From Prisoner to Master Chef: Israeli Restaurateur Avi Levy’s Unlikely Journey
After years behind bars, addicted to drugs, he’s now one of Jerusalem’s top chefs—with a new restaurant set to open
When Avi Levy made his television debut on Master Chef Israel in June 2011, his experience in kitchens was limited: cooking at home, in the army, or in the prison where he had spent much of the previous decade doing time for drug-related crimes. But he went on to win the reality cooking show’s competition that season, and the next year he became the first—and so far, only—Master Chef winner to open his own restaurant.
Hamotzi, Levy’s Jerusalem eatery, quickly proved to be a success. “Hamotzi became a must-go-to place when visiting Jerusalem not just because Avi Levy is Master Chef’s hero,” said Rotem Maimon, food editor at Haaretz. “Of course that helps, but he’s not the first hyped chef to open a restaurant, and if it wasn’t any good it wouldn’t have lasted as long as it has.”
Levy’s reputation as a chef continued to grow. “I was invited to cook for the prime minister and his wife at their official residence,” he told me in an interview last week. (Rumor has it that Sara Netanyahu loves his meatballs.) “I did that a few times and they wanted me to cook for them regularly, but I had to decline.”
At the beginning of July, Levy will open Beit Hakavan, his second restaurant in Jerusalem. “There aren’t many good places to eat at night in Jerusalem, and I want to create a place with great food and a great atmosphere,” he explained. “Beit Hakavan won’t be just an ordinary place: I believe people will come to it from far away.”
Levy, 39, was born to an Algerian mother and Moroccan father in the German Colony neighborhood of Jerusalem. He was drawn to the kitchen from an early age, watching his mother cook, and he was particularly enamored with the technique of his grandmother. She cooked over kerosene burners and added ingredients intuitively, he said, without ever consulting a recipe.
But at 15 Levy discovered drugs and began a long struggle with addiction. He finished high school and served as a cook in the army, until he was discharged before the end of his service due to “incompatibility.” Over the next few years, he became a heavy user, grew estranged from his wife and son, and wound up sleeping on a mattress in a run-down abandoned house.
He served three prison sentences, totaling seven years, for drug-related crimes. Through it all, though, cooking remained his great love. He continued to cook in jail, making food for himself and his cellmates—for example, creating spicy fish dishes out of canned tuna and then using the lid of the can as a knife, since actual knives were forbidden. “Jail is improvisation central,” Levy told me. “When you’re inside, you really have to be very creative to be able to make yourself something that resembles food.”
After his third incarceration, Levy entered a rehab program. Once Levy was clean, his sister, remembering his passion and talent for cooking, urged him to try out for Master Chef. He applied, auditioned, and became one of 14 competitors on the show’s second season.
Levy said his biggest problem on the show was the confidentiality agreement he signed with the producers, limiting contact with the outside world during the competition. He had come to rely heavily on conversations with his sponsor in his 12-step program. (“The 12-step program is the most important thing to me,” he said in an interview two years ago. “It’s above everything else.”) Fortunately, the producers granted him special permission to talk to his sponsor, and he stayed on Master Chef.
Levy seemed sincere and unpretentious on the show, and the judges were impressed by his down-to-earth cooking style—particularly when he presented versions of his mother’s recipes. His final dish, which won him the title, was a liver-filled sirloin roll, his personal interpretation of a filled-spleen dish his mother used to make.
After Levy won, proposals started coming his way. He could have opened a fancy establishment in Tel Aviv. But he opted to stay in Jerusalem and open a modest kosher restaurant with the help of veteran restaurateur Yahav Rimon, co-owner of Jerusalem’s legendary Café Rimon chain, which his family started in 1953.
Levy’s history didn’t scare Rimon. “I believed in him,” Rimon told me. “From the first moment I met him, I knew that this is a special person. It’s true that he had his problems in the past, but I felt that he’s the right person for me to work with. He’s real, and that means a lot.”
Hamotzi (named after the Hebrew blessing over bread) opened in 2012 next to Mahane Yehuda Market. Rimon is responsible for the business side of things, while Levy is in charge of the food. His specialty is North African home-style cooking. In Israel, Algerian and Moroccan food is often served in cheap eateries, dripping in yellow oil; Levy took that cuisine out of the cafeterias and put a higher-quality version of it on his menu. Hamotzi offers dishes like fried fish in chermoula sauce, bulet (Algerian meatballs covered in semolina), and Moroccan meat-cigars filled with throat-sweetbread and beef. Levy’s mother Miri comes to the restaurant every day and cooks whatever she feels like making, which is then added to the menu as ha-mana shel ima—“mother’s dish.” While Levy works in the kitchen, Miri has her own little stand at the front of the restaurant, where the guests watch her cook, talk to her, and have their picture taken with her.
“Just like Machneyuda did before, Hamotzi gave Tel Avivians a reason to go to Jerusalem,” Haaretz’s Maimon told me in a phone interview. “With Hamotzi, Levy really found a winning concept. Serving high-quality kosher home-style cooking, doing it in Jerusalem, and doing it in a way that appeals to both Master Chef fans and real foodies, is very rare. Add to that his culinary Cinderella story and his warm, welcoming, and a little shy personality, and you can see why he’s such a success story.”
Next month, two years after opening Hamotzi, Levy and Rimon will open Beit Hakavan, which they refer to as a “food station,” a small place where you can eat but also get take-out. The name means “train dispatcher’s house,” and it is located in an old stone building where the train dispatcher used to sit at the entrance of Jerusalem’s old train station, which was built 120 years ago and recently converted into a plaza for culture, food, and leisure called The First Station. Beit Hakavan is also close to Levy’s home in Jerusalem’s Arnona neighborhood, where he lives with his three kids and his wife, with whom he reconciled once he got clean.
Levy has fond memories of the street food he ate in his youth in Jerusalem. “As a boy, I used to go to the market a lot,” he said. “Back then, it wasn’t like today, where everything is organized and everyone has licenses. It was total chaos, and the market was filled with little improvised food stalls. You would see old Moroccan or Iraqi women with giant aluminum pots, black from their kerosene burners’ smoke. You would get plastic plates and plastic utensils and eat couscous, mafroum, Tunisian fricassé sandwiches, sambusak, cigars, and all those things, standing up. That’s my strongest memory of Jerusalem street food, and that’s what I initially wanted to do at my new place, but all these cooked dishes are too heavy for the evening. People prefer to eat something lighter in the evening.”
When Levy says “something lighter,” he means dishes served either in a pita (he has created a unique pita made from challah dough) or in a siniya, a small iron baking dish whose name means “tray” in Arabic. Lamb siniya, a dish named after the tray it’s served in, will be on Beit Hakavan’s menu, accompanied by roasted tomato and pepper salad. Levy will also serve pullet kebabs, thin entrecôte slices with fried egg, his own version of Jerusalem mixed grill, vegetarian options like Algerian sweet-potato pie or “Jerusalem kumzits”—a dish of roasted vegetables whose name refers to a gathering around a campfire—and homemade pickled vegetables, as well as warm and cold salads such as barba (Moroccan beetroot salad).
For the first year, Levy plans to operate the new venue only at night, from 5 p.m. until the wee hours of the morning. “Beit Hakavan will be a nighttime hangout with a very special, fun, and relaxed atmosphere,” he said, noting that there will also be live Greek, Arabic, and Balkan music.
With his new place about to open, Levy said that he is happy, surprised, and proud of the journey he’s made. He has been clean for almost five years, but he never takes it for granted. “I haven’t reached a place where I’m not afraid I’ll fall again, and I know I’m never going to reach that place,” he said. “I have the tools I need in order to stay clean and I use them. I do what I have to in order to never go back there again.”
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