Shaul Ben-Aderet

26th October 2017

Interview: Josh Barrie
Photographs: Steven Winston

26th October 2017

Interview: Josh Barrie
Photographs: Steven Winston

The first impression you get of the Israeli chef Shaul Ben-Aderet is one of great warmth. A successful restaurateur in his 50s, with three establishments around his native Tel Aviv, he rarely sports anything other than his chef’s whites and a pair of colourful baggy trousers. His spectacles are suitably eccentric, his greying hair is always tight in a ponytail, and his goatee, which he strokes continually, is elegant if a little wispy. His eyes sparkle as we talk.

I meet Shaul at his home on the outskirts of north Tel Aviv. It’s our second encounter: in London, at an arts festival preview in Soho two months earlier, we chatted while he sliced vegetables into ribbons and covered them in olive oil. Shaul’s chefs prepare similar dishes at his restaurants in Israel, and here in his home kitchen he is again in the midst of preparation, nearly dancing as he works. Like him, his house is busy and eclectic, a nod to diversity and a mishmash of culinary cultures that forged his food, and the food of his young country. Ornaments line the walls; fruit and vegetables are dotted about the place in bowls, baskets, on chopping boards; objects hang from the ceiling.

It is stiflingly hot outside, in the mid-30s, so Shaul’s home is an escape. He greets me at the door with a firm handshake and a gentle smile. After a coffee, he sets to work preparing our green shakshuka, a traditional Israeli breakfast, laughing continually as he cooks. He begins by breaking eggs and separating the white from the yolk. The egg yolks, bright gold and silken, bathe in garlicky spinach and cream. This is homely cooking: simple and quick, and perfect with chewy bread and a glass of wine; yet it tastes luxurious. It ties in with – for want of a better word – Shaul’s ethos: elevating the basics.

Continued below...

Where did your love of food come from?

I spent a lot of time at my grandmother’s house. She looked after me while my parents [who are of Greek and Iraqi descent] worked. The centre of the house was the kitchen, as is mine today. It is where the family comes together, a focal point. My grandmother and I would go together to Carmel Market [see Address Book] to buy produce. There wasn’t as much as there is today, but the colours were so vivid. I remember the noise and the smells – they’ve stayed with me. One of my first tasks was buying the rice, which would line the streets in sacks. It wasn’t clean. I’d spend a long time afterwards sieving it and picking out the stones and dirt.

Are there any dishes in particular from your childhood that your remember?

Aside from the fried aubergine, simply done in good olive oil, it was the salads. Every Saturday, we would eat mounds of cucumber, onions, tomatoes, herbs. There would be mint, parsley, cilantro1. It was all so fragrant. Tel Aviv is full of aromas. The salad is what I think fondly of. I would chop for hours. But we would also have with it boiled potatoes and eggs. Ah! And my mother’s sabich!

Every Saturday, we would eat mounds of cucumber, onions, tomatoes, herbs. It was all so fragrant. Tel Aviv is full of aromas

The sabich?

It is an Iraqi-Jewish dish. Israel is full of cultures, the food takes inspiration from the east, from the west; from Greece over the sea, from Lebanon to the south. It’s why I find it so fascinating: food binds things together and connects us, it’s unifying. Anyway, sabich is a sandwich – pitta bread stuffed with eggs (my mother would do the eggs like an omelette) and aubergine, some onion maybe, or celery, even cheese, and the sweetest tomatoes. My mother used lots of fresh herbs. It was the best. I would go into school and my friends would look at me with envy.

Are there any other dishes that have made a lasting impression?

Ptitim. It’s a “peasant dish” that I love, devised by Ben-Gurion2. It’s flour and water. Like small pasta pieces.

Similar to orzo?

Sort of, yes. It is a cheap food invented to feed the population. In its basic form, it’s boring. I do it with herbs, olive oil, garlic. You can make it beautiful. There’s power in the ptitim.

Israel is full of cultures… Food binds things together and connects us

How does this food affect your cooking today?

Back then, we had little money and had to be resourceful. Meat was not as frequent as it is today. In my restaurants now, I simply cook what I like to eat, and like to use the whole animal. Chicken hearts, braised, are on at Blue Rooster [one of Shaul’s restaurants] right now, as well as calf’s brain. Cheap cuts, you know? That’s important to me. But I also do a Parmesan and herb risotto, for example. Before in Israel, we couldn’t get Parmesan. When it arrived in the shops, we say, “Oh, what’s this?” and it made me happy [laughs]. Risotto makes me so happy.

So how did you turn this love into a career?

I always knew I wanted to be a chef. From the age of 15 to 21 I worked at a cinema stand and saved up money. Then, after my compulsory year in the army, I opened my first restaurant. It was simple: more a bar or disco – somewhere young people wanted to go in the evenings. We did burgers and fries. But it worked. That allowed me to go on and open Kimmel, which is round the corner from my grandmother’s old house. I’ve had it for 25 years, but I’m about to sell it. I am tired and want to spend more time with my family.

My life is food. But often, it’s other people eating it…

That sounds like a big step.

It is. But it is time. Of course I’m sad. But I still have the second Kimmel restaurant in the countryside, the Blue Rooster, and the sushi bar, Mr & Mrs Lee, next door.

You’ve had an impact of the Tel Aviv dining scene, it seems.

In Israel at the time [of opening Kimmel], good food was French, but inaccessible. Plates were large and dishes small. And it was expensive. There was a niche for more affordable but good food – and big portions! So I did it. I made the best of what we have here and celebrated our own cuisine. These days I get herbs from the market, honeys from the south [near Lebanon], cheeses from Jerusalem, lamb from Galilee. Israeli food is always evolving and developing. It has very good foundations.

Talk me through your daily regime.

I tend not to eat at the usual times. Restaurant service dictates that. In the morning, I have coffee, and I might have some bread. After lunch service, I come home and see the children, and I have leftovers – meatballs, rice, salad. It is sustenance. I usually get home after the evening rush and sit down with my wife. We’ll have bread, pistachios, perhaps some eggs or tuna. It is simple, but I like it. We are content then. We might have a glass of wine. That’s my favourite meal of the day.

On The Menu

Lunch with Shaul Ben-Aderet
Tel Aviv, August 2017

To eat:

Fresh bread
Green shakshuka »
Tomatoes from the vine
Olives

To drink:

Beer
Israeli red wine

So you don’t structure your day around food?

Not in the eating sense, but certainly in that I plan my day around my restaurants. I get up at 6am. In the morning, I spend time in the office, but then I go for lunch service, visiting each restaurant and ensuring everything is running smoothly. After lunch, I nap for two hours, and then I’m out again. It’s always been this way. My life is food. But often, it’s other people eating it.

Do you still shop at Carmel market?

We source our food from across Israel for our restaurants. My wife does a lot of the shopping for home. But yes, I do still go to the market. The vegetables there are still the freshest and most exciting. Beef here used to be very expensive, now it is not so bad. The best meat comes from Galilee, or down in the south, close to Lebanon.

And where do you eat out?

We try to visit as many restaurants as possible. Havat Zuk is a great place [see Address Book]. There’s also Mashya, which is Moroccan cuisine, and Dalida in Levinski Market, which shows a lot of brilliant Israeli foods. Sarona Market is also a nice spot. Tel Aviv has wonderful markets. My family loves Thai House. And curries. We have curry a fair bit.

My afternoon nap, that peaceful couple of hours after lunch, is vital. I am getting older. I need to replenish myself. [laughs] I can’t go without it

We met in London over a vegetable ceviche – did you go out to eat when you were over?

I went to Palomar [Shaul gives a thumbs up] and Hawksmoor. The steak is good. I also heard about Tramshed. The logo is very similar to my logo for Blue Rooster – a rooster and cow. I had mine before! I love Indian curries too, so I went to Dishoom.

Is there anything you could not go without?

I must begin the day with coffee. My afternoon nap is also imperative. I think that time, that peaceful couple of hours after lunch, is vital. I am getting older. I need to replenish myself. [laughs] I can’t go without it.

Do you have any other rituals that you adhere to?

Music has an impact on me. It reflects my mood. I often listen to music when I cook. But I don’t think you can cook your best if you are upset. The Smiths, I love them, but if I listen to Morrissey’s You Have Killed Me, I just start to cry. I listen to a lot of Israeli and Greek music as well.

Would you advise other young chefs to try to be happy when they cook?

Everyone responds to different things. Some might like music, others might be inspired in different ways. My advice above anything is to cook, eat, learn – constantly. To ask questions. I do not know what wisdom is; can you teach intuition? How can I say “practise practise practise” without sounding cliched?

For more about Shaul’s restaurants, go to www.thebluerooster.co.il/en and www.kimmelbagilboa.co.il/en/

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  1. Shaul calls coriander by its American name
  2. During the austerity period in Israel, Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, asked Eugen Proper, one of the founders of the Osem food company, to quickly devise a wheat-based substitute to rice. Consequently, it was nicknamed “Ben-Gurion rice” by the people. Source: Wikipedia

Posted 26th October 2017

In Interviews

 

Interview: Josh Barrie
Photographs: Steven Winston

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