Meet Is­rael’s Jamie

Gil Ho­vav is Gor­don Ram­say, Jamie Oliver and JK Rowl­ing all rolled into one. Alex Kas­riel talks to the multi-tal­ented chef known by Is­raelis as ‘Cap­tain Cook’

The Jewish Chronicle - - FEATURES -

IF YOU have spent much time in Is­rael re­cently, you will be very well ac­quainted with culi­nary per­son­al­ity Gil Ho­vav. In fact, he was hard to avoid when his TV show, Cap­tain Cook, was on screens ev­ery night on Is­rael’s Chan­nel Two, and a su­per­mar­ket chain used Ho­vav’s face on an ad­ver­tis­ing bill­board tow­er­ing over Tel Aviv’s high­ways.

But Is­rael’s most fa­mous television chef and cook­ery-book writer adores all the at­ten­tion.

“Friends ask me if I’m em­bar­rassed, but I love it,” says the youth­ful-look­ing but bald and be­spec­ta­cled star. Where Bri­tain has Jamie Oliver ad­ver­tis­ing su­per­mar­kets, bring­ing out recipe books and cook­ing on TV, Is­raelis have Ho­vav. He has been cred­ited with chang­ing the im­age of Is­raeli cui­sine from a coun­try of ba­sic tra­di­tional foods into a “gourmet na­tion”.

The 48-year-old, who lives with his male part­ner in Tel Aviv, is a bit of a re­nais­sance man — pro­duc­ing his own TV shows as well as writ­ing fiction and even news­pa­per-edit­ing. He was in Lon­don re­cently with the New Is­rael Fund, giv­ing talks on mod­ern He­brew (he is the great-grand­son of Eliezer Ben-Ye­huda, the re­viver of the He­brew lan­guage), and per­form­ing cook­ery demon­stra­tions. But of course he does not get the same at­ten­tion over here as he does in his na­tive Is­rael.

“I don’t think it’s pos­si­ble for me to be a celebrity world­wide,” he ad­mits. “First of all, my nov­els are all in He­brew. I don’t think this will travel very well. The other rule is: cook­books don’t travel well. We in Is­rael don’t have any for­eign cook­books apart from Jamie Oliver, who is on TV. I’m based in Is­rael. I’m good with that.”

In his latest show, he sought to find Is­rael’s best dish by trav­el­ling round the coun­try ask­ing ex­perts to judge two favourite dishes from a city, vil­lage or kib­butz, and then get­ting the na­tion to vote. For all its sta­tus as hum­ble street food, falafel was the win­ner.

“Is­rael is sup­posed to have gone be­yond f al af el , but I t h i n k we ’ r e com­ing back to our roots,” he says. “Af­ter the sec­ond in­tifada, and fol­low­ing a fi­nan­cial re­ces­sion, the posh restau­rants closed and we went back to restau­rants serv­ing sim­ple Is­raeli food. Now the econ­omy is do­ing well, but the food is get­ting more sim­ple rather than chi-chi.”

But he adds that falafel should not be made in the home. “Per­son­ally, I never make falafel. It’s nice, but it’s a street food.”

In­stead, he talks about one of his sig­na­ture dishes — but­ter­fly soup. He has named it thus be­cause the tomato-soup recipe — passed on from his grand­mother — con­tains rice that opens up like but­ter­flies. His Moroc­can grand­mother, whom he re­mem­bers as “ed­u­cated, the­atri­cal and funny”, never let him help her in the kitchen as a young­ster, be­cause tra­di­tion­ally it was bad luck for a man to cook. But he watched her like a hun­gry gan­net, and was even al­lowed to skip school to spend time with her. “As a kid, I’d much r a t her stay at home with her than go to school,” he con­fesses. “I used to tell my mother I didn’t feel well, and she knew I was mak­ing it up but she thought I’d learn more with her than with my teach­ers.” Later he would try out her dishes un­til he got them right. “I tried and tried for some time to make the soup. Then one day I re­mem­bered she added two carrots, and im­me­di­ately the soup had that sweet­ness.”

Ho­vav talks about his love for sim­ple, hon­est food, but one of his TV shows, Cap­tain Cook, fo­cused on the higher end of the gas­tro­nomic food chain by seek­ing out the best restau­rants in the world. His team went to the US, Ja­pan and, of course, Old Blighty, to check out the world’s best restau­rants, in­clud­ing Lo­canda Lo­catelli and tra­di­tional Bri­tish eaterie Rules.

But one chef chucked him out, even though he had ar­ranged to film in his restau­rant in ad­vance. “It’s Gor­don Ram­say, you ex­pect that,” laughs Ho­vav, with more good hu­mour than you would imag­ine to come from a cer­tain Miche­lin-starred chef.

Is­raelis are re-en­gag­ing with their culi­nary roots — which means a re­vival for falafel ( above), says Gil Ho­vav ( pic­tured be­low)

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