PBS Proudly Presents: Israeli Cuisine on the American Screen

Celebrity chef Michael Solomonov and seasoned filmmaker Roger Sherman have teamed up to produce a TV series exploring the country through its food.

Even for a veteran filmmaker whose widely praised documentaries have explored subjects as diverse as the O.J. Simpson trial, the classic American Chevrolet, the Kennedy assassination and the life of Broadway musical giant Richard Rodgers, this could be considered a rather unlikely topic.

And that might explain why Roger Sherman tends to bubble over with excitement when you get him talking about his latest project: a four-part special on Israeli cuisine scheduled to be broadcast across the United States on Public Broadcasting Service affiliated channels in 2014.

Make no mistakes about, cautions Sherman − it’s not what you think. “This is not going to be a cooking show and it’s not going to be a food show,” he says, as he sits down for a break during a recent jam-packed pre-production trip to Israel. “What I’m doing is looking at this country through the lens of food. It’s going to be part travelogue, part biblical history and part food tour.”

In the series, which will be divided into four 30-minute segments, Sherman will follow Israeli-American celebrity chef Michael Solomonov, crisscrossing Israel with him, as they search out ethnic, immigrant and regional specialties. During their journey, says Sherman, they will sample dishes at Tel Aviv’s most exclusive eateries, nibble at street food in backwater holes, and enter the kitchens of Israelis from all walks of life to discover what’s simmering in their pots.

Solomonov, the chef and owner of Philadelphia’s widely acclaimed Zahav restaurant, was born in Israel but grew up in the United States. His deep ties to both places, says Sherman, made him the perfect candidate to partner with on such a project. “He’s of both countries and both worlds − he can talk to the people in Israel in their own language but then also interpret it for American audiences.”

PBS, which has already broadcast several of Sherman’s documentaries, has committed to run the series once it is completed, but in line with its standard practices, the public broadcaster requires that filmmakers come up with their own funding for projects. Part of Sherman’s recent visit to Israel was therefore devoted to trying to interest government institutions and Israeli food companies in providing sponsorship for the series, which he says could reach 20 million viewers through PBS’s 240 affiliate stations across the United States. He also recently held what he described as a successful fundraiser in New York.

As with most of his films, Sherman will serve as the producer, director and cinematographer on this one as well. His documentaries, which have won an Emmy, a Peabody and two Academy Award nominations, are produced and distributed through Florentine Films, a company he founded with his old college roommate, Ken Burns − one of America’s best known and most successful documentary filmmakers, whose iconic film “The Civil War” was seen by 40 million viewers when it was first broadcast on PBS in 1990. Sherman’s own repertoire includes more than 15 documentaries on themes of art, music, history, science, social issues and the environment. He has also written a practical guide for making home videos.

Although born Jewish, Sherman says that until recent years he had “zero interest” in Israel and only joined a congregation for the first time six years ago. “For me, Israel was Sunday school and myths, definitely not on my Top 10 list.”

But then three years ago, his good friend Joan Nathan, the celebrated Jewish cookbook author, was leading a food tour to Israel and invited him at the last moment to tag along after another participant suddenly dropped out. Sherman had already developed a keen interest in food, thanks to his wife, Dorothy Kalins, an award-winning magazine editor who founded Saveur, a publication that specializes in essays about world cuisines.

Smitten with Israel

He was well into his fifties when he first set foot in Israel and was smitten at first sight. “I was absolutely knocked out,” he recalls. “I couldn’t believe this place − the history, the beauty, the food. I had known that it’s about the same size as New Jersey, but that’s completely misleading. There’s so much complexity, so much going on here on so many different levels, the geography that encompasses so many different climates. What really interested me was that the U.S. has been called a melting pot for years, but Israel is a melting pot as much as the U.S. ever was.”

It was then that he came up with the idea of shining a light on the country by exploring its culinary diversity. As he began striking up conversations on the food tour with many of those immigrants who were part of the melting pot, he learned something even more intriguing. “For many of them, food may be one of the few happy memories they brought with them from other places.”

Sherman says he’s particularly intrigued by how many young up-and-coming Israeli chefs are taking their grandmother’s recipes and reconfiguring them today with a modern twist, including recipes for dishes that in the past they would have been ashamed to eat publicly for fear of giving away their ethnic roots.

Is Israeli cuisine really a subject that could interest millions in the American heartland? Absolutely, says Sherman, who plans to return here in September to begin shooting the series. “Most Americans are shocked to learn that Israel is one of the hottest food countries in the world,” he says. “They’re also shocked when you tell them that Israel has 250 boutique wineries. What I’m going to be telling is a different kind of story about Israel − not the story you typically see on the news. This one’s going to be a story about the merging of different cultures, a story about preserving heritage and a story about immigration. Where else in the world do you have a place this tiny with so many different food traditions?”

And if it helps improve Israel’s image abroad, he adds, all the better. “It’s definitely not my intention to make this into a commercial for Israel, but if this helps the country look better to the outside world, that’s a great side benefit.”

Kelley King