On their first trip to Los Angeles, Israeli chefs Assaf Granit and Uri Navon wasted no time in getting to know some of this town's culinary habits. They shopped at the Santa Monica Farmers Market, partnered with Suzanne Tracht for a dinner tribute to Israeli Independence at Jar, and cooked at Nobu Malibu with Gregorio Stephenson. When they stepped out of their chef's whites, they dined at Animal and Son of a Gun. A few days later they made a round of food truck visits — after they purchased gifts for their wives. It was emblematic of what is commonly assocated with food in L.A.: seasonal ingredients, mobility, as well as bridging gaps between high and low, old and new.
Because while Nordic and Spanish restaurants have both invigorated notions of locavorism and suspended conventions, the contemporary cuisine of Israel may be closer to our food sensibility here.
“Our favorite thing is to go to the market everyday and choose vegetables, supplies and meats. So when we got to the [Santa Monica] market on Wednesday, we were blown away,” says Navon. “We immediately changed the menu, with both chef Suzanne and chef Gregorio. We added a lot of fresh farmers market ingredients, such as fresh kale, green almonds, and garbanzo beans.
“The market in Jerusalem is larger, but there's more variety of everything here. We have asparagus, but we don't have purple ones and white ones.”
Granit, Navon, and Yossi Elad (who didn't join the trip) named their Jerusalem restaurant Machneyuda after that city's Machane Yehuda market, fitting for not only its location at the market, but the restaurant's hyper-seasonal menu that is changed daily to reflect what's in season.
“We really wanted to work very dynamically and very fluidly, so we can change whatever we want whenever we can change it. It makes people feel we put our souls in the food,” says Navon, explaining how three to four dishes are different on a 35-item menu per day. They keep staples like a pasta dish around, swapping out the ingredients instead. It might be tomatoes and sage on one day, organic carrots and fresh garlic the next.
Both chefs, who are also both 34, grew up in Jerusalem and worked in restaurants in their hometown. Each worked abroad in cities like Rome and London before returning to open up Machneyuda with Elad along with three other restaurants. Machneyuda would become an amalgam of their collective experiences.
“We took a lot of techniques that we learned and integrated them with Israeli flavors and Mediterranean products,” says Granit. He notes the significance of home cooking at Machneyuda and keeping an open kitchen in multiple senses of the word.
“Everybody brings his own culinary heritage — all the cooks and employees. We have a very liberated kitchen. If one of the guys comes and says, 'Listen, maybe we should do that and this,' we'll go okay let us work on it together and design it to be appropriate for service,” says Granit.
This attitude extends to visitors to the restaurant. “We have people dining at the kitchen and served by the chefs in charge at the moment. By having an open kitchen, especially in Jerusalem, it made it a lot more communicative with the customers. We talk to everybody at eye-level. We don't even care who they are; we treat everybody the same.”
“When we first started Machneyuda, we just wanted to do what we call 'happy food.' You can come in and enjoy your food — like a gourmet kitchen, but in a disguise,” elaborates Navon. “So it won't feel like you're in a gourmet kitchen and people won't have to come in a suit and tie to sit in the restaurant. People feel free in the restaurant. Sometimes dinner ends with dancing on the tables.”
“We wanted a restaurant that didn't have any boundaries and rules. We didn't want it to be stuck-up,” says Granit.
In July, the chefs will start another project that allows them to push the idea of inclusion even further: Together with non-profit organization Jerusalem Season of Culture, they'll be launching a food truck.
Turn the page…
“We're going to go around Jerusalem everyday for three weeks and cook a different dish in every location. Every dish will be unique to the place where we're stopping, and unique to the person we're going to meet over there,” says Granit. “For example, we're going to meet with a very famous Israeli football player next to the football stadium and cook a dish he remembers from his childhood. Another example is with a famous Israeli poet — we'll do a dish inspired by one of his poems.
“We like the movement of going everyday to a special place,” says Granit, who views the food truck as a way to reach out to those who can't afford to eat at their restaurants. “It's going to be low-priced. The city is subsidizing part of it and we're not taking a lot of money for our work.
“It will give us a lot of different perspectives, because we're going to meet a lot of people and hear great stories about their childhood in Jerusalem. It's such a good idea to get so many ideas and so many stories, because we feel that food is not just food. Every dish is its own story.”
At its core, Israeli cuisine is a fusion of various influences, says Granit. “A lot of immigrants came from all over the place — Europe, Morocco, Iraq, and Iran. Everybody brings his own cuisine and his own grandma's dishes; the kind of stuff that you grew up with.”
“Israeli cuisine is now starting to support organic products and cook farm-to-table. We've [done] it naturally for the past five years since we've opened,” says Granit. “Generally, Israeli cuisine is leaping forward. A lot of Israeli chefs are coming back from Europe or the U.S. after learning and acquiring a lot of skills.”
Tracht called them at their hotel everyday to check up on them. They even felt a sort of kinship with Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook.
“We had a splendid dinner at Animal. We like it very much. They cook like us — the same attitude towards the ingredients. Like us, they don't have any fears of inner parts, brains, pig ears, and pig heads. We tried everything on the menu,” says Navon.
“The big thing for us was the approach. They're professionals, but they don't take themselves too seriously. They're not stuck-up,” says Granit.
The chefs may return to L.A. soon, if tentative talks with the American Friends of the Israel Museum are any indication.
“They want us to come during the summer and do a kind of food and arts in L.A.,” says Granit.
And in related news:
Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook. Follow the author on Twitter at @chrstnchiao.