TURN­ING UP THE HEAT IS­RAEL’S SU­PERCHEF

Nir Zook’s cook­ing shows are watched by thou­sands of Is­raelis. He talks to Kather­ine Martinelli

The Jewish Chronicle - - Front Page - www.kather­ine­martinelli.com

AT THE AGE of only 35, Nir Zook al­ready has three restau­rants, two cook­books, one patis­serie, a mag­a­zine col­umn, and a tele­vi­sion show un­der his belt. He is one of the chefs defin­ing mod­ern food in Is­rael, one of the coun­try’s orig­i­nal food celebri­ties.

Cook­ing shows are im­mensely pop­u­lar in Is­rael, and Is­raelis are ev­ery bit as en­am­oured of their chef su­per­stars as their Bri­tish or Amer­i­can coun­ter­parts, with com­pet­ing shows on prime-time and a quickly grow­ing food me­dia in­dus­try.

Mas­ter-chef-style com­pe­ti­tions typ­i­cally top the prime-time rat­ings, but Zook’s shows tend to be a bit dif­fer­ent. His first show, Zookaria, aired in 2002 and was some­where be­tween a cook­ing show and a talk show. Each episode had a va­ri­ety of guests, from Is­raeli movie stars and fash­ion de­sign­ers to news­pa­per ed­i­tors. While Zook pre­pared a recipe, some­times in­spired by the guest’s back­ground, the guests would talk about food and life. One of his cook­books, Nir Zook Cooks, is a col­lec­tion of recipes from the show. His most re­cent pro­gramme, A Chef By Sur

prise, fea­tures Zook ar­riv­ing unan­nounced at homes around Is­rael and pre­par­ing a meal based en­tirely on what the peo­ple who live there have in their pantry, fridge and, if avail­able, their gar­den. He aims to demon­strate that amaz­ing meals can be made sim­ply with what is to hand.

Grow­ing up on his fam­ily’s flower and fruit farm in south­ern Is­rael, Zook ate three home­cooked meals a day with his mother, fa­ther, three brothers, and any friends who stopped by. “A nor­mal lunch at my fam­ily’s house would be like 12 or 14 peo­ple,” he re­calls. “I was much more in­ter­ested in the food part than the farm­ing.”

It did not take long for him to trans­late a love for food into a ca­reer. “It started when I was 13,” he says. “I was pas­sion­ate about cook­ing and I found a job af­ter school in a restau­rant in a small place in our vil­lage.” As soon as he could he moved to San Fran­cisco, where he spent a year cook­ing for pri­vate din­ner par­ties, then to Paris to pol­ish his tech­niques and ex­pand his palate.

In 1999 he opened his first restau­rant, Cordelia, in an old Turk­ish build­ing in Jaffa, fol­lowed by Noa Bistro 10 years ago and Jaffa Bar in 2003. “Is­rael is a funny place, be­cause af­ter 12 years I am one of the es­tab­lish­ment in the city. And I’m too young to be part of the es­tab­lish­ment,” he says. But in a city in which most restau­rants will not last more than a year, the longevity of this mini-em­pire is note­wor­thy.

For Zook, the three restau­rants each re­flect a dif­fer­ent as­pect of work. Cordelia of­fers fine din­ing in a so­phis­ti­cated but re­laxed set­ting. “The idea was to make a place that feels like a palace, but a palace owned by your fam­ily,” he ex­plains. “A place that even though it’s ex­clu- sive, you feel com­fort­able.” Noa Bistro is the ca­sual out­post, yet still of­fer­ing im­pec­ca­ble food and house-made breads and pas­tas, and Jaffa Bar “is a very laid-back, non-pick-up bar”.

Even with so many projects, Zook still trav­els ev­ery month and con­tin­ues to cook for pri­vate din­ner par­ties. “Out of 30 days a month, at least 12 I’m not here,” he says. “I do a lot of din­ner par­ties out­side the coun­try, in the States, Paris, the UK. I’ve been to Africa, I’ve been to the Caribbean, I’ve cooked all over the world. It’s fun. You get to meet fab­u­lous peo­ple, cook in their houses. It’s spe­cial.”

He has writ­ten two more cook­books, but is in no rush to have them pub­lished. He has just fin­ished the fourth sea­son of A Chef By

Sur­prise, and is work­ing on a new TV pro­ject. He also writes for the pop­u­lar on­line news­pa­per, Ynet.

When asked about his plans for the fu­ture, Zook smiles. “At the mo­ment I’m happy,” he says. Which comes as no sur­prise at all.

PHOTO: GILAAD KAVALERCHIK

Nir Zook at Cordelia in Jaffa, the first of three restau­rants he runs, set up in 1999

A Zook sig­na­ture dessert: chocolate mousse with pis­ta­chio cream

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