Text by Oded Tshesly
This February History was made in Abu Dhabi. At the peak of a week-long event, the media company 50 Best revealed the list of the top 50 restaurants in the MENA regions. It was the first time that the international culinary scene dedicated such an event only to these regions, far away from the “big” European, North American, and Asian cuisines.
But another historical moment, far more important, occurred. A step that had been regarded as imaginary and could have been taken only after signing normalization agreements between Israel and UAE and Bahrain, the restaurant included also 6 Israeli restaurants from Israel. More than 10% of the list. Restaurants from Tel Aviv and Ashdod were named together with ones from Beirut and Riyadh. Utopia. Not only that, but the fact that to the third place on the prestigious list came the Tel Avivian OCD, which was created and lives by Chef Raz Rahav.
Without getting into politics (it will come, it cannot be avoided), Israel is a unique country in the middle east. Often, those who think about Israel think about Tel Aviv, which is a unique city in Israel and is called “The State of Tel Aviv”. OCD is located in Jaffa, the city from which Tel Aviv sprang, and in time got absorbed in its offspring with its mostly Arab population. And inside the bubble-within-the-bubble-within-the-bubble Chef Rahav created his own bubble. Photos of the restaurant and dishes on the continuously updating menu might tag OCD as “European” or “International”, but Rahav insists on calling it “an Israeli bubble as we want it to be.”
The menu is defined as “progressive Israeli cuisine,” which immediately turns the look to the past. Where there’s progress there’s movement, and if there’s movement it has a source. What is the source of this progress and what are the roots of OCD?
“Israeli cuisine” is a slippery concept, also for Israeli diners. Around the world, it’s usually related to the North African Jewish diasporas. Think of couscous with fish in spicy tomato sauce. At the same time “Jewish cuisine,” which should at least be partially congruent, is perceived as the images from the United States, which means East European Jewish diaspora. Think Chicken soup and matzoh balls. Rahav confronts the identity issue in his unique way and suggests that there are no roots to the Israeli cuisine, since once these diasporas co-live in the territory on the eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea, they are no longer as they were. Therefore, the Israeli cuisine is not an organic development of any of these roots but was created as such.
The current menu of OCD asks to tell the story of Israeli agriculture, a well-known ethos for Israelis. Yet, Rahav states that “not everything local is Israeli; not everything Israeli is local,” a statement that allows him to choose from a vast range of options the right ingredients for the dishes he creates.
A strawberry serving (and Rahav insists on calling it a strawberry serving) is centered around an 18-months strawberry concentration on top of fresh tuna with local algae, for the savory balance. This Is not a fish dish; it’s a dish of a farmer and the fish is only the supporting actor. Or a dessert of whipped and dried cream, with gel and cured Kumquat, a typical tree in many Israeli gardens, and fried za’atar. Where the Israeli patron can hold on to well-hinged hooks of Israeli nostalgia, the non-Israeli will have to leave their misconception about Israeli and Jewish cuisine in Jaffa’s air, and listen to Rahav’s story very carefully.
Regardless of the seasonal menu, Rahav promises to serve the diners also “chutzpah”, a word which is not exactly “rudeness” and definitely not “shame,” but gives a good overview of the Israeli character that allows itself to break forms to get the desired result. The Israeli farmers need lots of “chutzpah” to get the most from a territory that spans not more than a five-hour drive from one side to the other. Only this way they can grow caviar in Kibbutz Dan, bergamot in the center of Israel, and soon also truffle in the “far” North. If the farmer should implement technology and become also an IT expert – so be it.
“Chutzpah” is not a strange concept for Rahav, who opened OCD when he was (very) young. So, without strings attached to a pre-defined Israeli cuisine, he takes dishes that compose this culture, and changes a small thing in them, giving a touch of innovative “chutzpah” while respecting their source. Local chickpeas and a classic French technique create a serving that only looks like an Egyptian falafel – but it’s all Israeli. Or a celebration of buckwheat in many forms, a memory from Rahav’s Polish-heritage home, that creates a dessert, from all dishes. Very far from the humble reputation of these seeds. “Cooking is a method and OCD was built as a method,” explains Rahav, “but an Israeli-like method. To get to the result, you can cross a little bit the lines that are set while acknowledging its components.” In one word – chutzpah.
While other cuisines around the world are in constant search of their roots, trying to revive them in a modern way, the essence of Israeli cuisine is to combine these far elements, while being able to identify them in the mixture. Following this idea, Rahav reveals, that OCD’s next menu will present the home dishes of 18 of the kitchen staff and not less than 10 diasporas. A family table experience that will celebrate Israeli cuisine. “Without collaboration and combination of different cuisines, the Israeli cuisine cannot survive,” is the motto for the work in OCD, but also in the wider Israeli cooking scene. And for proving his words he shows me an incoming message from one of his fellow Tel Avivian chefs on the 50 Best’s list, thanking him for the kitchen appliance Rahav sent him to replace the former’s broken one.
Our conversation circled OCD, but Rahav expresses his vision for Israeli cuisine as a whole. His career emerged from a real eating disorder and OCD, which made him understand that there is no cultural method in Israel that culinary is a part of. “Culture is set by the refined and the humble,” he gestures to explain the idea, “and as OCD is refined, “Tirza” (wine bar which is Rahav’s new enterprise that opened just a couple of hours after the interview) is humble – but as it should be. The space of creation is conformed after setting up the extremes, and swipes everything in between.” And when Rahav talks about setting up the extremes, he means that he will set up the extremes. “I’m here not to preach but to set an example, not pointing to the cultural-culinary destination I think Israel should get to, but going there by myself and calling others to join me. If there are no roots, I want to be the roots for others decades ahead.”
The 50 Best’s event was unique by embracing Israel, even if only formally, to the region it’s located in. “Dealing with great complexities we planted seeds for future collaborations,” Rahav tells, being very accurate when choosing his words, “alongside personal connection with chefs from far and not-so-far countries.”
This event was only the beginning of the MENA regions entering the global culinary sphere. Later this year also Gault & Millau will publish its reccomendations for restaurants in the UAE (Rahav won the guide’s title “Chef of the Year” for 2018 with 16/20 points for OCD), and the pinnacle will come in June when the Michelin guide will name the first starred restaurants in UAE. “Michelin guide doesn’t reward one restaurant in one country, so as long as there are no other Israeli restaurants that deserve a place in the guide – with stars or in the Bib Gourmand section – we will not get there,” clarifies Rahav, “therefore, ranking and stars are not the destinations I aim for. They are signs that we’re going the right way towards our destination, which is a particular culinary culture, and they will come when we get there.” “Since these prizes represent a right method for acknowledging this destination,” pops up the word which Is fundamental to Rahav’s work, “even if we do not win them, it doesn’t mean that we need to change everything we do. Just to think about what I do.”
As Rahav says himself, there’s still a long way until a full guide to the MENA region, but when it happens – and it will happen – Israeli restaurants will have a prime spot. And among them, Chef Raz Rahav will be a lighthouse to other Israeli chefs. As he aims for. As it should be.
17 Tirtza st. Tel Aviv