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Though born and based in Israel, Meir Adoni has the unmistakable influence of his mother’s Moroccan heritage in his cooking. But while tradition plays a big part in his approach, innovation has been the key to his success.
As a young chef, Adoni worked in some of the world’s most inventive kitchens, including Noma, Arzak and Alinea. Today, his Catit, Mizala, Blue Sky and Lumina restaurants in Tel Aviv are famous for their modern and creative Middle Eastern cuisine.
But Adoni’s influence doesn’t stop there. He’s also a speaker, cookbook author, app developer and TV star. His stint on Mentor Chef makes him the perfect choice as the mentor for Nicolaos Billis, the Mediterranean region finalist at S.Pellegrino Young Chef 2016.
Fine Dining Lovers spoke to him ahead of the event.
What did appearing on Mentor Chef teach you about mentoring chefs?
For two decades my role as a chef has been to educate and mentor my teams. Appearing on the TV show was only a way for me to bring my beliefs to more people. Firstly, I refused to be called chef by my cooks. In Hebrew this word has a connotation of distance, which is not healthy for them to learn from me. I get the respect because of my knowledge and who I am as a human being, without the title. Secondly, I believe that we all should be entitled to make mistakes. I encourage them to ask, to talk about their failures, to allow me to teach them what was wrong until they get full understanding of what is required. Thirdly, I believe it is my duty to know each one of my cooks. To understand weaknesses and strengths. To know where I can support and how. This is individual guidance, and it's my job to encourage them.
Tell us about your learning experiences working in great kitchens around the world?
For a young chef, coming from a young country, traveling and getting to know the culinary world is crucial. For me, the fact that I have been in different kitchens – each with a tradition of thousands of years – made me who I am today. The different ingredients, techniques and ways of management – all were a great inspiration for me.
How has your heritage influenced your cooking?
My heritage is Israeli. It influences many things. Firstly, it influences my family and my childhood memories. My grandmother, my mom, my aunts. As a kid, food was a powerful thing in my life. Israel is a worldwide collection of people, who came here only 70 years ago, bringing with them culinary traditions from all over the world. I live in the Middle East, surrounded by Arab kitchens from Morocco, Lebanon, Palestine, Iran, etc. This together, with years of learning and living in the world makes my kitchen a modern Middle East kitchen.
How important is food as an expression of a chef’s upbringing, culture and personality?
Since I was seven years old, I knew there was one thing I wanted to be, and that was a chef. For three decades, food has been a part of who I am: simple and complex, able to dream, but also practical; daring and full of emotions.
In terms of innovation, how far can you push cuisines that are so rooted in tradition as Israeli and Moroccan?
The Israeli kitchen has grown to be a meaningful kitchen only in the last 10 to 15 years. There are big parts of the Jewish kitchen that have not been investigated yet. The Arab kitchen has not moved yet completely from traditional "mum’s cooking". We know less than we should know. There is still a long way to go.
When people think of Mediterranean cuisine, they often think Spain, Italy and Greece, but not so much Israel, Lebanon and Syria. Does Middle Eastern cuisine get the respect it deserves?
I believe that Middle Eastern cuisine doesn’t get the public stage it deserves. That’s for many reasons, but partly because our countries have been busy establishing themselves, and food has mainly been about survival. Becoming a culinary culture is a relatively new thing for the Middle East. I believe it will take a few years before Middle Eastern cuisine is known to the world.
Tell us about your projects in New York and London.
I'm about to open my first NYC restaurant. It will be a modern Middle Eastern bistro, which will offer my interpretation of Jewish, Muslim and Christian cuisine. I am the grandson of Masuda, my Moroccan grandma. I’m living in Israel, loving the Middle East food, as well as with techniques from all around the world. That’s what I would like to serve to the New York crowd this winter.