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Q & A With Yisrael Aharoni, Israeli Celebrity Chef: Chinese Food in Israel, Hollywood + Being a DJ

Flying a kite
Flying a kite
Courtesy of Israel Aharoni

Israel Aharoni keeps himself busy. He's a chef, television show developer and host, journalist and cookbook author. Credited with being Israel's first celebrity chef and bringing Chinese food to Israel, Aharoni studied cooking in Taiwan and has owned and operated several restaurants in Israel, including the French restaurant Golden Apple, which received 17 points in the Gault-Millot guide. He was also the guide's chef of the year for Israel in 1998 and went on to own two Chinese restaurants in the Tel Aviv area.

Aharoni has hosted a number of TV shows in Israel over the last several years, tincluding a series tracing the history of pasta along the Silk Road. He's been in the industry for 35 years. His latest venture? Making it in Hollywood. Check out our interview with the chef after the jump.

Squid Ink: How did you get into Chinese cooking?

Israel Aharoni: Basically I was meant to be an artist. It was after my military service. I went to Amsterdam to study art. When I came back to Israel, just by accident, I bumped into a woman who cooked Chinese food. To be honest, I had no background in food. My only connection was that I loved eating. At that time Chinese food was completely unknown to Israelis -- 35 years ago. And I was so amazed and shocked to try it for the first time in my life, because It was so different and new to me. I couldn't even imagine how food could be so different. Everything was different -- the flavor, the texture, the aroma. And I fell in love. I really have no other words to describe it but I really fell in love.

SI: Why did you choose Taiwan instead of China as your country of study?

IA: Thirty-five years ago, China was not an option at all. I really wanted to study Chinese food, so I went to Taiwan. I needed a sponsor, but I met a nice lady named Linda Yeh, who was a Taiwanese representative to Israel then. I studied Chinese cooking for a little bit over a year and I was the only foreigner. I wasn't really sure if I wanted to do it as a profession but I loved every minute in Taiwan.

SI: So you moved back to Israel after the classes. What prompted you to open a Chinese restaurant?

IA: A friend of mine ate my food and said I had to open a restaurant. And I did. It was the first Chinese restaurant in Tel Aviv. In 1981. In a blink of an eye it was an immediate success. Chinese food was so new then -- there weren't that many restaurants and food culture wasn't big then. Chinese dishes and chopsticks were new. Nobody knew how to eat with chopsticks. As a result, in the next decade after I opened my restaurant, there were 17 Chinese restaurants in Tel Aviv. It was so popular and I am arguably one of the first people who brought Chinese food to Israel.

SI: What type of Chinese cuisine have you concentrated on?

IA: It's really a mixture of all kind of Chinese cuisine -- mainly Sichuan, which I love. I don't know how it is now in Taiwan, but 35 years ago Sichuan food was very popular.

SI: Any interesting stories about the reception of Chinese food in Israel?

IA: Eggplant is one of the most popular ingredients in Israel. We eat a lot of eggplant. My favorite dish is beef szechuan with caramelized eggplant, but the Israelis refused to try it. They said it was a Israeli ingredient, how come the Chinese used it? But after a while it became really popular.

SI: I hear you also DJ. How did you get into that?

IA: After I cooked Chinese food for 15 years, I started to cook other styles of cuisine. Israel is made of different ethnic groups and I started to elevate those different ethnic groups. About 10 years ago I was invited to a famous dance bar and was invited to make one dish for their menu and DJ that evening. I really enjoyed it like hell. The guy invited me to play once a week there and my wife signed me up for a DJ school. Needless to say, I was the oldest student in the class. But I really enjoyed it.

SI: You clearly have a lot of accomplishments on your resume. What's next?

IA: I've written 20 cookbooks so far and I'm doing a lot of television. I've traveled the Silk Road, to Central Asia and to Italy. More recently I explored the connection between Italian pasta and the Chinese noodle. There's a interesting and long history behind that. But right now I'm trying to make it into television in the United States -- especially documentaries. I also write for the biggest newspaper in Israel for the last 22 years. I don't see myself only interested in what's happening in israel. The world is my playground, not only Israel. Food isn't just bound into one border. Food is beyond the borders that were made by people and that's my main interest.


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