Eyal Shani on wet dreams, tomatoes, and the Mediterranean kitchen.
Words and Photos by Roee Lotan
On the business and pleasure of the industry, Eyal Shani reveals the layered mechanisms of his life’s work.
Eyal, how are you? What’s new in your world?
Eyal Shani: I have a lot of reflection on what is happening in cuisines around the world. Two things: I look at the world and I see that global warming is affecting how we engage with resources. I suspect that in 20 years we won’t be able to grow anything in soil, because of the heat, dryness, and radiation. Natural crops will cease to be. Second, the best food was always enclosed in three-star Michelin restaurants, it was reserved for older people in suits. Over the last few years it has expanded and connected to varying situations. Food has become an experience, thus creating a whole new audience.
What makes a dish be considered good food?
ES: Good food comes from local ingredients, unity of time, place and plot. All four are necessary for this to happen. In France, the damn macaron destroyed the world of French pastries. At a time, you could see tarts with beautiful burnt crusts, families of pastries, styles and flavors. Then the colorful confection came along and diminished all of the cooking fundamentals the French kitchen was based. In both Japan and New York, the hype around food is bigger than the cuisine itself.
There’s an interesting debate today about the relationship between form and taste. Do you think food should be beautiful?
ES: Dressed up food is not bound to its internal mechanisms. Beauty does not come from decoration but from being true to self. Even if you created a false reality in food, but within it, is a true, self supporting, and coherent structure, great beauty will be found by those who consume it. If your intentions are to create an attractive dish you are flattening the food. Today, leaves are grown like chickens using Ultraviolet light. When I first saw them, even I thought they were beautiful, and then I immediately become annoyed with myself that I did not see that they have no inner structure.
What’s the difference between seeming beautiful and being truly beautiful?
ES: If there is beauty that is external and manipulatively altered it will be interpreted as beautiful. I wouldn’t necessarily consider it good food. Knowledge degenerates aesthetics. What today is called extroverted aesthetics, degenerates the knowledge that exists in food. Throughout history, cuisines have created new dishes. Today the search for new dishes has stopped. This may be because these are creations of food’s interior. I don’t think the world creates food anymore. There are distant places where new food is still being made, perhaps in the Nordic kitchen. From there, a great cry arises because the cooks themselves grow from seed to plate, clinging desperately to the few solitary beams scattered sparsely in the large sea of food’s outer layers.
What is Mediterranean cuisine based on? I try to differentiate between the geographical locale and Israel as a State.
ES: We can look at Israeli society in order to understand its food. Israelis have no roots. We had roots, but they’ve been deliberately cut. With the hopes to create an Israeli figure, they severed their Sephardi and Ashkenazi roots. Israel existed for years without a regional cuisine. They had a borrowed menu, until Ruth Sirkis arrived and made food mutations like walnut rolled balls. Then the hotels decided to make kosher variations of French cuisine, an impossible feat because French cuisine is the most non-kosher cuisine in the world. At a point, I realized that in order for a nation to continue to exist, they had to have their own cuisine. Italians had Italian cuisine, South Americans, French, Japanese, Chinese, Indians, Mexicans, all had a Cuisine. But all new places like America and Israel simply didn’t have one.
And today? What are the cornerstones of Israeli cuisine?
ES: Israeli cuisine is a Viennese schnitzel wrapped in Japanese seaweed and called sushi. It’s a cuisine in which nothing is sacred. It absorbs everything that happens outside and is influenced by it. In most cases very embarrassing things happen as a result. But, in the end, the fast and flexible environment created a spectacular cuisine, one of the best in the world, in my opinion. If you find yourself in an Israeli restaurant in the middle of the night, you’ll recognize the place through the plate. There was no option to adopt a European or American cuisine and it was embarrassing to be called Mediterranean. We didn’t want to be associated with Greece or Turkey. Ultimately, Israelis had no choice but to assemble around Mediterranean cuisine because of its immediate proximity.
Is It possible that we finally found pride in our cuisine?
ES: Exactly, today there is pride in this process. After we acknowledged that it is impossible to import a cuisine, I denoted a new local kitchen that has pride in what our region provides. The Mediterranean is known for its brutal and clear foundations of fast cooking processes. There is a clear reference to fire, quick frying, salt, fresh herbs, less spice, and an emphasis on cleanliness. There are no aged sauces here. French cuisine has demi-glace, bones, vegetables and wines that have been slow cooked for sometimes two days at a time. Then they take fresh food and place prepared food on it. We use natural sauces like tahini, yogurt, tomato seeds, and olive oil.
They either carry the taste of the fields or the sun. To me, this is characteristic of Israeli food.
Where did tahini come from?
ES: Tahini came from Turkey.
When did it become Israeli?
ES: When I started cooking. I’m the first Israeli Jew to start using tahini not in an Arab restaurant.
Say, what can you answer to the voices claiming that Israeli cuisine today is based on Arab cuisine?
ES: They are right. But a cuisine in its essence is an evolutionary thing. The way to preserve it is by adapting. Very much like art, cuisine is an evolutionary form of creation. In order to survive, it needs to go through changes. As in art, each tier is supported by the tier below. I consider HaSalon, one of my restaurants in Israel, the best Palestinian restaurant in the world. Although I am not Palestinian. I can still make Palestinian food. When I started to put together the basics of the cuisine I wanted to build, the only places to seek inspiration in Israel were from the Arabs in the Old City of Jerusalem, between Nablus Gate, and the hummus in Simtat HaBadim alley. There lies a repository with all the information needed to create a new Mediterranean cuisine. In my cooking today I bridge the gap between Mediterranean and Middle Eastern. Did we start from them? Yes. They had tahini, lamb, olive oil, and winter greens like wild spinach, anchusa, and rigla. Without a doubt, we looked at them, were inspired by them, and revolutionized the whole region. A Palestinian cook today cannot make a new type of makluba, say. If he does, he is changing his mother’s recipe. But, we can because we are a rootless people.
Are you a chef? A cook?
ES: I have no degrees. In the United States, they tell me I’m a chef. It bothers me, it detaches me from the people. I connect with people through food by way of their palate. I cook towards the horizon. On that horizon there are four billion women I hope will fall in love with me. Along the way I have people’s addresses in the form of eyes that watch me while I’m cooking. I will never cook in a place with no people. I think food without someone to address can’t hold on to form. I also don’t believe in recipes because the eyes of the person you’re cooking for are a very important component to the recipe. The type of energy they transmit is not something that can be written down. Most recipes are misleading because they lack the viewer’s raw energy.
What instruments do you use to make food?
ES: I use a knife. My knife is not a utensil, but a continuation of my soul. With my soul inside food I can only do two things: deliver the food to the fire or cut it into a new form. The fire belongs to God and great forces of nature, and the knife belongs to my desires. My kitchen lives Between the intensity of the knife and the fire’s flame. I agreed with Paul Bocuse who said, “All a chef has is fire, a knife, and a work space.” There’s nothing you can’t do with these three elements.
Why do you cook? What is your motivation?
ES: When you cook consistently, your results lead to thought that changes your movement. When you’re present in your cooking, you may experience small revelations. If you’re consistent about it, you are likely to have large revelations in the food, an almost transformative experience. The desire for a revelation, receiving a glimpse into the flow of the universe can happen through prayer, meditation, or through food. Even if you experience this revelation once, you will continue to strive for it your whole life. This is what will bury you in the kitchen and make you do the least sensible thing – cook for others. If it’s your life calling, you’ll be totally at its mercy. I can’t afford to live a normal life, I work very late, and I travel all over the world. I cook from my insides. People come to eat your insides, not your food. They consume your energy.
At the end of your service, you often times light a fire at your workstation. What else does the fire burn? It sounds to me like you operate between the two extremes of a wet dream and a nightmare.
ES: That’s exactly it, between a nightmare and a wet dream. You defined it. Between dream and despair. The nightmare, in its driest form, is the business management of taste. Taste is such a fragile, mysterious thing and is reliant on kindness and the alignment of stars. You attempt to master it and it’s thankless work. Everything happens in real time and the challenge is to make delicious food. To create it and transfer it to the person’s mouth and from there to their body where the food will settle enjoyably. I know that the people I cook for every evening, will go home and my energy will continue to flow trough them. My energy, my intention, my success, and my failure will remain with them. My real passion is to connect with people. It’s a very clear male sublimation of planting your seed in as many places as possible.
As for the tomato, what is its anatomy and what does it represent?
ES: The tomato represents the sun. It is a vessel that stores the sun. If you put it in the refrigerator it will die a terrible death within itself. The botanical definition of a tomato is a tree fruit. The tomato geneticists call it a vegetable. It is the exact midpoint between fruit and vegetable. A good tomato is sweeter than a persimmon and more sour than a lemon. If a lemon’s acidity is 6.5, a tomato is 6.3, it has two opposite intensities of sour and sweet, which is the first flavor you taste as an infant. Similar to the taste of breast milk, a tomato represents a return in experiencing a primal taste. It produces a new essence which we call tomato flavor. When you want to give food form you can use vinegar, lemon, or tomato. Vinegar tastes like vinegar, lemon will taste like lemon but only tomatoes have the ability to completely blend with the taste of the food.
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