Guillaume Gomez is a denizen of social media networks, and if you follow him, you’d have seen his robust, smiling face in Senegal, Niger and Tunisia in the past few days. On Saturday night he posted a classic beauty shot of the Elysee Palace shining at night, flags unfurled, alongside the message “Back home!”
But only a few hours later, early Sunday, he posted a picture of his deep blue French passport (“Again #FlyingChef”) followed a few hours later by the archetypical shot of Tel Aviv’s long beach snaking towards Jaffa, captioned “Back in Tel Aviv... Again #chefelysee #chefconnected #flyingchef #guillaumegomez.”
So French So Food, the sixth annual festival of French gastronomy, got underway Monday of last week in six Israeli cities, and Guillaume Gomez, 39, executive chef of the Élysée Palace, was itching to start.
The idea, for him, as for Ambassador Helene Le Gal, was to transform food into a vehicle for cultural exchange, communication among social strata and even, if things went well, a change of luck.
Back home at the Elysee, where he has worked for 21 years, holding the top job since 2013, he commands a small brigade of 28 chefs who manage everything from the daily meals of President Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte (who are scheduled to visit Israel later this year), to major state occasions in which hundreds of VIPs are served a formal dinner.
When he is on foreign ambassadorial jaunts, he describes his job as “vehiculer la gastonomie,” imbuing gastronomy with the ability to affect people beyond what is resting on their plate.
Gomez, who commenced his culinary education in a Parisian kitchen at the age of 14, is a disciplined man. He blankly refuses to discuss a single detail of his work in the palace. He was recognized for the excellence of his craft with a Meilleur Ouvrier de France award at age 25.
The grandson of Spanish immigrants, he is impatient with fusty notions of the purity of French ingredients, or even methods. “This is not about including Moroccan spices in some classic dish. A 70-year-old chef can quibble and cook with butter and cream and that is fine, but what are we even talking about here? Without globalization we have no chocolate. We have no coffee. You have no black pepper. No corn, no potatoes, no tomatoes. Come on! Without globalization you don’t have access to items we consider a central part of the French kitchen.”
Globalization, or worldliness, is what makes a chef a chef, he says. “You bring with you to the stove top your own terroir, your own history, who your grandmother is, where you grew up. You learn the techniques, but you bring to it your own history. That’s what makes a kitchen, and it’s the future.”
This year, 18 French chefs spent three days cooking in Israel’s finest restaurants from Tiberias to Be’er Sheva, offering the Israeli public a taste of France around the corner from home.
The treat did not come cheap, a notion not lost on Ambassador Le Gal, who could pass for a local when she pointed out that, forget a trip to Paris, “These best restaurants are not necessarily accessible to everyone.”
As part of the festival’s outreach, master classes costing only 70 shekels were open to the public at large at the Sheraton Tel Aviv, with recipes posted free online. Students at the Bishulim and Rimonim cooking schools received tutorials from visiting chefs.
Gomez himself, who was in charge of the meal at the French Consulate of Jerusalem on Wednesday night, not only hung out in restaurants others dream of. He assigned himself, alongside Dan Aboukheir, chef at the ambassador’s residence, the job of teaching a private masterclass to adolescents from Beit Dror, a shelter for LGBTQ kids who were kicked out of their homes, in the hope that “the unique and liberating group experience provides the possibility of an opening to a new culture,” according to Le Gal.
And in the hope a bit of fairy dust might grace the event, Gomez and Aboukheir also hosted a private cooking lesson for a group of women from Saleet, an organization that helps former prostitutes reestablish themselves outside of the cycle of sex work. They prepared a meal and then served it, making themselves visible to a guest list of the sort that possibly, with luck, may have been interested in hiring individuals who know how to cook and serve and were looking for a new direction in life.
The embassy was also promoting another sort of French import: “Artisans Charcutiers,” a superb Jerusalem-based artisanal charcuterie owned and operated by new immigrant Elie Zenou, in which all products are made using natural, traditional methods “without sugar, gluten or preservatives.” In addition, the Shufersal chain of supermarkets offered French products imported specially to accompany the festival.
“Maybe gastronomy and cuisine can create a nexus with something that appears inaccessible,” said Le Gal, who received both groups in her own home. “The embassy can feel shut away from most people, but it can also open itself up and offer people contact with a common language that is also a language of excellence, of achievement.”
“Many subjects divide us,” Gomez said, alluding not only to people down on their luck but also to a world asunder, “but the table brings us together. That is it. The table reunites us.”