’t want to do Gal Ben-Moshe in Israel, I only want to make Pastel better. For me, sitting in the middle of this place of culture, there’s a commitment to speaking the local language. Serving oysters and an endives salad is irrelevant. This may speak to customers, but not to the location.”
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But a restaurant can’t exist without customers.
“That’s true, but you can offer them something different and see whether they like it. That’s what I’m committed to. Not to providing customers with what they want and are used to, but something they don’t know they want. I’m not trying to teach but to offer a different perspective on the local scene. Brut, for example, is the most important restaurant now operating in Tel Aviv, making delicious and expensive food, but it’s not fine dining.
“I believe that there aren’t enough places that ‘speak the local food,’ bringing it to an international language. I’m not trying to make something that will compete with Hiba and OCD, which are concept restaurants that speak in a clear language. I want to design Pastel as a top-level restaurant with a culinary language that will highlight the locality of its ingredients.”
Aren’t you afraid that people won’t connect to it, or that Pastel’s regulars will no longer feel at home there?
“First of all, I’m always afraid, as an existential condition. With all due respect, there won’t be hamburgers, fries or mashed potatoes there. Those aren’t relevant to the place and time. There’s no room for mashed potatoes in an Israeli summer. You don’t eat that when it’s so hot. I’m sorry, you won’t sell that idea to me. I believe that food has to have some local relevance.”
The mashed potatoes, lobster, hamburger, steak and pasta dishes that have characterized Pastel are being replaced by chuchvara dumplings, lamb tartare, original-style kebab and burned Arab cabbage. Ben-Moshe quickly dismisses any discussion of cultural-culinary appropriation.
It’s illogical that at my restaurant in Berlin, caviar from Israel costs less than if I’d order it at a restaurant in Tel AvivGal Ben-Moshe
In Berlin he’s considered exotic, while in Dubai (more on that later) he’s considered Mediterranean. And in Tel Aviv? He’s just another Israeli who emigrated to Berlin.
His chuchvara, he says, is actually a blend of kreplach and fried onions. Ingredients that were never seen before at Pastel are now cropping up in its kitchen. Between the baharat mixed-spice sauce and the date cream, dishes are now adorned with a hot harissa red-pepper paste or pickled lemon, unripe grapes, zucchini, or vine and okra leaves.
I think Pastel has been a success due to its bistro-like character.
“It hasn’t really mattered to people what they eat at Pastel. They come for the experience, and it’s close by and convenient. That’s legitimate. But I want people to come here for the food as well. One aim is to bring a different crowd to Pastel, a younger one. I’m not saying, ‘Let the older Tel Aviv customers choke, I want a hipster crowd.’ On the contrary. Still, we need a different spirit here. The problem here is true for all Tel Aviv.”
The problem, Ben-Moshe says, is with food that’s irrelevant to the seasons and the location. Beyond that, he adds, “I have a problem in principle with ingredients from Israel, which I get in Germany for lower prices than in Israel. It’s inconceivable. It’s illogical that at my restaurant in Berlin, caviar from Israel costs less than if I’d order it at Pastel.
“The sense is that no mercy is shown to small businesses in Israel, as there is in Germany. Germany was very generous during the coronavirus pandemic, largely understanding the importance of helping restaurants. This helped chef restaurants such as ours emerge from the lockdown stronger.”
A bite of camel tartare
Ben-Moshe, 37, was born in Rishon Letzion southeast of Tel Aviv. He describes himself as the son of “foodies, people who spend money on restaurants beyond their means.” His romance with kitchens began at a young age at an upscale restaurant he went to with his parents. They’re proud of having eaten the first lobsters in Tel Aviv, but when they got home, their power had been shut off; they had forgotten to pay their bills.
Ben-Moshe struck out on his own when he was 15, after his parents got divorced. When he had to support himself, he moved to Tel Aviv and started working.
He started at a fish processing plant belonging to the Mul Yam restaurant at the Tel Aviv Port. He became a junior chef there and moved on to chef restaurants such as Orca. After his military service he went to London, where he worked at two high-profile venues: Claude Bosi’s Hibiscus and Gordon Ramsay’s Maze.
After two and a half years he returned to Israel but, unsatisfied, he set out for the Alinea chef restaurant in Chicago, a venue with three Michelin stars that’s considered a groundbreaker in elite cooking. After working there for a year in various roles, Ben-Moshe returned to Israel and considered opening a place of his own. That didn’t work out, so he left for Berlin.
He quickly found a space that once housed a gym, opened Glass, and really got things going. In 2014, Ben-Moshe was ranked among the 400 most influential chefs by New York-based Phaidon Press, which publishes cookbooks. He was also a candidate for an award for the year’s discovery in Germany. In interviews with Israeli reporters, the young chef liked to say he was escaping Mediterranean food, Israeli cuisine especially. It appears his lack of success here had its effect.
Today it seems he’s much more at peace with himself, less angry at the local industry that didn’t embrace him. Maturity definitely came with that Michelin star. Regarding Pastel, he says: “I felt that I couldn’t refuse such an opportunity to head such a large and acclaimed restaurant, with such backing. There’s no chance I would have opened a restaurant in Israel from scratch.”
Glass was in operation for five years, which Ben-Moshe summarizes as an unbearable period. “Glass was a way station that derived more from my need to survive than from an ability to do something really great. ... I simply needed not to die there, just to survive,” he says.
Glass not only gave Ben-Moshe interviews with the international media, it’s there that he met his partners for his next restaurant, Prism; they were regulars who noticed the Israeli’s potential.
“My contract there ended after five years, and we wondered [Ben-Moshe and his wife, sommelier Jacqueline Lorenz] where we would continue,” he says. “At the end of a meal there, they suggested that we open a new restaurant.”
The opening of Prism in 2019 – which has kept its Michelin star – made it easier to close Glass. “At first I couldn’t walk down the street where Glass was located; now it’s more like ‘good riddance, a weight off my chest,” he says. “From survivor Gal Ben-Moshe I became creative Gal Ben-Moshe.”
The appetizers of one such creation at Prism include a small tartare of camel and caviar from fish in the Dan Stream in Israel’s north. Ben-Moshe has a local version of this at Pastel; instead of camel he uses lamb.
At Prism he also serves lobster Lebanese style, with gundelia and dashi sauce, a dish with oyster and lamb as a gesture to Tel Aviv. “In the end, we’re all stuck in the desert, dreaming of Ibiza while stuck in a traffic jam in Tel Aviv,” he quips. He even has pigeon with vine leaves, which at Pastel is chicken.
On the road to Dubai
In the past six months Ben-Moshe has been living on the Tel Aviv-Berlin axis, with all that implies. “I’m now experiencing all the difficulties of an Israeli chef in a Tel Aviv restaurant,” he says.
“What’s interesting is the habit of sending back dishes, their size, the prices, the suppliers who don’t all meet expectations. But my capacity to deal with that is different because in the end I have a home, I can travel there and come back. I’m coming here with less ego. The most important thing to me at the moment is to get a second star.”
The fact that you’re here doesn’t mean that you’ve given up on a second star for Prism?
"Not at all. I’m all in, but without being there physically. Nobody said that to get a second star I have to be the one who puts the gravy in the plate. In recent months I’ve been very busy with precision and upgrading the experience at Prism. We’ve reduced the number of seats from 24 to 18; we’ve changed a lot of things.”
So what do you have to do to jump from a first star, which means “a very good restaurant in its category,” to a second star, which means “excellent cuisine, worth a detour?”
“I don’t think anybody really knows. It’s not that there’s a checklist. When people talk about Michelin they think that it’s only about the food, but it’s an overall hospitality experience. It’s not only what’s on the plate or the type of glasses and silverware, but how much you really speak your concept. How coherent you are, how well you provide an additional experience.
“The morning after we won our first star one thing was clear to me: The race for the second star had begun. And it’s clear to me that the day after I receive the second star, I’ll say, ‘Okay, now the third.’
“As far as I’m concerned, the fact that I’m here at Pastel doesn’t put that in the distance; just the opposite. The daily preoccupation with local ingredients gives me inspiration and ideas. Sometimes I do something and think that it’s too pretentious for Pastel but would probably suit Prism. And there are ideas that come up at Prism that aren’t suitable there, so I bring them to Pastel.”
At Glass and Prism, Ben-Moshe has also been nominated for awards, but as he puts it: “When you have a Michelin, you don’t really care. I was a nominee for chef of the year in Berlin. I’m the Glenn Close of that award and have never won. There was a time when I took it to heart; today it’s: Whatever, I have a Michelin.” Does that mean you have fewer ambitions?
“There are ambitions, but at the moment they’re focused on winning a second star or making the list of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants [the fondest wish of every luxury restaurant]. A Michelin star is a game changer. You see at your restaurant what happens from the moment you receive a star.
“Before the star people were coming to just another dinner at a restaurant. With the star they come with baggage, with expectations, and of course they’re willing to pay much more.”
At restaurants without a Michelin star, a meal costs around 35 to 50 euros. With a star, they begin at 100 euros and can top 800 euros at a place like Noma, in Denmark, which is rated the best restaurant in the world.
“That’s why I’m pushing for a second star,” Ben-Moshe says. “Incidentally, that’s why many three-star restaurants lose a star. They stagnate or become complacent – while the one- and two-star restaurants make much more of an effort.”
Do you think Israel is cut out for a Michelin?
“It’s a matter of time until there’s a Michelin here. That’s clear. Although a lot of money and politics are involved in the story, even Michelin can’t ignore anymore what’s going on here. It’s very clear that if the Tourism Ministry were willing to allocate money to bring the guidebook to Israel [invest in producing a Michelin Guide in Hebrew for Israeli restaurants], it would already be here. That’s what happening in Dubai and Istanbul, which will soon be publishing their first Michelin guides.”
Where do you like to eat here?
“Don’t get me in trouble, I’m not from here. Before I came to Pastel I did my homework and ate at many places. Brut is the most important restaurant in Tel Aviv. When I have to go out to eat I‘ll probably choose Jasmino. I find it delicious and enjoy myself there.
“I admire what Mattan Abrahams [the chef at Hudson Brasserie] does with meat. Hudson is the local Etxebarri [Asador Etxebarri, a Basque meat restaurant ranked the third best restaurant in the world]. That’s something to aspire to. I really enjoyed OCD and Hiba, and of course Yuval Ben Neriah’s projects. It’s delicious here.”
Did your return here change anything in your view of the local restaurant business?
“It’s not that I didn’t appreciate them before, but now I admire anybody who manages to survive here. Israel is a very challenging place to be a chef. It’s about a billion times harder than Berlin, and I’m not exaggerating. In every sense. The costs of maintaining a business here are crazy. Surrounding a restaurant in Israel are all kinds of agencies, mainly local authorities, who see it as a milk cow. And there are most critical customers in the world. I’m still learning that.
“I no longer cry in the back over every dish that comes back, but there’s nothing like it anywhere in the world. Yes, even a chef with a Michelin star makes mistakes, but the customer here comes with the attitude of a restaurant critic and less with the idea of ‘I want to enjoy myself.’ In the rest of the world nobody sends back a dish if it’s not to their taste. Here it’s routine. The ease with which we let people send back dishes here is intolerable. I’ll have some chutzpah here and blame the reality shows and social media in Israel.”
I’m sorry to be the one to inform you, but anyone who now comes to Pastel will be closely examining the chef with the star.
“I hope not. The picture of Pastel really isn’t Michelin-inspired. The chuchvara, the octopus, the calamari and the chicken aren’t Michelin dishes in any form. At Prism there’s an hour of little bites until you get the first course, which consists of plates of small portions. It’s not the same experience and I don’t think it can be compared.
“At Prism you pay 180 euros for a meal before wine; at Pastel not at all. [A Pastel meal will probably cost around 400 shekels ($115), including wine, and at lunchtime much less.] I’m coming to create an Israeli fine dining restaurant, but not in the Michelin sense. I compare the meal at Prism to a concert. At Pastel it’s an entirely different experience. Anyone who comes here and expects something Michelin-like; I’m sorry, he’ll be disappointed.”
You’re talking about the Israeli customer, but it seems the real plague at the moment at Israeli restaurants is the service. At Pastel there have been complaints about the bar.
“That’s really something difficult here in Israel. In that sense too Berlin is better, because there it’s a real lifelong career and here it’s a side job of beginning actresses and law students. I think that the situation at Pastel is relatively good, though there’s still a lot of work to do, and even if I have veteran waiters who’ve been working here for six or seven years, sometimes a new worker comes for whom you’re just a way station – no familiarity with the work or professional training.
“The solution apparently lies in the work conditions – give good conditions and the workers will come. But there’s no magic solution. I think that we have to keep the cooks and the waiters curious. ... It’s simply that what attracts them to work isn’t only money, but interest as well.”
Ben-Moshe’s eyes filled with tears a second time: toward the end of our interview when he spoke about his family. He and Lorenz met shortly after the sommelier got divorced. She’s a professional restaurateur and has three children from her previous marriage.
Ben-Moshe says that the day after their first date, when he woke up in her house, he knew she was the love of his life and her children were his children. ... There are 591 restaurants in the Michelin Guide, but only one sommelier is mentioned there and it’s her,” he says.
“She does such amazing and unique work. It’s hard to work together. A nightmare sometimes. But I’m falling apart from missing her. When she’s not with me I feel less sure of myself. Together we do impossible things.”
When he started at Pastel, Ben-Moshe put his plan to open a restaurant in Dubai on hold. “It’s more in the style of a wine bar and bistro. The buyer of my rights to open in Dubai is Hilton,” he says.
“The project has been delayed because they realize that I’m pretty busy at the moment. In Israel and in Dubai my localism takes on a different emotional hue than in Germany, where I’m considered exotic. When I serve a camel tartlet in Dubai to a prince from the United Arab Emirates, his eyes open in amazement. In Germany I could just as well have served crocodile.”
Can we expect you to open your own restaurant in Israel?
“Not a chance.”