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World Feeder

Einav Gefen got her start at Tel Aviv’s toniest restaurants. As top chef at food giant Unilever, she now has a tougher task: developing frozen dinners that are true to her culinary roots.

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Einav Gefen. (Jennifer Bleyer)

Sheila from Des Moines loves frozen meat lasagna, the kind she can microwave in the plastic tray it comes in and serve to her ravenous, squirmy children within 15 minutes. She’s interested in trying lemon-herb shrimp, which sounds really fancy. She thinks goat cheese is weird, and she has never heard of saffron and does not want to start hearing about it now. She scrunches up her nose at the suggestion of chocolate-praline-bacon ice cream, but chocolate-pretzel ice cream … now, that might be tasty.

Sheila from Des Moines is the imaginary shopper who Einav Gefen thinks of while at work at Unilever North America, a branch of the global consumer-products titan that earned nearly $60 billion last year. Anyone who licks a cone of Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey, eats a sandwich with Hellmann’s mayonnaise, sips a cup of Lipton tea, spreads Skippy on celery, slurps Slim-Fast shakes, or munches toast topped with Country Crock has Unilever to thank. Like God, or molecules, Unilever is everywhere.

Gefen is the company’s head corporate chef in the United States, and she develops new food products for its North American market. Unilever produces items on such a massive scale that it is said to buy, for instance, 3 percent of the world’s palm oil, 4 percent of its tomatoes, and 12 percent of its black tea. This requires a certain mindfulness; when Gefen and her team of chefs created a new raspberry-hazelnut vinaigrette for Wish-Bone, the company had to purchase the entire hazelnut crop of Washington state that year. When she wanted to add a little arugula to a frozen meal being created for Bertolli, a mid-range Italian brand, she learned that there was simply not enough time to alert growers about the sheer volume of arugula that would be required, so she had to give up the ingredient. In a project to reformulate Ragú pasta sauce with more vegetables, she had a moment of realization that her own tinkering in the kitchen involved “endless, endless fields of tomatoes in California,” she said. “To wrap my head around that was like … wow.”

Gefen, 39, is ropy and thin, with big brown eyes, a pointy chin, a sprinkling of freckles, and a girlish gap between her two front teeth. She has the vivacity and enthusiasm of a cheerleader along with Hebrew-accented English and Israeli matter-of-factness. (“Jennifer, lee-son to me.”)

Unilever’s North American headquarters, in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., spreads out over a sprawling campus of low-slung office buildings. Inside is a vast, fluorescent-lit warren of cubicles and boardrooms and glass display cases that show off the company’s products like pieces of art. Gefen’s fiefdom, the research kitchen, is an oasis of warmth and savory smells situated in the middle of this corporate expanse. It looks like a modern home kitchen multiplied by 20: a great sweep of black granite counters, custom wooden cabinets, stainless-steel sinks, luscious incandescent lighting, and multiple electric stoves, gas stoves, convection ovens, microwaves, toasters, and blenders.

On a brisk morning recently, she was flitting around Unilever’s research kitchen in chef whites and comfortable black shoes, overseeing preparations for a lunchtime presentation to members of the company’s frozen-foods team. Her team of chefs was dispersed around the room concocting the afternoon’s lunch presentation, about which I was sworn to secrecy. One chef pulsed a blender full of fresh herbs, another pulled trays of ice cream treats from a freezer, and another fired up four burners at a restaurant-caliber stove. They explained that they were working on a frozen-meal concept, inspired in part by the success of P.F. Chang’s Home Menu: Frozen Meals for 2, a line of frozen Chinese food that was introduced by the company last year. Gefen and her team had spent two years developing it. She had no expectation that the fruits of the current project would appear in stores any quicker.

“It’s like giving birth,” Gefen, a mother of three, told me. “For this, there’s no epidural.”

Growing up in Ramat Ilan near Tel Aviv, Gefen was interested in food from a young age. She watched her mother, Ruthie, channel her German roots through baking (“She loved measuring things exactly”) and her adopted Israeli self in cooking with fresh, seasonal food, largely because that’s all there was in Israel at the time. Imports were rare.

“You had tomatoes only in the summer and avocados only three weeks of the year, and God knows in those three weeks we ate enough avocados for a year,” Gefen said. “My mom would make very Israeli things. She took strawberries and bananas and mixed them with sour cream and sugar—that was my favorite. She used to grate tomatoes and mix them with a little cheese and salt, and I was in heaven.”

The family was secular, although like many secular Israelis, they lit candles and gathered for traditional Friday-night dinners featuring Ashkenazi staples.

“My uncle grated fresh horseradish, and my father’s aunt used to make gefilte fish. She had the carp in the bathtub and killed them herself,” Gefen said. “She made it with a lot of garlic, more savory than sweet. I love gefilte fish.”

Gefen’s father, Gershon, was a pilot for Arkia, Israel’s second-largest airline, and he often brought home treats from other countries—stinky cheeses, exotic mustards, strange spreads—that fascinated her. Eventually, Gefen tagged along with him to South Africa, England, Austria, and elsewhere. Her primary interest on these trips was to go to local supermarkets and observe what people bought.

After her army service, Gefen studied social behavior and communication in college, but the only behavior she wanted to research centered around food. She inserted herself in a hole-in-the-wall Ethiopian restaurant near Tel Aviv’s old bus station to watch injera bread being baked. She wrangled an introduction to her classmate’s Bukharian grandmother to observe what she and her neighbors did in their kitchens.

Instead of pursuing a medical or law degree as her father hoped, Gefen got an entry-level job assisting the head pastry chef at Orna and Ella, a popular bistro on Tel Aviv’s fashionable Shenkin Street. Upscale cuisine was blooming in Tel Aviv at the time. For years, serious Israeli foodies had to leave the country to experience fine dining. But by then, a cluster of top Israeli chefs who had worked abroad had brought their skills back to their native land. At Orna and Ella, Gefen learned to make classical French pastry and earned a reputation as a tireless worker and quick study. In 1995, she heard about an opening for a line cook at Mul Yam, one of Tel Aviv’s best restaurants, and she asked her boss to recommend her for the job. He phoned Mul Yam and said, “Look, we have this young woman here. She has no idea about cooking, but she can fold 50 egg whites into chocolate.” She became Mul Yam’s first female line cook, and eventually its sous chef.

Gefen came to New York in 1999 to attend culinary school, and her career progressed at a steady clip, including a stint at Daniel, the flagship restaurant of Daniel Boulud, and two years as the executive chef at Danal, a French restaurant near Union Square. By then, Gefen was a mother, and the grueling pace of restaurant life was taking its toll. To slow down, she became the director of the culinary center at the then-new Jewish Community Center of the Upper West Side, where she oversaw the design of the teaching kitchen and programmed culinary classes; part of her job involved explaining kosher compliance to guest chefs and walking them through their anxieties about it (“Their question was always, ‘What are eggs? Dairy or meat?’ ”) She then went to work as an instructor at her alma mater, the Institute of Culinary Education. In 2008 she heard that Unilever was hiring.

The most challenging part of her Unilever interview was an Iron Chef-style exercise, in which she was given 90 minutes to create three meals out of whatever she found in the research kitchen. She made chicken with sumac, olive oil, and garlic, marinated in beet juice and served over rice pilaf with raisins and almonds; flank steak smothered in mango barbecue sauce with curried potato chips; and a pomegranate tea-smoked pork loin with quick pickled cucumbers.

“I explained that the chicken and rice represents Israel, where I come from; the flank steak is America, where I am, and the pork smoked in pomegranate tea is my perception of food in the future, where I want to be,” Gefen said.

It can be perplexing to try and understand how a chef who knows full well the difference between sauce béchamel, sauce soubise, and sauce bordelaise can be satisfied making a frozen beef-and-broccoli dish that’s sold in a foil bag. Part of it seems to be the challenge of taking the artisanal trends emerging at restaurants in New York and Los Angeles and imagining how they might be adapted to play in Peoria.

Part of it also seems to be a kind of gastronomic pragmatism, an acceptance of how people actually cook and eat rather than how they’re told to. Unlike the Michael Pollans of the world, urging Americans to prepare meals from scratch with organic ingredients grown within 10 miles of their homes, Gefen is happy to meet them where they are, which more often than not is in the frozen-food aisle of the supermarket.

“Our ability to cook is diminishing. We’re reaching the point with new mothers where their own grandmothers didn’t cook anymore, so they didn’t have anyone to watch in the kitchen,” she said. “It’s great to feel you can contribute … making their lives easier and tastier so at the end of the day their kids say, ‘Yo, mom, awesome dinner!’ ”

As lunchtime rolled around, 10 members of the company’s frozen-foods team gathered at Unilever’s research kitchen to evaluate the super top-secret meal that Gefen’s unit had spent the morning preparing. They listened to a description of the food and watched a PowerPoint presentation about similar products offered by their competitors. They scrutinized the handsomely displayed dishes as if they were suspects in a police lineup. Then they dug in.

I cannot share the highly proprietary details of this lunch because I fear that the team would come after me with ice picks, not to mention lawsuits. But I can tell you that there were savory ———— stuffed with fragrant ———— and —————, braised ———— topped with ————, and a colorful platter of ——————— flecked with savory ———— and ———. In a couple of years, you may be able to walk into grocery store and buy these dishes for yourself. In the meantime, let me just say: They’re delicious.

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Shmatahari says:

As a human interest story about a young girl who grows up to be successful at something she enjoys this article was an interesting read. However, the “Michael Pollans [and Marion Nestles] of the world” have been warning us for decades about the detrimental effects of overly processed food in our American diet. The Pollans and Nestles are correct – we need to cook more at home, buy and eat fresh food grown locally if possible and reject the Unilever/Gefen processed foods that take up the vast center of every supermarket in the country. The Unilever/Gefens of this world are essentialy making a killing on the killing of the population at large as they concoct more absurd ways to lure consumers – and their kids – into the incomprehensible deathly nightmare that has become our nationwide supermarket experience.

erg says:

I could not agree more with the previous post. Count me out from all this awful, processed, agro-industrial food. Yuck! Wouldn’t let my kids touch any of that frozen garbage. Pollan et. al. are pushing us in the right, ethical, healthy, and ultimately LESS COSTLY direction. We might not all get there at the same time, but we should be on that path, not on the path to pre-processed Unilever/Geffen land (meeting “halfway” is just a self-serving excuse) that is making us obese, driving up healthcare costs, and destroying our land. Where is the critical reporting on what seems so obvious an issue here??

The previous two comments are complete nonsense. “Processed” food can be healthy or unhealthy, as can fresh, locally grown food. There’s absolutely no scientific or medical justification for declaring the former to be any worse than the latter, let alone responsible for “killing” anyone. The main difference between the two categories of food, in fact, is that boutique fresh food is more expensive and time-consuming to prepare, and is therefore naturally favored by the affluent leisure class as a form of conspicuous consumption.

Kudos to Einav Gefen for making a career of helping millions of ordinary people with ordinary incomes and ordinary tastes, rather than snobbishly sneering at them, like the previous commenters.

wheatfield Bear says:

WOW, What an inspiring story. Gefen is an example of “if you can’t beat them – Join them and change from within”
You can already see that the upcoming trends in mass production are the “better for you” “environmental sensitive” food – We need more Gefens!

Hannah Lee says:

Yasher koacha,Jennifer, for a fascinating look into the world of corporate food and the rise of Einav Gefen!
While I eat as Michael Pollan exhorts us,
I know that the majority of Americans do not.
They are the ones who really need a creative and sympathetic Chef-in-charge like Einav!

Shmatahari says:

“Unlike the Michael Pollans of the world…Gefen is happy to meet them [country bumpkins in the Midwest who aren’t yet acquainted with the “artisinal” sophistication of elegant New York City palates] …in the frozen-food aisle of the supermarket.”

I can just picture Unilever’s fantasy goldmine consumer in all her Glorious American Obesity – diabetic, heart attack or stroke prone, high blood pressure afflicted and a million other posssible disorders stemming from Basic American Malnutrition. Her TV programmed kids, already too fat and hyperactive with the onset of juvenile diabetes, are yearning for their own fix of chemical concoctions produced by any number of Unilever-type labs. These life shattering (but, astronomically lucrative) corporations are global now – check it out at this great British site I just found after being criticized above for my comments.

If the American diet is killing us – and statistics say this is so – how can we be healthy again like the French, Italians and Greeks?
And, probably, like Ruthie – Gefen’s smart home cooking Mom? From what it sounds like, Ruthie could have written Pollan’s Food Rules herself! I know my own mother could have. Too bad we’ve lost faith in our own judgment to determine what good eating is……”artisinal” my foot!!

Koimichra says:

Given that here in Peoria with our short commutes and vibrant local organic farming culture, we can easily prepare from-scratch meals with fresh, local ingredients, perhaps you should be pointing out that these frozen meals are marketed towards vast food deserts in New York and Los Angeles where commutes are long, time is short, supermarkets are small and distant, and actual farms are far away. Not here in Peoria where I can live three miles from the city center and grow a 700 square foot vegetable garden in my backyard.

(The Heartland would like to know: Where, exactly, do food writers think food comes from? Places WITHOUT farms? I can go to my local butcher, on foot because everything’s close here, and buy an organic chicken from 20 miles away that was slaughtered yesterday … and get the farmer’s phone number while I’m at it. Right next to the imported New Zealand lamb. The blind spots and coastal snobbery of food writers are STAGGERING.)


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World Feeder

Einav Gefen got her start at Tel Aviv’s toniest restaurants. As top chef at food giant Unilever, she now has a tougher task: developing frozen dinners that are true to her culinary roots.

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