Friday, July 8, 2011
Exchange program brings Creole kitchen celebrities to Golan base.
By Liz Steinberg
The four New Orleans chefs were crammed into a commander's office on an Israel Defense Forces base in the Golan Heights last Wednesday. They were decked out in kitchen whites, their names in Hebrew embroidered on the jacket.
Well-known chefs back home - John Besh was voted one of the Ten Best New Chefs in America by Food & Wine magazine in 1999 and has appeared on shows including "Top Chef"; Alon Shaya is Besh's partner at their Italian restaurant, Domenica; Jacques Leonardi runs the Nawlins-style Jacques-Imo's Cafe, and David Slater is chef de cuisine at celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse's Emeril's New Orleans - their mission that night was to prepare a four-course Creole dinner for several hundred soldiers from the Namer battalion, with the help of three Israeli chefs and the base's kitchen staff.
But this wasn't the food they were used to cooking at home. There would be no ham or shrimp, and certainly no alligator cheesecake - a Leonardi specialty. This meal would be strictly kosher, and made from the available ingredients on a far-flung army base.
Chef Gilad Dolev, a culinary consultant and one of the organizers of the event, sternly called the chefs to order. It was 3 P.M., and they were starting an hour behind schedule. Their deadline was 8 P.M. He apologized: Due to kashrut limitations, they'd be lacking some of the kitchen tools and spices they had asked for. He requested their patience.
But the chefs were cool as cucumbers. After Hurricane Katrina, they cooked for 20,000people at a time, said Shaya.
"This is what we do. It's certainly not the food we cook in our restaurants, but that's okay. It doesn't need to be," Besh said.
Evidently it wasn't the physical task that challenged them - that was all in a day' work. It was the significance of what they were doing, said Besh, who had served in Operation Desert Storm as a member of the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve. Leonardi, too, is a former military man. He graduated from the Coast Guard Academy and served in New Orleans in the 1980s.
"This is exciting. I've always dreamed of coming here," Besh said as he put on his shoes and apron; visiting Israel has helped him better understand his Christian faith, he said. "I respect that all these people are protecting their home. I think it's a very noble thing to give back to those who are giving so much."
The four chefs were in Israel last week as part of Partnership 2Gether, a Jewish Agency program coordinated by volunteers in Rosh Ha'ayin and New Orleans. During their one-week trip they had helped prepare Shabbat dinner at a home in Rosh Ha'ayin, visited tourist sites including Masada and Jerusalem's Old City, met with local chefs and dined at an array of top-rated restaurants.
The next morning they were scheduled to rise at 4 A.M. to see an artillery demonstration. Danny Shani, the Rosh Ha'ayin chairman of the twinned-city partnership, arranged the visit to the army base, where his brother-in-law was the commander.
Meanwhile, the chefs checked out the mise-en-place. There was a side room filled with large metal trays of chopped vegetables, prepared a few hours before by the soldiers. There was chicken in the fridge, and a large vat of chicken stock simmering one of the eight commercial burners in the middle of the kitchen. Spices were laid out on a table to the side.
Soldiers bustled about. On an ordinary day, five army cooks made dinner; today there were 15, not including the soldier prep cooks and the visiting chefs.
Charged with preparing dessert that evening, Shaya stepped into a separate room with Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, president of the U.S.-based Clal, The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. The chefs affectionately referred to Hirschfield as "the rabbi." Shaya was born in Israel but left when he was 4. He said that as a child in the United States he had rejected his Israeli identity, but was now trying to relearn Hebrew and make up for lost time. He and Besh had even discussed launching a restaurant in Israel; they simply weren't sure they could do it well, Shaya said.
Haaretz-The Nawlins Way to Feed an Army