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Passion for food

The brightest star of the new Israeli cuisine goes by the name of Eyal Shani. The charismatic chef and owner of restaurants in Tel Aviv, Paris, Vienna and soon Manhattan explains why he eats with his fingers, why plates are undemocratic and what makes tomatoes evoke summer memories. 

Text:
Severin Corti
Photos:
Georges Desrues
I

" I cook with my hands, i eat with my hands."

It’s early afternoon when we meet Israel’s most famous chef in the Abraxas, one of his eight Tel Aviv restaurants. The last lunchers are sipping coffee or mint tea and enjoy the casual atmosphere of the seemingly messy yet charming interior. Shani sits down with his staffers to discuss the details of next month’s menu and how the new dishes are to be communicated to the altogether hip and discerning guests. After all, Shani does not owe his stardom merely to the quality of his food but also to his gift of putting his passion for excellent produce and straightforward cooking into poetic, emotionally laden language. The media loves him and his second career as one of the judges on the hit show “Master­Chef” made him everybody’s darling.

Straight-forward Mediterranean flavours define the creations of the pioneer of the new Israeli cuisine.

Unique seasoning tricks

Eyal Shani runs restaurants in Tel Aviv, Paris and Vienna. These days you see him in New York a lot where he’s preparing the opening of his next Miznon outpost, a sort of bistro-style eatery cum party atmosphere, where freshly prepared and quixotically combined ingredients fill soft and fluffy pita bread. The chef with the highly contagious laughter is the main initiator for the hype around Israeli cuisine that is currently swooping the globe. Lots of veggies, tasty fish and succulent lamb, of course, but mostly it’s the variety of cooking styles, sublime seasoning techniques based on the Arabic and other Levantine cuisines combined with a refreshingly relaxed approach towards table manners and what is commonly considered “fine dining”. That’s the secret recipe that has earned Tel Aviv a reputation as a fascinating new-style gourmet destin­ation in recent years.

“A plate is a plate is a plate”

“Going out for food always has a flavour of adventure,” Eyal Shani tells us, “you never really know what to expect when you try out a new restaurant. I like that.” In the Abraxas, like in all his other restaurants, the food is not served on plates or platters but on simple pieces of thick cardboard or wrapped in baking paper. “A plate is a plate is a plate,” he explains. “It is a clearly confined vessel that suggests ownership to its user. It says ‘what’s on here, is mine’. A highly unsocial notion!” The moment he finishes his sentence, the waiter brings one of Shani’s signature dishes: “Slaughtered tomatoes”, filleted, quartered tomatoes with the stem still attached, seasoned with nothing but fleur de sel and first-class olive oil. The crude paper carton on which it is served slowly soaks up the juice and oil. “Look at it. The carton is flat and therefore becomes part of the table. Everything that’s on it belongs to everyone on this table. Eating is sharing – that’s the only way the energy can start to flow!” Eyal Shani picks up a piece of tomato with his fingers and calls on us to do the same. “Look at the tomato. Taste it.” We conclude that it tastes nice, just like a ripe tomato should. “Can you feel it?” Shani asks. “Can you taste the sun that almost brought this fruit to the boil?” To Shani, the tomato is the symbol of the virtue of life. “It doesn’t only store energy but also the memory of the most important element of all, sunlight.” When the man with the thick silver-grey mane fixates us with passionate, cheerful and slightly sneery eyes, framed by big glasses, anything he explains does not only make perfect sense, it also strikes one as a profound piece of wisdom. The fact that Shani eats almost everything with his fingers is part of his nature; the gracefulness with which he does it, is his mark. As are the “Lines of Aubergine”, a dish for which the vegetable is roasted as a whole, then peeled, finely chopped and served like an illegal drug in accur­ate lines on a piece of cardboard covered in sesame paste. “I cook with my fingers, I eat with my fingers,” Eyal Shani says while casually dipping his finger in the perfectly dressed creation before passionately licking it clean.

Before any new dish premiers on the menu, Eyal Shani himself instructs his crew on how to prepare and style it.
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