Chef Uri Navon: Childhood Memories and Wishes for the Future

The following comes from an interview I took as research for the Plate magazine Israel issue – one of my favorite projects to date. The article featured chefs in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv striving to define what contemporary “Israeli cuisine” is today. Much like my beloved New York City, Israel is a melting pot of cultures, flavors, histories, and conflict. Chefs there are extremely aware of how the struggle between Israelis and Palestinians shapes how chefs and eaters around the world consider them. To progress that, they’re simply focusing on their food. I learned so much for working on this issue, and was especially touched by Chef Navon’s insight.

Photo courtesy of Yahav Yaakov

Photo courtesy of Yahav Yaakov

Chef Uri Navon of MachneYuda

On Childhood Memories and Wishes for the Future

As Told to Jacqueline for Plate Magazine, January 2015

I’ve liked the kitchen for as long as I can remember. I was taught to read through cookbooks — seriously, my mum use to read recipes out loud and I’d point out the letters. And she would cook with me. She is an amazing home cook, and a gifted baker.

When I was six there was a big fair in one of Jerusalem’s parks. There was this “Wheel of Fortune”, and I choose number 8 ‘cause it was the number of this footballer legend in Jerusalem back then. The guy spins the wheel and… it stops at number 8! Obviously I’m ecstatic, and what do I pick from the teddy bears and fire trucks in the back? A set of saucepans and cheap aluminum casseroles. I think my mum still has them.

At 24, I was doing the starters at “Shanty”, the coolest place in town, during my culinary school training. It was the first time I did service. I learned a great deal over there, and would usually skip my last class to get to work ahead of time so that my mise en place was ready to go.

When I started to cook, a lot of chefs asked about what makes an “Israeli kitchen”. Everybody was starting to break down local produce, fish and seafood. We were starting to push the boundaries a bit from ethnic food and grandmothers’ technique to modern cooking, in both technological and philosophical ways. We looked for inspiration from all over the world, from Thomas Keller in the United States, to Pierre Gagnaire and Michel Roux and Ferran Adria. Chefs had become heroes.

It changed me in that I had to check my own boundaries, and research my own heritage and family customs, learning different cuisines and techniques and then mirroring them on Israeli ingredients and interpretations. For me, the difference is that we are a very small country packed with so many differences, with the immigration of thousands from all over the world, from Russia to Morocco, Iraq to Romania. All of them mix into the already too complicated region with so much history, culture, and tradition. There is a crazy food scene here in Israel and it’s extremely rich and diverse.

It is a great privilege to be taking part in building “Israeli Cuisine”.

There are so many dishes that define contemporary Israeli cuisine: our Moorish-style pan-fried calamari has tomatoes, fresh chili, garlic and amba, the Indian mango chutney very popular in shwarma shops. It’s reflective of everything contemporary and Israeli.  Octopus seared on the plancha with deep fried sweet potatoes, goat yogurt, sweet chili sauce, and chimichurri, is one too. I do classic and contemporary styles, sometimes in the same dish. Like, I love to do homage to a childhood memory like a sausage in a bun, but with a steamed bun with lobster sausage and sauerkraut vinaigrette. It’s deconstructing them and assembling in a different way.

I think these days a restaurant’s success is mostly about the diner’s experience, and about the link between food and the story of that food. The experience of eating is more important than the food itself. Anybody can cook food — you have to have a reason why you are better than the rest. Hospitality is the most important part of cooking for people. At Machneyuda, the guests feel like they’re in a home away from home. Like visiting your favorite grandmother’s house. Like having damned good food… in jeans and sneakers. Like going on a blind date and having a really good time. Like forgetting all of our troubles, or at least most of them, while enjoying food and service.

Now, I would like to show Americans and Europeans what we do without being held back by the circumstances in the area. I hope for some easy times, where we can research our culture and keep evolving our cuisine.

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