Celery Sorbet? That's Just for Starters

Leading Tel Aviv chef Eran Shroitman's ambitious dishes are a combination of French training and Levantine daring. Not bad for a former art student.

Eggplant cappuccino - this is the dish that has wandered with Eran Shroitman as he moved from restaurant to restaurant, when he was cooking on Primus stoves or offering an avant-garde menu, when preparing a repast in Jerusalem or laboring in the kitchen in Tel Aviv. Shroitman - 36, a graduate of the art department at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, who studied and taught at the prestigious Cordon Bleu school of culinary arts in Paris and is currently the chef of the Orca restaurant on Nahalat Binyamin Street in Tel Aviv - cooks an airy soup of eggplant that has met up with a bit of caramel, and serves it in a tall martini glass with a lot of foam. In the May issue of the popular American magazine Wallpaper, his dish was included in an article on "Neo-Levantine Cooking." In the issue of the Conde Nast publication Traveler from that same month, his cuisine was defined as "a compelling menu of Euro-Levantine dishes that impresses from the start."

If we add to this the 15 out of 20 points that Shroitman received from the "Gomio" food guide two years ago, when he was working at the Tammuz restaurant - it could be said cautiously that ambition pays off: He has contributed to putting Tel Aviv restaurants on the international food map. According to Shroitman, who defines his kitchen experience simply as "work with ingredients," what he does can't really be learned: "Either you have it or you don't," he says.

Contrary to the image of a chef, Shroitmen is very thin, tall and tense. He does not spend long hours at the restaurant and he does not like to be photographed - especially for cooking programs. When he studied at Bezalel, he liked to combine materials, "but I never saw myself as an artist," he says. "The artist's dialogue with himself didn't suit me, nor did the rummaging in the depths of the psyche. I was too intellectual and rational."

After completing his studies at Bezalel he registered for a master's degree in philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. At that time he was working as a waiter at Eyal Shani's restaurant Oceanus in Jerusalem, and he asked for an opportunity to stop waiting tables to help with the cooking. The months of work that he experienced in Shani's kitchen changed his life. He canceled his registration for the philosophy department and registered at the Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris for a basic 10-week course.

"I only had the money for one course," he explains. "When you look at it from the outside, the way the studies are conducted looks funny: The classes are in French, with a simultaneous translator shouting in English, with quite a few mistakes. I enjoyed the studies, but I didn't think I would become a chef. When the post of an assistant opened in the course, I was appointed as the assistant to the head chef at the school, with whom I had a chemistry from the very beginning."

Shroitman worked at Cordon Bleu for six months and received a scholarship for an advanced course in traditional cuisine, "which I didn't especially like." At the end of the course he went on to an internship at the L'Arpege restaurant in Paris where, he says, he realized what the life of a full-time slave is. "I worked around the clock, without pay, as is the custom, from 7 A.M. to 1 A.M. In an internship, in the best case, they don't relate to the intern at all. In the worst case they whack him on the bottom with a towel and make him wash dishes in boiling water. This is not a delightful experience, but I had to do this to know the workings of that monster - a restaurant that gets three stars in the Michelin guide."

From there Shroitman went on to an internship at Le Presbytere restaurant in Perigueux, where he worked for eight months, "from morning till night, seven days a week. I cooked classic French cuisine, without seeing people at all," he recalls.

Shroitman could have isolated himself in France for much longer, had the owners of the Tammuz restaurant in Tel Aviv (one of them a Bezalel graduate) not contacted him and offered him the position of chef at the new place. Shroitman leapt at the opportunity to return to Israel. At the restaurant in Neveh Zedek he served as the chef for three years. According to him, he "appealed to the palate more through the mind and less through the heart," and mainly attracted attention and earned good reviews.

Right at the beginning of the recession, he opened a restaurant of his own called Primus in the area of the bourse in Ramat Gan. In three huge cauldrons on Primus stoves he prepared hamin (a Sabbath dish traditional to eastern Jewry, akin to the Ashkenazi cholent, which cooks for many hours at a very low heat) and other slow-cooked casserole dishes. The dish in which he invested the most time was hamin, which cooked for 40 hours. At Primus, he was the entrepreneur, the manager and the cook - and he also dealt with the suppliers.

After one year, like every beginning entrepreneur, "I dreamed that an investor would come along and take me under his wing," he says with a smile. When they asked him to cook at Orca, he closed Primus and within two weeks reported to concoct dishes like the appetizer celery sorbet.

Between the Tammuz period and the Primus period, Shroitman found time to get married and succeeded, as he says, to find a balance between his kitchen and his family, and also between the traditional and demanding kitchen, and the avant-garde kitchen. At Orca, he prepares 30 dishes, the price of which is no more than NIS 40. The long and well-lit bar, on which the food is served, is light-years away from the heavy French tradition.

These are not the only characteristics of the restaurant that do not square with the French tradition in which he was trained. Shroitman, who begins his work day at the restaurant only after a long ride on a sports bike, relates that when he introduces a new dish to the menu, he cooks it and serves it to the clientele even before he has tasted it. Sometimes months go by before he bothers to eat it himself. Although this is not the pedantic tradition, he says, "This is the way things come out best" - at least in the Tel Aviv version.