Israel’s New Culinary Chemists
Molecular gastronomy finally takes off in Israel, drawing kosher foodies and experimental chefs alike
Over the past two decades, molecular gastronomy has changed the way influential chefs cook in many parts of the world. Thanks to a recently opened store and a soon-to-open restaurant, Israel is finally starting to catch up to this weird world of experimental cooking.
Molecular gastronomy, a term coined in 1992 by Hungarian physicist Nicholas Kurti and French physical chemist Hervé This, is a discipline located somewhere between cooking and science, where the kitchen turns into a lab and chefs turn into mad professors, abandoning traditional food preparation in favor of using technical innovations to transform ingredients physically and chemically. In the past 20 years, molecular gastronomy has become a popular culinary practice—at least at the high end of the culinary spectrum—that many believe has revolutionized the way people cook, and eat. Others, however, find it tedious and inaccessible to the average diner, the food equivalent of jazz—perhaps more enjoyable for the one who performs than it is for the audience.
Although it didn’t catch on at first, molecular cooking first entered Israel’s culinary scene in a serious way in 2007, when chef Aviv Moshe from Tel Aviv’s Messa restaurant returned home after eating a 35-course meal at the highly controversial and experimental elBulli restaurant near the Catalonian town of Roses, Spain—a Michelin 3-star restaurant that stood at the forefront of haute cuisine until it closed two years ago. Even though Moshe remained hungry after 35 courses, he was inspired and felt compelled to concoct a molecular meal for his clients. Around the same time, chef Liran Gruda prepared molecular meals at Canela restaurant in Jerusalem, and the now defunct Barcarola restaurant in Kfar Saba introduced molecular gastronomy to the Sharon region. Nowadays, many upscale restaurants in Israel incorporate molecular methods into their cooking, including Catit in old Tel Aviv, and Kitchen Market, a restaurant and culinary center located over the farmers’ market in the Tel Aviv port. But there aren’t any straight-up molecular restaurants in the country at the moment. Jerusalem’s Fink and Jaffa’s Shakuf (meaning “transparent” in Hebrew), both of which opened in 2011, tried to go all the way but didn’t last very long.
Now one of Fink’s owners—Jerusalemite Guy Bensimon—is trying again. After completing a B.A. in chemistry, which obviously comes in handy in this particular field, Bensimon interned at elBulli and served as head chef at the esteemed Chocolat restaurant in the Dutch city of Breda before opening Fink in his hometown. It didn’t work out, but he believes that with his new venture, he has finally found his partner in molecular crime: Shahar Dabbah, a hyperactive and hyper-ambitious 27-year-old from the Jerusalem suburb of Mevaseret Zion, started his journey in the culinary world before even finishing the army, when his dad suggested he become a partner in his Aunt Rachel’s restaurant, Rachela. At 22, Dabbah opened a catering service called Tango; then he studied cooking at Hadassah College in Jerusalem and worked for a while at Messa as well as at Copenhagen’s world famous Noma restaurant, which serves New Nordic Cuisine influenced by molecular gastronomy. Today he serves as chef of the French restaurant in Mitzpe Ramon’s boutique hotel, Chez Eugène. He is also a lecturer on molecular gastronomy in various culinary schools and even teaches the subject to high-school students in Raanana.
Last December, Bensimon and Dabbah opened a new store for molecular cooking in Jerusalem, next to Machane Yehuda Market. Moleculari—Science & Kitchen is the first store of its kind in Israel. The shop itself is located on the first floor and sells kitchen equipment, powders, and special utensils, for restaurants and hotels, as well as home kitchens. Right above it is the shop’s laboratory, in which Bensimon and Dabbah prepare the molecular jams, liquid-nitrogen ice creams, and soda drinks with fruit-caviar that they sell in their deli and also organize molecular gastronomy workshops.
Last month their complex added another feature: a molecular sandwich-bar. Instead of roast beef or corned beef sandwiches, it serves sous-vide sandwiches, in which the beef is cooked while sealed in an airtight bag in a water bath. Instead of regular soft drinks it offers molecular drinks made with fruit-caviar—juice-filled pearls made by a process called spherification.
Dabbah is something of a missionary about molecular gastronomy: “It’s special, surprising, refreshing, healthy, innovative, inventive, modern, and has something for everyone,” he said. “It’s the next big thing. It always was, but people are slow to realize, they stick to their mother’s kubbeh.”
These days Bensimon and Dabbah are working on a stand-up show called Moleculari Schmoleculari, which is supposed to amuse and educate at the same time, and they are also opening a new restaurant in Jaffa with 24-year-old chef Merav Davidson. The restaurant will be called N-7—the symbol and atomic number for nitrogen—and since the word molecular can easily scare off potential clients, or indeed anyone who wasn’t crazy about chemistry in high school, they prefer to describe what they do as “progressive cuisine.”
At the moment the place is being renovated; if everything goes according to plan, it should be open by the end of June. Like the store in Jerusalem, the restaurant will have a second floor dedicated to lectures, cookery workshops, and all that is needed to help bring the gospel of molecular gastronomy to the masses—in particular the masses who keep kosher.
Both Moleculari—Science & Kitchen and N-7 are kosher, and Dabbah is delighted to explain how molecular methods solve common problems kosher cooks might encounter. Thanks to modern science, for instance, it is possible to make delicious desserts without using bad pareve butter substitutes, and molecular gastronomy even helps during Passover, since it has found ways to thicken foods without using flour, which is also great news for those sensitive to gluten.
“The most interesting thing regarding molecular cooking in Israel is what it can do to the kosher eating experience,” said Rita Goldstein, food writer for Walla! and Maariv. “It finds excellent solutions for known problems in the kosher kitchen, like the fact that desserts can’t be made with butter if they are consumed after meat. Molecular gastronomy opens kosher dining to a whole new world of possibilities and elevates it to new levels. That’s why many kosher eating foodies in Israel are drawn to it.”
Dabbah told me about kosher restaurants and catering services that already buy molecular equipment from him: “Molecular cooking methods are especially popular in the observant community because they’re the ones who actually need them,” he said. His eyes lit up when he told me about a woman who pulled up at his store in a pickup truck, 20 kids in tow, telling him in a very knowledgeable tone exactly which chemicals she needed to make her family molecular-chraime (spicy fish) for Shabbat.
Dabbah doesn’t blame molecular gastronomy for the failure of Shakuf. “They didn’t do things right,” he said of the now-closed Jaffa restaurant. “Their mistake was emphasizing the molecular side. They served lots of foams, gelatins, and emulsions, and that’s not what people want to eat. We’re going to use those too, but not as the main dish. We are going to serve meat and fish cooked sous-vide, so that people have actual food on their plates, and add the foams and emulsions to that, just to impress.”
Goldstein agrees that hardcore-molecular isn’t the way to go in Israel. “It’s very difficult for molecular restaurants to succeed in Israel because people are afraid of food they can’t recognize,” she said. “The Israeli clientele doesn’t like food that looks unfamiliar. A lot is invested in molecular cooking, and it needs an appreciative clientele. That’s why restaurants who combine molecular techniques with more traditional food are the ones more likely to succeed here.”
Even though most Israelis seem wary of molecular cooking, Dabbah is convinced there is a molecular trend going on. “Even if they don’t advertise it, Mul-Yam, Catit, Raphael, Messa, and most high-end restaurants in Israel use molecular methods in their kitchens,” he said. “The fact that I teach molecular cooking at a high school proves there is definitely a trend going on. I was even invited to do a molecular birthday party for a 6-year-old in Modi’in. I made molecular ice cream and fruit-caviar for 30 kids, and they loved it. It was better than a clown!”
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