A World of Good Taste

When Amit Barnoon enrolled in medical school at the Technion (Israel Institute of Technology) in Haifa, did he ever imagine he would be invited one day to Mumbai to cook up a fancy meal for Bollywood stars?

When Amit Barnoon enrolled in medical school at the Technion (Israel Institute of Technology) in Haifa, did he ever imagine he would be invited one day to Mumbai to cook up a fancy meal for Bollywood stars?

Did Avi Conforti, who studied business in Las Vegas, ever imagine he would be standing in front of a half-ton wok, wearing industrial ear plugs and protective goggles, stir-frying enough noodles for 300 people in two hours?

Shaul Ben-Aderet, who once spent his days collecting old objects at open markets and used them to build his Kimmel restaurant with his own hands, also never dreamed that one day he would be preparing fine French cuisine.

What these three chefs - who opened the East, Chimichanga, Zozobra and Kimmel restaurants - have in common is a lack of prophetic vision, and an inability to make commitments and follow a predetermined path. That's how it is when you are a self-taught chef who has not wandered the halls of Israel's Tadmor Cooking School or France's Cordon Bleu. The way stations on your winding path will be such that you will look back in pure astonishment.

Avocado in Mumbai

Barnoon recently returned from India after two exhausting weeks of cooking in the Zenzi restaurant in Mumbai. Barnoon, 40, was born in the United States and grew up in Ramat Aviv. He studied at the Alliance high school and then enrolled in the Technion's medical school. However, when he was 18, after a year and a half of living in Haifa, he realized he did not want to become a doctor, so he left. He traveled to the United States, where he studied for 18 months at Columbia, and discovered his love of cooking.

"I had begun to cook back in my apartment in Haifa, with that basic dish: stir-fried chicken livers, onions and chicken, and it only got better," he says. "When I arrived in the U.S., I was exposed to Asian cuisine and I began buying cookbooks to learn more. Now I have a huge library of cookbooks, and have tried every spice and every wok."

Barnoon completed his B.A. in the United States, returned to Israel, studied law at Tel Aviv University and even interned at a law firm, specializing in real estate law. Then he left again.

"I felt my heart wasn't in it," he says, half-apologetically. "I saw the profession from the best angle and realized it was not for me."

Barnoon, a fun-loving guy, began assisting with productions at Tel Aviv clubs like 60 Hamasger. He opened a club called Sodom and produced concerts by recording artists from overseas.

"Then I decided I wanted to open East," he says. "That's the type of food I love most: Asian with a Western wink. Street food, simple food, from fresh ingredients that don't take eight hours to prepare. I saw that it was missing here, and felt that if I love it so much, there was a chance it would turn out good."

He had already visited Thailand, toured the markets ("They're the best school"), visited restaurants and purchased a few more cookbooks. "I was constantly trying new dishes at home and improving them," he says.

He and his partner Eli Davidowitz "took our savings, and we put all our eggs in one basket. It was a risk." They began renovating a place they found near Tel Aviv's old central bus station - "I couldn't see myself opening a place on Rothschild Blvd. or in Herzliya Pituah. I always looked for a different angle."

The pair already knew they were stuck without a chef who specialized in their type of cooking. When East opened in 2001, Barnoon went into the kitchen, trained chefs and cooks and designed the menu, which he defines as "New Asian." He prepared dishes that were innovative versions of familiar recipes. East became known for its moo shu duck - duck confit with chili sauce, served with crepes, green onions and Thai basil, alongside cucumber salad and orange sections. Another popular dish is seafood gnocchi, prepared with peas and served with shrimps and calamari in a sauce made from coconut milk, red curry, chili and herbs.

About two years ago, Barnoon began a tradition of hosting chefs at East for sampling meals, cooking alongside Israel Aharoni, Nir Zook, Yaron Kestenbaum and others.

One chef who read from afar about the cooking escapades of Barnoon and his friends was Shahaf Shabtay, who oversaw the opening of the Indian branch of the Amsterdam Zenzi restaurant. He called Barnoon from Mumbai and asked about coming to Tel Aviv to cook with him.

"We clicked right away," says Barnoon. "He arrived, and it took us just 12 minutes to agree on a menu. After he left, he invited me to come to Mumbai to cook there, and I didn't hesitate for a moment."

"That city is so jam-packed and interesting that it is impossible not to come back inspired," says Barnoon. At Zenzi, he was surprised to find a large staff of chefs, and not so surprised when he found it difficult to obtain ingredients such as avocado.

"We ordered some, and a week later a few green rocks arrived," he says with a smile.

Despite the difficulties, the two managed to prepare a festive meal, with a few improvisations, for some Bollywood stars, and they enjoyed rave reviews in the local press ("which is read by millions. I've never gained such popularity," chuckles Barnoon).

Over the past few months, this former lawyer has been drafting a plan for a new bar that will serve only raw foods, with an adjacent restaurant. "I believe in foods whose flavors are not masked, but are rather served naturally with a light twist," he explains.

No preconceived ideas

Another person who knows a thing or two about twists is Conforti, an energetic chef and a partner in the Chimichanga, Zozobra and Moses restaurants. Conforti sits at the bar at Chimichanga, and it's hard to keep up with him. He is talking to this journalist, his staff and suppliers; sampling things, such as a new kind of sprouts grown especially for Chimichanga ("NIS 20 a container, a real fortune"); choosing which mineral water will be served; running to the kitchen to oversee the dishes being prepared; and giving orders to the bar.

Conforti is truly frenetic and admits he has a short fuse. He is 38, married with three children and grew up in Holon, where he focused on literature in high school ("simply because I was not good at math"). After serving in the Israel Defense Forces' education corps and playing in an industrial music band, he began studying business administration in Israel. This was not "intense" enough for him, so he went to Switzerland to learn hotel management. The approach there, however, was "antique," focusing on napkin folding and how to pull the cork from a wine bottle. Conforti soon left.

He was first exposed to fine foods as a waiter at the Hilton hotel, after which he worked preparing desserts at another restaurant, after demonstrating the original assembly of a lemon parfait with pureed peaches accented with mint extract. "I was always interested in very precise cooking that comes right from the heart. I worked with a lot of books, studying everything I could lay my hands on."

Soon there was a great demand for Conforti's skills as a dessert chef at restaurants in Tel Aviv, but he wanted to learn more. He went to the United States, where he transferred to the University of Nevada in Las Vegas after one semester at New York University.

Thus began what Conforti describes as "four amazing years," during which he met his wife, saw the meticulous and varied kitchens of Santa Fe and ate in restaurants in which a "glass of tequila costs $80." After completing his studies, Conforti and his wife managed a hotel in Chicago, but the winter climate convinced them to return to Israel.

Conforti soon met up with Yoram Yirzin, a former classmate from Las Vegas who had just opened Birenbaum & Mandelbaum, with the help of a group of investors. He cooked a Santa Fe-style sample meal for the group at Birenbaum & Mandelbaum, which led to the drafting of the first menu for Chimichanga; Conforti was brought in as a menu designer, cook and partner. They surfed the Internet and discovered that some 50 mail-order businesses had sprung up that year (1996) selling Mexican-style sauces and foods.

"It looked like an interesting idea," says Conforti.

He set up a production line in a kitchen with a really hot Aztec grill and trained a team of workers "who had never worked in a kitchen, so that they would have no preconceived ideas."

The beginning was difficult. "The food was too spicy," recalls Conforti. "The menu was fine for individual portions, but not for a production line. The workers were constantly cutting themselves, and we didn't have enough output. Within a few months, we learned a lot and began to improve."

Conforti describes himself as someone who "goes to an interesting restaurant in the Far East or the U.S. and orders everything on the menu." If he eats as fast as he talks, he can be believed.

Six years after founding Chimichanga, Conforti again wanted to start something new.

"I saw Wagamama in London and Penny's [Noodle Shop] in Chicago and wanted a restaurant like them: simple, healthy and not expensive, a green restaurant with a message."

Conforti and his partner, Yael Arenstein-Uri, who worked with him at Chimichanga, opened Zozobra in Herzliya. There, too, the beginning was not easy.

"We had no workers. We wanted to import foreign workers who knew how to cook, but we couldn't get permits. We went into the kitchen with protective goggles and ear plugs against the noise of the stir-frying and the heat, and spent a few months feeding hundreds of people a day."

Thus, the hotelier found himself on the production line, until staff could be trained and things at the restaurant settled down. Conforti is again designing menus for new restaurants, such as at Moses, which also belongs to Yirzin's group.

"I love food and restaurants. They are my life, but where I'll be in another few years, I have no idea," says Conforti, shrugging his shoulders and most likely mulling more ideas for the future.

Rabbits, too

Unlike Barnoon and Conforti, Ben-Aderet is an island of stability in the constantly changing world of fashion-conscious restaurants. Early in the morning, he is dressed in work clothes that do not reveal his profession. He looks more like a farmer coming in from the fields than a chef who has toiled over veal fillets and goose liver, or prepared chicken liver pate with calvados.

Ben-Aderet spends at least four hours a day in the kitchen - and would be there even more if he could. His Kimmel restaurant has been open for 12 years, and Ben-Aderet proudly says not a single detail of the interior design has been changed - not the concrete floors and not the spotlights. Ben-Aderet wants a village-style bistro with a vegetable bar, pendulum wall clocks and green wine glasses.

Ben-Aderet, 40, focused on mechanics in high school. After completing his army service, he opened the Chacha pub in Ramat Hasharon, "which began the stand-up entrepreneur and big club culture." He has loved cooking since childhood, spending many hours with his grandmother and learning much kitchen wisdom: how to check rice and fry eggplant.

"I think it was then that I learned to view the kitchen as a source of adventure and creativity," he says.

He also cooked from recipe books, "adding and missing out a thing or two." At Chacha, Ben-Aderet was in charge of the kitchen, among other things, and began providing catering services for small affairs, preparing "whatever people wanted to eat."

He says he was always experimenting with menus, and dreamed of opening a rural French restaurant "that would not change and would not be subject to fashion." He visited such bistros in France only after opening his restaurant, and found he had "nothing to be ashamed of." He also has well-formed opinions of cooking.

"You can see who knows how to cook and who doesn't," he says, "and it doesn't matter where you learned how. Either you have it, or you don't. Chefs come to me from all sorts of culinary schools, and now I can tell within half an hour who knows his trade."

Twelve years ago, Ben-Aderet's wife was walking near the Shalom Tower in Tel Aviv when her eye caught a building set slightly back from the road. Ben-Aderet started building Kimmel from scratch, bringing in furniture, plastering and painting, putting up the vegetable bar and constructing the kitchen.

"I wanted a restaurant that would radiate luxury," he says. "I put together a clear menu that interested me. Even though Israelis are set on entrecote and other beef cuts, I insisted on serving rabbit, too, for example."

As the calmest and most stable of the self-taught cooks, Ben-Aderet sees himself eventually handing over Kimmel to his sons.

"The oldest is 9 and visits the kitchen," says Ben-Aderet, noting that it is already clear that no matter what his son decides to do, in keeping with the family tradition, with cooking, experiencing is the best way to learn.