Wandering Chef

'As a matter of fact, I've always cooked organic food,' says chef Kamal Albaz with a smile. The Muslim Moroccan chef, from Jerusalem's Zmora Organic restaurant, has been living in Israel for 10 years.

The meeting with chef Kamal Albaz takes place at noontime on the last day of Ramadan. Albaz says he is already used to it, noting that the fast will end at 5:20 and that he has been doing this ever since he could decide for himself. Nevertheless, his lips are dry and from time to time he has a bit of difficulty, especially at this hour of the day when lunch is served.

Here is a typically Jerusalemite concatenation: Albaz is a Moroccan Muslim chef, not devout, but someone who does take care to observe religious strictures, who cooks organic Moroccan food at the Zmora Organic food establishment. Zmora Organic, in the capital's Talpiot industrial zone, is across from the Sam Spiegel Film School and the Nissan Nativ acting school, both of whose students have become regular clients of the establishment. This is Albaz's 10th year in Israel, a stay that he says has turned him into "a classical immigrant like all the Moroccans." When he visits Morocco now, he feels like a stranger, and in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Safafa, where he lives, he is considered an alien. As for his dishes, he says, there is already demand for them in Europe as well.

From the East to the Weizmann Institute

Albaz, 38, was born and raised in Marrakech. His mother is a nurse and his father a hospital director, and his three brothers are all working in the health field as well. His mother tongue is French, and in addition to colloquial Arabic and English he also speaks fluent Hebrew. He is a graduate of the agriculture faculty at Cadi Ayyad University in Marrakech, and has served as an advisor to crop growers; among other things, he has engaged in testing plant varieties and has instructed farmers in their attempts to develop new strains of fruit and vegetables.

In 1998, a friend of his father's named Haj Duminati, a member of the Moroccan parliament, suggested to Khamal that he participate in a course for agriculturalists organized in Rehovot by Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The course's aim was to export knowledge to various countries so they would, among other things, become clients for Israeli products. Albaz, who was looking for a change and an adventure, agreed immediately. "I was on a trip in the East, my father told me about the course and within a few days I was in Rehovot, at the Weizmann Institute. My mother was against it and she was afraid. To this day she thinks that Israel is not a tranquil place," he notes diplomatically.

To Albaz, though, Israel seemed very attractive at the time: "Those were the years of the vision of the new Middle East," he explains. "I could go anywhere: One day I was in the north of the country, the next day in Ramallah, and after that in Jerusalem. Israel seemed to me like an international country and I thought that it was a good place to live."

A friend that he met at the course introduced him to his cousin, an Arab woman from East Jerusalem, and within three months the two had married. "My mother came for the wedding and already then it was clear to her that I would not be coming back to Morocco so fast." The couple settled in Beit Safafa and a daughter was born to them. Today she is 6 years old.

In Jaffa they were suspicious

"I've always cooked at home," relates Albaz. "I had an affinity for the kitchen and spent a lot of time there. In Morocco this isn't unusual. I would see my mother cooking and apparently I absorbed the basics."

He started to work at restaurants in the Jerusalem area, first as a utility man, who did everything, but then quickly moving into the kitchen. After a year of that, Albaz accepted an offer to join with a partner in opening a restaurant at the Dead Sea. They called it Hamsa. "We set up the restaurant from zero, it worked well, but I didn't get along with my partner and I left," he relates.

Next, Albaz was hired at the prestigious Jerusalem restaurant Darna, known for its gourmet Moroccan cuisine. He stayed there seven years. He specialized in the presentation of tagines, couscous and pastilles and above all came to know the Israeli taste in Moroccan food.

"Moroccan cooking in Israel is a cuisine in which time has stood still," he says. "Everywhere in the world cuisines are already mingling and absorbing different influences. I see this when I visit Morocco. In Israel Moroccan cooking is like any ethnic food: It has to remind the diners of home and therefore it is not very up to date, to put it mildly."

In the meantime, things have changed. With the bursting of the vision of the new Middle East, visits to Ramallah and East Jerusalem have been curtailed, as has the tolerance for a Moroccan Muslim citizen who wants specifically to settle in Israel. "I wanted to open a restaurant in Old Jaffa," relates Albaz, "but they were suspicious of me and they didn't understand why I wanted to open there in particular, and the negotiations were not successful. I visited Morocco and I understood that I was moving away from it. The cities and their environs have become the old age homes of Europe ever since the euro came in. An elderly population is buying up houses cheaply, together with the servants. For the price of a studio apartment in Paris, they can buy a five-room house and sunshine all year around. Conversely, there are a lot of tourists coming to Morocco, and that apparently is not bad for the economy."

A sprayer who repented

During the period he was roaming between traditional Moroccan cookery and trips to Morocco, a neighbor introduced him to Bezalel Zmora, a former farmer and the proprietor of the Zmora chain of organic-food shops in Jerusalem. (The chain has branches in Giv'at Shaul, the German Colony and Talpiot.) Zmora was an average sort of farmer, a heavy sprayer of pesticides, until he repented. Now he is marketing products that are "as clean as possible," as he puts it. "In my storehouse there were substances with which I could have poisoned all of Jerusalem," he says. "Only I know how much the sprays penetrate the vegetables and fruits."

When he met Albaz, Zmora needed no more than a few minutes to realize that he wanted to employ the Moroccan cook, who was looking for change and something new. For his part, Albaz says with a smile: "I've always cooked organic food. In Morocco most of the crops are organic and only seasonal. No one gets around to spraying. The fruit and vegetables are grown by farmers on their plots and they sell them in the markets. Most of them don't have the land or the money to maintain modern agriculture. So you go to the market and you buy everything organic, because there isn't anything else.

"But I do admit that since I met Bezalel I have been more scrupulous and there are things that I will not bring into the house, like soup powder, food colors or margarine," he adds. "I don't fry anything and I have realized that it is possible to get along without a microwave, even when there is a small child. My wife, however, continues to fry, because it is part of Arab cuisine. She doesn't understand my scruples."

Zmora wanted to make the Talpiot shop "more user-friendly," as he says. He was also enchanted by the idea of opening a place that would serve as a workers' or students' restaurant. At the Talpiot branch there is a small bar and a few tables, and on nice days people also sit outdoors, right opposite a complex belonging to the Labor Ministry. There Albaz cooks a menu of organic couscous and vegetables alongside dishes of pesto and tahina. He bakes pastilles from soft leaves of whole wheat flour dough and fills them with cheeses and stir-fried vegetables. He bakes farina, a tasty Moroccan bread made from whole wheat flour ("ordinary flour, you mean," he jokes), serves spiced salads of all sorts and for dessert prepares delicious semolina cakes and cookies. "I think that in the near future I'll be adding vegetarian tagines and fish tagines to the menu and I will bring new spices back from Morocco, ones I'm not used to working with," he says.

He is still considering doing business in Morocco and not only there, and is well aware of his complex situation: "It's clear to me that I have been condemned to the life of an immigrant, and like every immigrant I don't know where I am going to be a few years from now," he says, "but combinations of different kinds of cooking can always go with me."