Uri Jeremias is easy to spot. At the train station, or in the passageways of the market, people see his big white beard and point toward one of the most famous chefs in Israel, where it was once rare that a chef would even be recognized. In a culture so on edge from terrorist strikes and political chaos, it’s almost silly for a cooker of food to receive so much public attention. But for the last 25 years or so, Jeremias has been able to maintain his position as the man to see for fish, running Uri Buri Fish Restaurant (at Ha-Hagana St., Acre; 972-4/955-2212)., a place that is humble, creative and very much his own, on the shores of Acre, an ancient Mediterranean port city in northern Israel, a Katysha rocket away from the border of Lebanon.
The structure of the restaurant mimics the spirit of the owner: old stone arches that look as ancient as the Bible and dining rooms that flaunt, on one side, the bare Israeli aesthetic and, on the other, the ornate tapestries of a Bedouin tent. At the center of this ancient-modern Arab-Israeli culture clash is Jeremias, known throughout the country as Uri Buri (buri means fish). With a beard so long he could sit and tuck it inside the waist of his corduroys, he could be mistaken for Santa Claus. Or God.
“Food and sex—these are the basic ingredients of survival,” he declares when we meet for dinner. He’s a professional glutton, downing his aperitif of arak, the Israeli anisette, in three sips, eyeing a raw anchovy the size of a small snake before devouring it. He gets as much pleasure scanning for what to consume as he does eating, a food orgasm rippling through his body.
Some chefs go to culinary school. They train in Michelin-starred kitchens and read cookbooks and textbooks to understand the science of flavors. They study chemistry to understand the cellular nature of their ingredients. Jeremias doesn’t believe in advanced learning. In fact, his culinary philosophy is the opposite. He’s anti-education and in favor of practical experience. He espouses a more primitive, Buddhist-style quest toward achieving the sublime on the palette.
“I don’t understand cars,” Jeremias says. “I don’t understand women. I don’t understand food. I know what I enjoy. Once you try to understand something, it becomes harder to enjoy.”
His anti-thinking thinking has worked. Since he opened his restaurant in 1989,?he’s become a national fixture, drawing diners from all over Israel and the world. Two years ago he entered the hotel market, refurbishing an old Ottoman palace to create Efendi Hotel (rooms, from $320; Louis IX St.; 972-74/729-9799; efendi-hotel.com), a marbled, luxury crash pad for his guests. His renovation plans bordered on the insane: He imported artists from Italy to painstakingly re-create the original frescoes. “You have to be stupid to succeed,” he says of the fortune he spent on Italian artists. It’s all part of his world view: Thinking about something too much leads to not taking risks.
Jeremias’s motivation to cook fish was hatched in failure. In school, he was a terrible student. He struggled to pay attention and felt derided by his teachers. So he left. Instead of going to class, he set off for the beaches in Acre. His family was poor and their home was full. During his childhood in Israel’s early war-torn years, Jeremias’s parents adopted dozens of kids, some of whom had been orphaned by the Holocaust. “You never knew who would be under a pillow,” he says.
With many other children in the house, Jeremias found an escape on the beach, where he became a hobby fisherman, sailor and diver. He’d cook up the fish he’d caught for friends and family. People liked his fish so much that he set out to perfect his methods so they would enjoy it even more. The smiles and adulation were validation; when he was cooking, Jeremias became the honors student he could never become in school.
He served in the Israel Defense Forces (his detail was disposing of bombs), and then 24 years later he started a restaurant that embodies his unpretentiousness. There are simple tablecloths, no elegant silverware, no music. Any ornament or ostentation, he believes, distracts from what’s on the plate. His cuisine could be defined as organic ego. “I don’t cook what I don’t like to eat,” he says.
For a straightforward approach, his food is alive with complicated layers of flavor and texture. One of our first dishes was a lofty combination: slices of fresh persimmon (sour, crunchy) slathered with mascarpone cheese (sweet, smooth) and sprinkled with raw shrimp and fish eggs (crunchy, salty). Jeremias adds dishes only every year or so, relying on creations he’s fine-tuned. In one skillet came his version of Coquilles St. Jacques, a medley of scallops and oysters dripping in a cream sauce of white wine, ginger and garlic, then dusted with crunchy flakes of seaweed. Throughout the menu were fish served in cast-iron skillets or cauldrons and paired with concoctions like spinach martini sauce (salmon); yogurt and pickled lemon sauce (sea bream); creamy four season spice and green onion sauce (trout); and coconut milk, chiles and apples (sea bass). “I’m not trying to be fusion,” he says. “I am not trying to be anything. I am just going for the tastes.”
During our meal, each course came with its own sorbet cleanser: one made from tart mandarins from his daughter’s organic farm, another a refreshing blend of bitter grapefruit and a third composed of arak and marzipan, which was used for a sweetener. Dessert was a local favorite called knaffe: shredded wheat, light cheese and rose ice cream.
"This is Acre!" Jeremias says the next morning as we walk under the canopies of the market. The medina-style streets inside the fortified city wind and disappear around corners, and any turn could lead past the graves of sheikhs, hammams and mosques that blast the daily calls of the muezzin. It’s an area that’s been attacked on and off for years from rockets fired by the Hezbollah, a militant Shiite organization in Lebanon.
In the market, Jeremias passes through a haze of sweet smoke from waterpipes and the buttery aroma of fresh bourekas. He greets his friends in a mix of Arabic and Hebrew, a jovial testament to relationships that have weathered the chaos of Israeli politics and religious tension. As we move down the stalls, he surveys the catch of squid, tuna, bonito, their rainbow of colors, scales and markings. “You have to look at the eyes,” he says, picking up a grouper from the market. “Are the eyes looking at you? If the eyes are looking at you, that’s a fresh fish.” He touches the skin to feel for an oily film. He pushes the flesh of the fish in and watches to see how it pushes back. Deeper in the market, he picks up a shrimp and snaps off its head. The ooze and goo of the brain spurts all over his pudgy fingers. He digs in deeper, removes the guts with a fingernail and swallows it whole.
“Sometimes you have to eat it as God created it,” he says.