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In September of this year, Israeli chef Yonatan Berrebi arrived in Vigo, Spain, with a suitcase full of sumac.
The seaside Spanish city anchors Galicia in both gastronomy and commerce, and Berrebi, a grizzled, heavily tattooed hulk of man whose motto in life is “Cook more, bitch less,” was feeling uncharacteristically nervous as he stepped off the plane. Berrebi, a chef who had risen to modest acclaim in Israel after being selected to head up the kitchen at Israel’s first installment of French pastry playground Fauchon, had a date with one of the culinary world’s true rockstars: Michelin-star recipient Rafael Centeno.
Centeno (pictured above), 42, is a food-world rarity: Thoroughly self-taught, he rose from his mother’s kitchen to the helm of Maruja Limon, his 14-seat quayside bistro in Vigo, and earned the industry's top award with nary a professional lesson. While his peers were sweating away in culinary school and Parisian apprenticeships, he was training for the pentathlon—a grueling Olympic sport that merges fencing, swimming, show jumping, cross-country running, and pistol shooting. His prowess earned him a spot on Spain’s 1992 Olympic team, just before a grisly knee injury pushed him from the sport and sent him in search of a different type of competition.
At Maruja Limon, Centeno found a new kind of adrenaline boost offering fresh, modernized takes on classic Galician specialties like pulpo a la gallega (boiled octopus slicked with local olive oil and tangy paprika) and lacón con grelos (seared pork shoulder with potato and turnips). He soon established himself as one of the top chefs in Vigo and in 2010, the Michelin inspectors agreed, granting him the Michelin star he has maintained to this day.
Berrebi followed a much more traditional training path, interning in French kitchens and then working his way up to the helm of Liliyot, an upscale Mediterranean restaurant in Tel Aviv’s financial district that offers gourmet kosher food and is a favorite among the business-lunch set. He has never cooked for a Michelin inspector—no chef in Israel ever has. So when he was paired with Centeno for a duet cooking experiment called Round Tables, which brings acclaimed chefs from across the world to Israel for a weeklong stint at some of Tel Aviv’s best restaurants for one boundary-breaking, multicultural gastronomic experience, he wasn’t sure what he had to offer. Flying to Vigo to meet Centeno for the first time and begin drafting the menu the two would collaborate on months later in Tel Aviv, he was concerned that what he had to bestow—local spices and knowledge of Israeli cuisine—wouldn’t amount to much.
“When they told me you’re going to work with a Michelin star chef, from my experience that means it’s going to be rough,” Berrebi said in December as he and Centeno enjoyed family meal together with their sous chefs before their first Round Tables service. “In France when I worked in Michelin restaurants, all the chefs had huge egos, so I was prepared to meet Rafa and feel the same way.”
But Centeno surprised him. He was fascinated by Berrebi’s offerings, eagerly tasting the deep red sumac, as well as amba, a tangy pickled mango condiment Israelis love to smear on falafel; ras al hanout, a North African spice mix as ubiquitous in Israeli kitchens as Mrs. Dash’s seasoning blends are in America; and tehina, the rich sesame paste that forms the basis of hummus and baba ghanoush. The two began cooking together, and Centeno quickly made it clear that he was as interested in learning as he was in playing teacher.
“I was bracing for Rafa to just tell me what to do all the time, even though that’s not something that comes easily to me. But then we met in person and here is this cool guy, who likes to laugh and talk about food, and immediately my stress level went down,” Berrebi said.
Round Tables, which this year marked its second successful installment, put Centeno in good company: Among the 13 powerhouse chefs who descended upon Israel’s culinary capital in December were David Thompson, who leads Bangkok’s Nahm; Stéphane Jégo, the master behind Paris’s L’ami Jean; and Matt Lambert, the Kiwi creative who took Manhattan by storm with The Musket Room. All worked with established Israeli chefs to create innovative fusion menus that they then launched in pop-up collaborations across Tel Aviv’s most beloved restaurants, but none were quite gunning for a challenge the way the Centeno was.
That’s because Centeno, whose pantry consists almost entirely of pork, shellfish, and the ever-present octopus, had opted to not just cook Israeli, but also to cook kosher.
“It’s very important for me to open my mind and find other things, other cultures, things that are different that I can learn from,” Centeno said between bites of roast chicken and salad. Small and compact, it’s clear even in his chef whites that he was once a ferocious athlete, but despite all his coiled energy, he also projects an air of calm. “A lot of the dishes in Galicia that are most interesting came about because someone traveled, and when I came here to Israel I was able to see and taste a lot of things that I would never have been able to find in Spain.”
He lists the padron pepper, a small pale-green pepper beloved in Galicia with a grab-bag heat index (most are mild, but about one in ten are blistering with capsaicin), as an excellent example: Now a staple in his region, they only arrived in Spain after being hauled across the Atlantic by some adventure-seeking Mexican traveler.
It was Yair Bekier, an established Israeli restaurateur and the creator of Round Tables, who decided to pair Centeno and Berrido together. It was important to him that Round Tables include among its roster at least one kosher restaurant so that observant Jewish diners wouldn’t be shut out, he says, but he knew that selecting the one chef whose cuisine is almost entirely based on items that are treif—forbidden in Jewish law—was mildly insane.
“There is no kosher restaurant in the world that has a Michelin star, so this is as close as you can get,” Bekier said on the day of Centeno and Berrido’s first service together. “But I know what I did here is ridiculous. I took someone from Spain—from Vigo, even worse—whose cuisine is all seafood and pig, and I told him listen: take out all the proteins, all your jamón or whatever, and now let’s talk business.”
Ten years ago, Bekier says, Round Tables would have been a pipe dream. Israel’s culinary star has risen in the past decade and many of Tel Aviv’s restaurants, including Abraxas North by Eyal Shani and Catit by Meir Adoni, are recognized worldwide for their cuisine. But there’s been another shift, Bekier says, that has also helped make the Round Tables exchange possible: The rubber stamp of a Michelin star, and of other cooking accolades like James Beard Awards, don’t hold the sway they once did in the new world of Tripadvisor reviews, Master Chef reality cooking competitions, and the ever-judgmental Instagram and Facebook user. Even the most established chef in the world, Bekier says, feels a need today to constantly innovate, and is more likely to say yes to an opportunity that might give him an edge.
“It’s a mixture of forces,” Bekier says, noting that last year—Round Tables’ inaugural year—his chef roster included Dutch celebrity chef Ron Blaauw, who famously closed his white tablecloth gourmet eatery Amsterdam, forfeiting its two Michelin stars, to open in its place a casual, trendy gastropub where he was free to experiment with the menu. Michelin stars, while still coveted, are no longer the be-all end-all of a chef's career.
Meanwhile, he adds, “Tel Aviv is a jewel. Everyone knows now that this is place where Israeli cuisine is just exploding, and there are great chefs coming out of Israel and succeeding at restaurants like Palomar in London and Shaya in New Orleans.”
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Being innovative, of course, also means being flexible. In a culinary world where the customer, not the critic, wields power, dietary restrictions—be they kosher, vegan, halal, or gluten-free—need to be respected and understood by the chef.
Such a reality was part of Centeno’s motivation for his crash course in Jewish culinary law. He has had a handful of observant Jewish diners visit him at Maruja Limon, he says, and he always cooked for them by simply asking what they could and could not eat, and improvising on the fly. So he had an idea of the basics of kosher cuisine—no pork or shellfish, don’t mix milk and meat together—but he was shocked, he said, by the laundry list of rules that awaited him when he stepped into the kitchen at Liliyot.
Alongside Berrido, he was tasked with creating a three-course meal for Round Table diners, and the first draft he offered, despite Berrido printing him a broadsheet of forbidden foods in advance, he struggled, not knowing octopus was off-limits, or being unaware that even products like mustard and vinegar have to be stamped with a kosher certification before they can be used in a kosher kitchen.
The final lineup was an amuse-bouche of drumfish floating in potato cream foam, an adaptation of Centeno’s favorite octopus dish. Next came a raw beef tartar that he would have liked to blend with soft cheese, but instead features his new favorite staple, tehina; followed by a tomato salad drizzled with a bright green sauce made from arugula and parsley. For the main event, diners had the choice between succulent slow-cooked veal cheeks; a cod filet (adapted from Centeno’s favorite bacalao recipe) with those padron peppers; and for the vegetarians, a velvety egg atop a truffle bechamel made with almond milk. To round out the evening, a dairy-free dark chocolate mousse was served atop a chocolate crumble and brightened with small cubes of shimmering fruit gelatin.
The food was delicious, but also lacked that extra standout punch expected of the world's best chefs. Maybe it was the bane of sky-high expectations. Maybe it was because Centeno, handicapped without his chorizo and creamy cheeses, felt he had no choice but to deliver beef cheeks without a standout texture, or tartar whose tehina made it slightly thick on the tongue. Or maybe it was that the fine details got lost in translation: Because kosher restaurants are carefully supervised by rabbinical authorities, and because Centeno does not speak Hebrew, his role in service became a thoroughly supervisory one. He had designed the menu but he never actually cooked the dishes that arrived on our table, his dinner service at Liliyot evolving like the gastronomic version of an elaborate game of telephone.
The dining room was an even mix of religious couples wearing skullcaps and hair coverings, and younger, trendy foodies simply looking for an exciting meal out. And it felt like the kosher diners had higher expectations than their secular peers.
One religious couple in their 50s said they had enjoyed their meal but were disappointed, calling the evening a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Michelin-level dining that they felt hadn’t quite stacked up. (Thanks to a small, quiet revolution among kosher diners in Israel and Europe, there are now a small handful of truly excellent restaurants serving kosher food, including Lumina by beloved Israeli celebrity chef Meir Adoni and Restaurant 1701 in London. Options for kosher gourmands are still limited, but at least now they have them. In January 2017, the trend continues in Tel Aviv, with the Tel Aviv David InternContinental hotel hosting three Michelin-starred chefs for a separate culinary festival of its own: the first ever "Kosher Taste of Michelin".)
Related: What Is Israeli Cuisine? »
But two tables over, a secular family of four was wiping their plates clean and feeling satisfied. “I don’t feel we missed out on anything [because of the Kosher restrictions],” said Katie Livermore, a Boston native who is studying in Israel and was enjoying the meal with her husband and parents. She doesn’t keep kosher, but selected Liliyot from Round Tables’ roster of restaurants because she is a fan of Centeno, and “because we are in Israel, it was also really interesting to have the kosher perspective.”
During the meal, Centeno bounced from table to table asking guests for feedback. “It's very important for me to open my mind and discover new cultures, things that are different, and learn from them," he said.
Berrebi, for his part, said that he and Centeno would likely stay lifelong friends. “This whole experience was great," he said of Round Tables, “but for me it was most interesting to realize that here's this Michelin star chef, and I can teach him: I can show him new things.”