Gastrostars and the Upper Crust

Israel's rich and famous are shelling out oodles of shekels to bring in the culinary elite to cook for their bar mitzvahs and other affairs

About a month ago, businessman Moshe Bublil celebrated his son's bar mitzvah at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds with 2,000 of his closest friends and family. The highlight of the event was the food, prepared by some of Israel's most prominent chefs, including Haim Cohen, Victor Gloger, Mika Sharon, Roi Sofer and Dokhol Safadi. Each chef worked with his assistants at cooking stations on two courses that matched the theme of "an Israeli evening." They each received NIS 10,000 to 40,000 for their efforts, not including the cost of the actual ingredients.

Izhar Shkedi

The phenomenon of top chefs literally catering to Israelis who can afford it, has recently been widening. A bar mitzvah? In-law's birthday? Special wedding anniversary? For the right amount, most chefs in Israel will leave their restaurant, find a crew and come to the foot of Masada. In the last year, many of Israel's well-to-do stopped holding modest events at home or in the yard, instead arranging extravagant affairs with well-known chefs.

But what could pull a busy chef out of his kitchen to some makeshift location to cook for thousands of the well-off and well-connected?

According to Aviv Moshe, who works the kitchen at Messa in Tel Aviv, it's not only about the shekels.

"When I agree to come to an event I do so to diversify and get out of the routine. At an event, there is a possibility of cooking complex dishes, in a different way, in smaller portions, using less commercial methods. At an event, there is a slower pace that appeals to me. In other words, cooking at a private party can be interesting from a professional perspective. Beyond that, an event at which the plate is the focus of attention is the aspiration of every chef."

Moshe says he won't cook for just any party, though.

"I accept invitations with great care," he says. "I work for those with whom I have a connection. Customers at my restaurant tell me about their lives and when they ask me to cook for them, I come. There are some who come with a budget and says 'let loose.' I don't want to let loose. I think it's important to be restrained and not overdo it. You don't have to exaggerate. I am preparing food and not creating a work of art. It's not a painting by Picasso."

One of the events that Moshe cooked at was the birthday of actor Kirk Douglas at the Tower of David Museum in Jerusalem. "It was certainly a challenging event, very different from my usual routine as a chef and of course, he attracted attention, which helped me at the time," he recalls.

Moshe says events outside the restaurant triple or quadruple the cost of a meal, to about 1,000 shekels per person.

Making exceptions

In order to invite a chef to a private affair, it is not enough to have deep pockets. It is advisable for the chef to be familiar with the celebrants. Gloger of Chloely's, in Ramat Gan, for example, sets three conditions: The event must be "interesting" to him and his bank account, and the people have to be nice.

"There are many exceptions," he says, citing a religious customer who asked him to cook for a bar mitzvah on Shabbat.

"I said I don't cook kosher, and he said: 'Learn how, I have faith in you.' That was a challenge: we prepared most of the dishes before Shabbat started and we used all kinds of methods to heat them up."

"Of course, financially, the compensation has to be worthwhile," he adds. "When I cook for a private party, I invest a lot in it, a staff comes with me and we cook for around 100 people. It is a more complicated affair than a night in the restaurant, and it costs four times as much. I always have a relationship with those hiring me. They ask and I set a price and they don't bargain."

Gloger's price is around 1,000 shekels per person, not including beverages, and he refuses to leave his restaurant on Friday nights.

"The market is loaded with chefs; my main business is cooking in the restaurant. That's why I don't do events every week, only on the basis of personal acquaintance," he says. "Last year demand for private events increased a lot. Perhaps people recovered from the financial crisis, or people feel more comfortable arranging flashy affairs."

Sometimes celebrants don't make do with the chef himself and want the whole restaurant brought to their party. Nitzan Raz, the chef at SushiSamba's Tel Aviv branch, says he recently recreated a model of his restaurant at a wedding.

"They asked us to set up the place like the restaurant, bring our DJ and the entire menu of the restaurant. It increased the cost to around 1,000 shekels a person," he said.

Boaz Tsairi of the Sakura Restaurant in Tel Aviv sets up sushi bars at private parties. "It is hard work that helps me run the restaurant as an extension of sorts," he says.

Another indicator of the growing demand for chefs in recent months is the change in direction of chef Mika Sharon, who recently sold the Libra Restaurant in Tel Aviv and chose to focus on catering private parties.

"A chef who left a restaurant in order to cook at an event is compensated appropriately," she says. "Guests at the event see them cooking and that is of immeasurable value."

Chef Yaron Schnabel also has focused his career on cooking at private events. Schnabel, a former security agent, traveled as part of his job to the United States and there he decided to switch direction. He studied at the French Culinary Institute in New York and apprenticed with chefs such as Daniel Boulud. Since returning to Israel, he has been working at private parties and fundraisers.

Sometimes there is collaboration between a leading chef and a catering company, Meir Adoni of Katit Restaurant in Tel Aviv says. "Clients at my restaurant who are hosting an affair ask me to work with a catering company," he says. "Most catering companies after the recession have a hard time arranging a gourmet event on the level of Katit and Mul Yam. The number of guests is small, maintenance costs are high. Catering companies also prefer not to change things in the system and instead attach a chef, at each event. The client pays gladly, certainly if it's a chef he knows."

Adoni says it's hard for him to turn down work at these events. "The cost can reach around 2,000 shekels per person; I order the raw materials I prefer: premium lamb chops, caviar from abroad, liquid nitrogen for molecular dishes. I choose the menu and cook for my acquaintance. So how can I turn down an offer like that which also brings in money for the restaurant?"