Part I – V:
News from the Holy Land – A War Time Chef’s Diary

Rama’s Kitchen is a distinguished Restaurant in Israel, which is located in the middle of the Jerusalem Hills. It is known for its excellent food as well as for the breathtaking beauty of the local nature. Particular to the Restaurant is its partial self-sufficiency – head chef Tomer Niv and his crew are drawing the vegetables from several gardens planted around the Restaurant. The crew too, is particular. It consists of Muslims, Christians and Jews, something not to be taken for granted in the Middle East.

In the last two weeks the conflict around Gaza has reached new peaks. The situation started to escalate with the murder of three Israeli adolescents in June. Israeli hardliners took revenge – that being the official version of it – and killed a Palestinian boy last week. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Almost unnoticed by much of the world, joyfully tied up to their TVs watching the football world cup in Brazil, a new wave of violence has taken over much of the country. Fire from both sides. Growing numbers of people are being killed and injured. A possible ground invasion by the Israeli army was 10 days under discussion until it was lounged last thursday.

In the midst of all this madness, Tomer Niv and his team have to continue with their daily business. It seems, also to them, like they are not very close to the action. But how can you be really far away, hearing the missiles explode above your head? Tomer keeps us updated about the situation and daily life with an on-going diary published here in the Contemporary Food Lab Journal. 

What follows are the diary entries I – V.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Day 10 of the conflict

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Major escalation in Gaza. Israel launched a ground invasion on Thursday. The reason for the trigger: tunnels dug by Hamas from Gaza to Israel. Israel uses large forces to protect itself from the “terror tunnels”: infantry, artillery, tanks and combat engineers. Hamas announces “dreadful consequences” of the ground offensive: “Gaza will be the graveyard of the occupation soldiers, and these are not slogans.” It is not clear how long the operation could last. Israeli officials suggested two weeks.

Raggi our farmer that is working in the nursery that is around the restaurant has brought his daily harvest from the mountain. Although Israel is basically a very dry country, we find amazing wild produce around our restaurant and for me it is most exciting from a culinary point of view. Today Raggi (who lives in Gatana, a  village inside the Palestinian territory) got some red and green grapes. Mangold, wine leafs, pumpkins, sage, marjoram, rosemary, fennel.

We make our morning meeting and discuss the situation. We all agree to try and use the unexpected low bookings in order to make new dishes and try to push the level of food even higher.

A work plan for the weekend is set: we start doing a new ice tea; I had the idea this week to do a few different flavors of ice tea. Like chamomile (that grows wild here) and pomegranate (also wild) maybe we can turn it in to an ice tea menu… Figs have started to arrive and we are  excited, Moeid is working on a new fig dish that will be done by Friday I hope. Nassim and Shahar switched sections. Now Shahar is doing fish and vegetables and Nassim meat and sauce, they both have a commis chef that they share.

 

Saturday, 12. July 2014

Day 5 of the conflict

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Bloodiest day since the fighting started last Tuesday. During the day, 46 Palestinians have been killed. Total number of Israeli airstrikes reached 1320. Neil Young concert scheduled for the following Thursday, in Tel Aviv, cancelled over security concerns. Protests in Asia, Australia and Europe show criticism for Israel’s Operation Protective Edge. USA and Canada express loyalty towards Israel.

Day starts with 100 for brunch and 60 for lunch. everything is going to order, and it’s been a relative quiet night so more people come to eat.

As every day, the cooks go and forage for wild herbs, now in the summer we get wild grapes (for the asparagus sauce) vine leafs, sage, thyme, zatar, rigla and more, we do an experiment with okra and come up with a very interesting and tasty okra pesto, it is now in its best season and I have many ideas for it. we brainstorm between service on how it is possible to manipulate this magical ingredient.

Me and Ziv the restaurant manger discuss on the implications of the situation for next week, we hope that by then this will be behind us. It is half way for the Ramadan and everyone that is fasting are unbelievable in their work and endurance. On the way home, an alarm caches me on the road, I stop the car and go on the side road. I see the rocket explode over my head! 

 

Friday, 11. July 2014

Day 4 of the conflict

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Sirens in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Negev, Eshkol and Ashkelon. Most rockets fired from Gaza are being intercepted. Several Israelis injured. On the Palestinian side, number of deaths reaches 100. 23 Women and 24 children killed. Netanyahu says that no amount of international pressure will prevent Israel from defending itself. Israeli Foreign Minister Liberman: “it’s time to go all the way in Gaza”. US fully supports Israel and refuses a dialogue with the Hamas. First protests against Israel’s Gaza operation in London, Paris and the USA.

Late start, I am trying to use the unexpected cancellations for some family quality time. Still we have 100 reservations till 16:00. Getting set to leave the restaurant from Tel Aviv. We hear many explosion above us, people are “feeling it” but still no explosions or injuries in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.

In the kitchen, we have something that we didn’t have for a long time – time. The evening service is down from 90 to 50. I decide to use the time for some work on fridge order and some other boring but must do issues that can be done better. 

We do a 30% (suger) pumpkin twill and get an uncrispy elastic result, which is great for our understanding of that technique… Now we start a 40% beetroot twill. The new lamb sirloin carpaccio is on, with Aloe Vera spicy sauce and blackberries, people love it! Aloe Vera is left to mature in room temperature for 24 hours. Maybe it will help against the bitterness, my worst enemy.

Service is very good, people give a lot of compliments for the food, table 25 saw the rockets intercepted over Tel Aviv.

Thursday, 10. July 2014

Day 3 of the conflict

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On Wednesday, rockets fired from Gaza target Jerusalem for the first time since 2012. Israel steps up its assaults on the Gaza stripe and hits 322 Hamas targets in the night to thursday. Sixty-one Palestinians are being killed, most of them civilians, number of children: 22. In the early morning, Israeli missile defense system Iron Dome intercept first rocket above Tel Aviv. Netenyahu announces to continue to strike Gaza until rocket fire stops.

Weekend starts with a few problems, some cooks arrive late and are not doing all their morning tasks, few quick adjustments and we have a good 54 people brunch.

More experiments with aloe vera: I am determined to find the way to replace gelatin with it. Pumpkin will go on the pistachio ice-cream, but we are still making new versions of it to try and improve on the flavour’s release, texture is very good and the combination with goat milk ice-cream pistachios and aubergine dessert is very good. 

While writing this, missiles are exploding over the restaurant, the staff goes out to watch as they explode in mid air over us. An unusual afternoon for sure.

On the picture, you can see Achmad Shamsna, a 17 year old comi chef that has been working with me for over a year. He is Palestinian and comes from Shuafat , where his grandfather has a very good restaurant. Its also the village the kidnapped and murdered Palestinian boy came from. Achmad used to know him. Today Achmad is fasting due to Ramadan. That means that he doesn’t drink or eat from 3:30 am to 7:56 pm every day! We try to support as much as we can.

Wednesday, 9. July 2014

Day 2 of the conflict

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In the night to wednesday: Hamas extremists fire numerous missiles at Israel’s main nuclear facility and other targets. The reaction: an Israeli airstrike with more than 160 targets in Gaza resulting in one of the bloodiest days in recent years. 22 people killed, including children and women. An Israeli ground invasion of the Gaza strip is becoming ever more likely. Abbas accuses Israel of genocide.

Many meetings today, bar reorganization, sommelier training, and summer updates for the menu.  Two of my best friends have been drafted to the army. I wasn’t. In the kitchen, preparations for the weekend are fully underway, tests for a new jelly using Aloe Vera as a neutral jelly agent are unsuccessful. Aloe Vera is a magic ingredient for me that can help us explore new textures and it grows in our garden! Will go in a hot paper jelly. Will try again tomorrow…pastry section is exploring a new pumpkin and fig desert. It is the Muslim Ramadan fasting period and 6 cooks out of 9 are not drinking or eating for the full work day – still everything is done to perfection. A party of 21 people has cancelled due to the situation…so we have to wait and see if we will be busy as usual in the weekend.

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