Over Seasoned and Underappreciated

Israeli cooks travel the world to train with masters and keep sharp on the culinary scene, but is it all wasted on diners who still prefer steak and fries?

A pile of potatoes for peeling could be considered a punishment in one place and a prize in an another. If you are a soldier and the hill o' spuds is waiting for you - presumably you'll try anything to get out out of it.

But if you are a chef and the mountain awaits you at the Noma restaurant in Copenhagen or at The Fat Duck near London, you will assault it with pleasure.

It all boils down to geography, a fact exemplified in Israeli chefs' increasing appetite to study and train abroad.

Last year this was a sweeping phenomenon: No sooner would a restaurant get a Michelin star or a gushing headline in a prestigious magazine than a globetrotting Israeli chef would be on the next plane to train there.

But is the obsession with learning from foreign masters necessary given the standards of the Israeli table?

Last April a mineral water company conducted an international survey among restaurant critics and top figures in the industry in which chef Rene Redzepi's Noma in Copenhagen was ranked as the best restaurant in the world, above El Bulli in Spain and The Fat Duck.

Although this wasn't the Michelin rating system, the survey aroused great interest and cast a spotlight on the small Danish restaurant in which there are just 40 seats and a chef who prefers wild local herbs to familiar ingredients from classical cuisine.

Immediately after the ranking Israel chefs made a mad rush on Noma: Meir Adoni from Catit in Tel Aviv has already presented himself there and David Frankel (Carpaccio Bar in Tel Aviv ) is now training there. More Israeli chefs are waiting in line.

Israeli chefs are frequent travelers: First they study abroad in a series of outstanding cooking schools, then they return to Israel but continue their education by traveling the globe to chase after culinary innovations.

A self-respecting Israeli chef will travel abroad at least once a year. Adoni, for example, studied cooking at the Cordon Bleu in Australia and at Lenotre in Paris and since he opened Catit he has trained at the Arzac Restaurant, which has three Michelin stars and at Alinea in Chicago, which in addition to other awards was chosen as the best U.S. eatery by Restaurant magazine this year.

"Further training adds a lot, it's impossible without it," says Adoni. "You don't only learn new uses for ingredients or new techniques, you also learn how to run a kitchen and run shifts. It's true you can't apply everything in Israel, because here there is less of a clientele and people don't make reservations three months in advance. My situation is relatively good, because at Catit there is a super kitchen and in it I can translate innovative dishes and cooking techniques. At Noma, for example, I learned how to make a marshmallow from forest mushrooms, and stuffed with fish."

Part of the wide world

The culinary curiosity between Israel and the rest of the world works both ways. Chef Yair Feinberg, who has worked at great restaurants in France, has hosted foreign chefs in Israel and in return he has sent Israeli chefs for training. For example, he took Thierry Marx, the Cordon Blue chef from Bordeaux, on tours of outdoor markets in Israel.

According to Feinberg, "Israeli trainees and interns have a very good reputation abroad. They are industrious, curious and fast learners. An Israeli who trains abroad invests a lot. The Israelis also don't give up - they send emails to restaurant owners, they call and they insist on training - even if the only opening is in a year and a half."

Even if Israelis will always choose steak and fries off the menu, in Feinberg's opinion the training periods are essential for professional development.

"You learn techniques and management methods you don't know when you will use - even if it is impossible to directly translate the training to the Israeli kitchen," he says.

Gastronome Hanna Gur, the publisher of the food magazine Al Hashulhan, hosts groups of food writers from all over the world in Israel. She has long followed the connections developing between Israeli chefs and cooks and their colleagues abroad.

"Israelis have to be the most up to date in every area, including food, perhaps because we have to feel part of the big world," she says. "One of my friends, a New York restaurateur, says that when he wants to catch up with what is happening in the world - he comes to Israel."

According to Gur, the current focus of culinary interest - as in the field of design - is Scandinavia. "After France and New York, which will always attract people to come and train, the spearhead is unusual and path-breaking Scandinavian restaurants," she says.

An Israeli chef sees many advantages in training abroad: a break from intensive everyday work, a trip that can be written off for tax purposes and an attempt to stay in touch with what is happening in the world. But is there a clientele in Israel that will be able to reap the fruits of excursions abroad?

"Clearly it's impossible to translate everything you learn abroad into a kitchen in Israel, but you can try," says Kobi Bendalak, the proprietor of Mirabel Catering, with Ofer Almaliah. "Abroad you understand how a very high-level kitchen works, what the role of a chef is. Because we have a catering company and not a restaurant, we have fewer constraints and more freedom in our ingredients. We were at Marc Haeberlin's restaurant in Alsace. He loves to host Israeli chefs. He has 60 years of experience and three Michelin stars and he combines classicism with modern touches to create intelligent food. My partner Ofer Almaliah has studied with Marc Veyrat, whose attitude toward food is total, and he specializes on wild herbs."

"Now we are trying to make contact with Heston Blumenthal in England and Thomas Keller in the United States," he adds. "Training is essential, it airs you out and it causes you to think outside the box. There is always a place for it."

Another caterer, chef Shani Prusman of Scarlet has already trained with Blumenthal at The Fat Duck as well as at Alinea in Chicago.

"I was enchanted mainly by the size," recalls Prusman of the work at the Fat Duck. "How from a miniature place like that comes food that fascinates the culinary world. Blumenthal is an endless experimenter. You can always learn from him - even if in Israel you can't obtain all the tools he obtains for his restaurant."

She calls Alinea a well-oiled machine. "You learn work methods. The restaurant made a tremendous impression on me, especially in this area - and everything is conducted in total quiet," she says. "There are 50 workers there for 50 diners. Clearly in Israel we will not be able to reach that kind of thing. But to go and see? You have to."