"I don't like to use the term vegan. We are a culinary restaurant in every aspect of fine dining, taking fruit and vegetables to a different level. It could as easily be a fruit and vegetable restaurant."
Shirel Berger the chef-owner of OPA in Tel Aviv, is turning ordinary fruit and vegetables into the complex multi-layered stars of the plate in her home country of Israel. But she doesn't want to talk veganism.
The 28-year-old American/Israeli chef, who recently won "Chef of the Year by Time Out Magazine", opened her own restaurant in the heart of the leviskey spice market in the Israeli capital in late September 2018, where she cooks exclusively with vegetables fruits and seeds in a 100 per cent vegan menu.
Berger had a fairly conventional start in the kitchen learning to cook for fun while growing up, before knuckling down and studying at the Culinary Institute of America in New York and consolidating her skills at two Manhattan restaurants, including Jean Georges ABC Kitchen.
Her culinary enlightenment came to a while later when she returned home. After initially dismissing veganism as "weird" her growing alarm about the disparity of the food chain and knowledge about organic growing, came to a head when a friend introduced her to cooking with fruit and vegetables, only, and she fell in love with it.
"I understood how complex the world of fruits and vegetables could be. The plant kingdom is the most fascinating. And really when we speak of being a cook it's about learning technique and learning new techniques with fruits and vegetables is fascinating. Here, we take one fruit or vegetable and focus on them and see how many flavour profiles you can get out of them."
On the rooftop of the spartan whitewashed restaurant building, Berger has a small urban farm growing some of the produce for the restaurant while the rest is carefully sourced from small local farms. Her twin sister, Sharona, takes care of the front of the house and bookings, so far they haven't killed each other, she giggles, while she's happier in her kitchen space where she doesn't need to speak to anyone and can stay in the zone.
The OPA menu features seven courses, each dish is named after its main ingredient, with choices including artichoke, fennel, asparagus, and melon, among others. "We work a lot on extracting the most flavour and bringing it to the next level" she explains. Counting Rene Redzepi among her food heroes, it's easy to understand why. Their emphasis is on having fun experimenting making their own liquors, vinegar and fermenting and ageing vegetables, like kohlrabi for a year and reducing waste.
Sunchoke and plums are among Berger's favourite vegetables, anything that might seem every day like an onion is an invitation to explore greater depths of flavour and technique.
Berger's current favourite dish on the menu is raw plum thinly sliced on a mandolin, laid on a fermented plum puree made from fermented plum and plum wine, white onion puree, plum vinegar, dill, pickles, ginger and chillies.
Speaking of the reception of fine dining vegetable-forward cooking in Israel, it's not been such a challenge to have her cuisine accepted, just the portion sizes. The population is already about 8% vegetarian and 5% vegan, and it's a cuisine that lends itself naturally to being dairy-free. But Berger understands why chefs are resistant to vegan food. "I'm coming more from a place of ecologically speaking. We chefs should be aware of what's going on and the mass consumption of meat and dairy."
Shirel was one of the first young chefs selected to compete in the international talent competition for young chefs, S.Pellegrino Young Chef. She advises this year's competitors to live by the best advice she received from her grandfather. "Success is to find something within you that's new and that someone else doesn't have... that's what's bought me to where I am at now."
Berger dreams that Tel Aviv, already well known for casual but good food, will have more space for fine dining one day and she's dertermined to get better and better and carve a place out in that scene, "my dream is the Michelin guide will come" and, why not, "get listed in The World's 50 Best Restaurants."
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