Chefs Turn Out, Oldsters Dine Like Stars

A catering company celebrates Israel's birthday by cooking for the elderly in Jaffa.

It's lunchtime at the Golden Age club for the elderly on Jaffa's Ficus Street, and chefs Eyal Lavi and Amir Ilan, together with Schultz Catering, are preparing food for Tel Aviv's veteran residents. "Who wants another helping of paella and fish? Who wants a sloppy joe?" they shout. Participation in the project, undertaken as part of Israel's celebration of its 60th birthday, is on a volunteer basis.

Before the feast began, the club's women members, who sing in the local choir and hang out at the club every afternoon, closely inspect the food preparation. They know a thing or two about seasoning and are expert cooks with kerosene burners such as Primus stoves: Naomi Babajani, one of the diners, is an experienced cook; Sarah Levi belongs to a family that opened a stand on the corner of Jaffa's Jerusalem Boulevard and Tzahalon Street selling malabi, a cornstarch pudding sprinkled with rose water, and Aliza Avigezer ran a restaurant on Jaffa Road four decades ago.

Eyal Schultz, the owner of the catering company that usually cooks for large high-tech firms, organized the event. His employees often fly abroad with Israel Aerospace Industries' purchasing department to prepare food at air shows. Despite their experience, his team spent two days dragging sofas and tables around to transform the Jaffa club's space into an inviting environment.

Meanwhile, Babajani takes a taste of the desserts placed on a bench in the warm spring sun, closes her eyes and concentrates. "Not bad, not bad at all," she rules, as she tries the dark chocolate petits fours. "This is interesting," she proclaims after tasting the potato puree made with sun-dried tomatoes that Ilan and Lavi whipped up. "And look at this pretty menu," she adds, "If you know how to cook, then you know how to cook. I made aliyah from Persia in 1950 and because I didn't like being in the Aliyat Hanoar [youth group], I left for the city with my brother. We had nothing, and I found a job at a restaurant on the corner of Herzl Street and Jaffa Road.

It was the times of "the austerity," and the landlady sold meat to those with money but hid it under piles of rice. She asked if I know how to cook with a Primus and had no idea that most of Persian cuisine is based on such cooking. I learned a lot there. When I got married, my kitchen was furnished with a large crate of corn that functioned as a table and a kerosene burner that I would use to cook two-three dishes every Saturday. Even after two of my four children were born, it was kept unchanged."

What did she cook? "Back then, just like today, there was a rice shortage. So I cooked vine leaves stuffed with wheat and other stuffed vegetables."

Back at the club, the tables are set in rows and adorned with white tablecloths. Everyone familiar with 75-year-old Sarah Levi says she is a "gifted cook." Adina, her daughter, says even famed chef Eyal Lavi has eaten at the malabi stand she opened with her mother on Jerusalem Boulevard some 40 years ago. "Her secret is in the sauce, and she shares it with the world," Adina says. "When she makes the sauce for her stuffed tomatoes, she adds vinegar, sugar, salt but no lemon and cooks them on the stove and then in the oven."

After moving to Israel from Bulgaria, Levi worked in various jobs, including as a housekeeper for the affluent Recanati family. "They once had to whip up something fast, and the cook was gone. They asked her to make food and then they asked her again and again," Adina says.

After everyone is fed, Ilan and Levi look pleased. Ilan dished up his mini sloppy Joe's, and the club's members seemed happy. Paella they called rice and fish, the sloppy joe was called minced meat and bread, and the sun-dried tomato-potato puree was dubbed "other potatoes." Most diners agree the food was good and that "everything stays the same, and while it may be called by a different name after 60 years, it's still all in the seasoning."