Renowned Chef Gil Hovav Talks Israeli Cuisine

Renowned Chef Gil Hovav Talks Israeli Cuisine
Gil Hovav, a renowned chef, restaurant critic, TV personality and cultural ambassador of Israel, and Jack Gottlieb, the founder of the World Jewish Heritage Fund, talk about the emergence of food culture in Israel, as well as their latest project that helps food lovers find truly authentic food establishments.
Gil Hovav and Jack Gottlieb at the launch of their ebook, Israel’s Top 100 Ethnic Restaurants Courtesy of World Jewish Heritage

You’ve said many times that Israel is too young to have its own cuisine. Do we need a cuisine that’s distinctly Israeli?

Gil: Not at all. But I think that eventually it will emerge as this collection of dishes that reciprocate and talk to one another in a very colorful way, forming a powerful quilt that you would feel is distinctly Israeli because of the ingredients, the sharpness and the shameless attitude.

Your great-grandfather Eliezer Ben Yehuda undertook the task of reviving the Hebrew language because he thought it would unify the Jewish community. Would a national cuisine be akin to the language in fulfilling this role?

Gil: Good question. I would say… no. The language was badly needed. As for the food, not as much. Once you have a nation, the food will follow.

Food critic Gil Hovav talking about the unique Israeli cuisine Courtesy of World Jewish Heritage

How does your daughter Naomi define what you do at work?

Gil: She loves my job and she loves going to restaurants and hotels. She is all about consumerism, but whenever people ask her what my best dish is, she says kzizot (meatballs).

Tabouleh salad recipe by Gil Hovav Courtesy of the World Jewish Heritage

You’ve never owned a restaurant of your own. Why is that?

Gil: I once opened a pop-up Yemenite restaurant in New York for three days and I loved it. But the best thing was closing it down. Now everybody wants me to do it again. I got offers from everywhere from L.A. to Moscow, and as long as it’s for three days, then I’m willing to do it.

You’ve been credited with bringing Israeli food to a higher level, but with your latest project, Israel’s Top 100 Ethnic Restaurants ebook, you seem to be going back to the basics.

Gil: In the ’80s and the early ’90s, when food was emerging in Israel, I was a journalist writing about food in Israel and abroad. I learned (together with all my readers) about how many options there really were. And now we are going back to our roots, re-appreciating and recreating the ethnic food, but without changing it too much. This project is about going in reverse but not losing the essence.

Jack: My biggest fear is for my friends to come to Israel and look for places to eat on TripAdvisor. I wanted them to go to the places that Google doesn’t have, and to be able to show the culinary heritage of the country through the original food. That’s why I got Gil involved because he is the foremost authority on these small places. And you know the most important thing about them? Not even the food. The people behind them! The owners are 70, 80 and even 90 years old. This is the main difference between our book and others out there. We show the people.

Cover of Israel’s Top 100 Ethnic Restaurants ebook Courtesy of World Jewish Heritage

Gil: It’s a book about the heart. It’s about the owners and the pride in their eyes when they are holding a pan of shakshuka. And they are not saying “This is not mine.” They are saying “This is my grandmother’s.”

So why the e-book, as opposed to a regular book?

Jack: Since restaurants happen to be rising and falling faster than you can write an article, it happens to be the right format. Since our e-book came out, three restaurants have failed, but there are a lot of interesting new ones. We change content every month.

What is your next project?

Gil: A book including Jewish and non-Jewish restaurants of Jerusalem. This project will be really hardcore because Jerusalem is hardcore. It is both exciting and challenging because there aren’t a lot of people who know non-Jewish restaurant cuisine in Israel, and those places turn out to be real hidden gems.