I first met award winning filmmaker Roger Sherman after watching The Restaurateur (which won a James Beard Award). I loved the film and recommend it to anyone who loves food. It was no surprise to me that Sherman was also behind the films The Medal of Honor and Alexander Calder. Sherman’s films have won an Emmy, a Peabody, and two Academy Award nominations. Sherman is also a food photographer who has shot for Saveur, Town & Country, Budget Travel, and Newsweek, as well as photographing The Brisket Book by Stephanie Pierson (The images on this piece are also by Roger). Roger will be heading to Israel in October to continue working on his latest project, The Search for Israeli Cuisine. We chatted over email about his new project, and about Israeli cuisine.
When did you decide that you were going to work on a film about Israeli cuisine?
Three and a half years ago my friend Joan Nathan, the doyenne of Jewish cookbooks in America, called to say she was leading a food press trip to Israel. Someone had dropped out and I absolutely had to come. In three weeks. Until then Israel represented Sunday school and the bible to me. Vacations were in Europe. I went on the press trip and couldn’t believe the food scene. Generations of immigrants have brought traditions from the old country. Food may be one of the few lasting memories they have, especially three or more generations later. The melding of all those cultural traditions has created an amazing diversity of foods.
During that first trip (I returned for my second time this May), I was told that even twenty-five years ago, if you talked about “cuisine” you’d have been criticized. People would say there are more important things to worry about, like survival. Now, cooking shows are the most popular programs. Interest in exploring food has been accelerated by young Israelis travelling abroad – a tradition upon completing the mandatory military service. Many leave the country for six months, or even a year. They visit Asia, South America, the States, where of course, they experience new foods. They return home open to new flavors and experiences. Some of those travelers were food lovers to start with and worked in restaurants and enrolled in cooking schools abroad. When they got back they saw opportunity. (Israel has great Italian, Spanish, Japanese food. Chinese food started it all. Those aren’t in, but it’s all there.) Now, Israeli cuisine has exploded into being one of the hottest food scenes in the world. Go to Tel Aviv at 1:00AM almost any night and you’ll see restaurants overflowing with young people. We had stellar meals all over Israel; and not just in fancy restaurants.
The growing locavore movement in the US is native to Israel. A country the size of New Jersey, with such complexity of geography and weather – mountains, dessert, sea – that most goods are no more than two hours away. Tomatoes are grown year round in different parts of the country, for example, at different times of year. Fresh fish isn’t flown in, it’s delivered by the fisherman who just caught it.
All of this fascinated me. But what convinced me to make a film is that Americans only see negative press about Israel – news and images of war, hate, and hostility. We don’t see the humanity. The Search for Israeli Cuisine is a portrait of the Israeli people: their creativity, spirit, and resilience told through food. Isolated by hating neighbors, Israelis have been forced to fend for themselves. Somehow they took this isolation and became innovators. Many have heard about Israel’s high tech industry. You may even know that drip irrigation was invented in Israel in the 1950s, changing farming around the world. They also invented the cherry tomato (they’re the biggest supplier in the world) and seedless watermelons. There are enormous salt seas UNDER the Negev dessert. Israelis figured out that if salt water is mixed with desalinated water it can be used in irrigation and actually grow sweeter crops than just fresh water alone.
It’s not that different from any film I make. Filmmaking is a collaborative effort; I surround myself with the best people. I begin by looking at what wows me. I’m never an expert on any topic I take on, which allows me to represent the audience. If I knew everything, I wouldn’t know what the audience would be fascinated by. I’m not making a travel film or a cooking show, though there will be elements of each. I’m looking for passionate people who can talk about why food makes a difference in their lives, how traditions have been saved, reinvented, and updated.
I met some icons of the Israeli food world like Erez Komarovsky, Gil Hovav, Aharoni, and young, influential voices like journalist Ruthie Rousso, who have shared their experience and insights. I’ve leaned on friends over here, old and new, especially Joan Nathan. There have been long conversations (thank you Skype) and emails – Israeli friends introducing me to their friends, reading, Googling, and Dorothy Kalins. Dorothy created Saveur magazine. She now produces high end cookbooks (John Besh, Gramercy Tavern/Michael Anthony), Seamus Mullen, and happens to be my wife. We’ve talked for hours about what is authentic, what is just trendy, what to concentrate on, what to ignore. My producer, Karen Shakerdge, is half Israeli and speaks Hebrew. She’s lived in Israel and has worked on farms; she even sold produce in the Tel Aviv market. She’s able to read Israeli websites that aren’t translated, speak to people in Hebrew, and help me understand cultural differences, which would not otherwise be obvious.
Chef Michael Solomonov, a James Beard award winner, will be our guide; he’s a key member of the team. Working as a journalist-chef, he’ll interpret Israeli cuisine for American viewers. He’s constantly sending us ideas, discoveries, pushing the film forward. Solo, as he’s known to friends is Israeli born, American bred. A co-owner of Zahav in Philadelphia, he makes his own version of Israeli cuisine. (It’s remarkable!) He’s lived on and off in Israel his whole life. His enthusiasm and excitement about the food of Israel will infect viewers. Another important person is Avihai Tsabari, a certified Israeli guide, who has his own travel company. His specialty is food and restaurants and possesses a deep knowledge of the country and its history.
Networking. My friend Gil Avital, a partner of Seamus Mullen at Tertulia, is Israeli. He introduced me to his friend, now my friend, Lior Lev Sercarz, the master spice mixer of La Boite. Lior introduced me to Solo, saying if you want to experience the best Israeli cuisine in America, you must to eat at Zahav. Dorothy and I were traveling to DC to celebrate Joan Nathan’s birthday and decided to spend the night in Philly on the way so we could eat there. From the first dishes we were served, we knew this was a very special place. It’s not fancy or tarted up or trying to impress, it’s simply delicious, confident. Then, Mike sat down and chatted with us. When he left the table, I said to Dorothy, “This is our guy!” Coincidentally, he was cooking at Joan’s party – one degree of separation – so we got to hang out with him again that weekend.
Close your eyes and you could be anywhere in the world – mountains, desert, beaches. Tel Aviv is the most cosmopolitan city in Israel, very European. The restaurant scene is like New York or San Francisco or Paris, or fill in the name of your favorite city. Street food is elevated in simple places like Miznon, where I had the best whole roasted sweet potato I’ve ever eaten. And roasted cauliflower. The bread is amazing in Israel. Its success is often attributed to Erez Komarovsky, who studied in Paris and San Francisco. He returned and opened what is now a large bakery chain, transforming the Israeli bread world. And, at places like Meir Adoni’s Mizlala, traditional food is being deliciously reinterpreted. He’s also opening a kosher version of that restaurant that I understand will be located next door. Adoni is one of the first celebrity chefs to jump into the kosher market. It’s a very small part of fine Israeli cuisine, but growing. Many chefs don’t feel a stigma or that it’s limiting the way we perceive it here. In nearby Yaffo, the cafe scene takes over the flea market neighborhood at night, tables on the walking streets, loud music blaring. While one would think Jerusalem is more traditional, it has hot restaurants too. Perhaps our best meal was at Machneyuda, just steps from the Mahane Yehuda market, they serve what is available. But the food scene isn’t just fancy restaurants or updated classic food. The traditional food is amazing. At Azura, in the Iraqui shuk (market), I had the best stuffed eggplant I ever tasted.
The climate dictates the tastes and flavors as you move through the country. Depending on the season, it can be hot and humid in Tel Aviv, which is on the Mediterranean in the middle of the country. An hour away in the Negev it might be 110 degrees, and a few hours north in the Galilee it’s cool and comfortable. For example, the goat milk, and thus the cheese, tastes different in the desert south, where there is very little rain from the goat milk in the north, where it rains a lot and the goats eat different herbs and grasses. And, by the way, the cheese is incredible, matching the flavors of tiny producers in small villages in France that one never eats anywhere else.
I’ve asked that question to many people in different ways. What I hear is Israeli cuisine is too new to be one thing, and will probably never be. There are so many influences from so many places. Melting pot may be the wrong analogy because it’s not all being stirred to become one thing. Yemeni cooking is different from Tunisian and Lebanese. They may share ingredients and some dishes, and eventually they may come closer together but for now, each is pretty distinct. After two hundred years we still have southern and northern. There are Mexican influences in the Southwest and Asian influences in the west, but I’m not sure one could point to a soul of American cuisine. That said, I come back to immigrant foods. There is a power that derives from all the many traditions that have been brought to Israel from around the world. It will be interesting to track its development for another twenty years.
Did you find that the political climate has affected Israel’s culinary traditions?
Politics affects everything in many ways. In a country isolated from its neighbors, young energetic, inventive chefs have traveled the world and come back to make Israel into a food destination. Who knows what would have happened if the country hadn’t been isolated. But it’s not just what is being served on the plate. There is the politics of kosher – most hotels are kosher, as is the food served in the military. The are the politics of minority groups and assimilation (Russians years ago, Ethiopians more recently). These are complicated issues that evolve as the country matures. New ones arise, others fade.
What’s been the best thing you’ve tasted so far?
Oy, that’s an impossible question.
Did you get to discover the wine industry in Israel? If so, how would you say it differs compared to the US?
Israel has 250 boutique wineries, many winning International awards. Robert Parker has awarded quite a few vintages 90+ scores. We drank wonderful wine and saw beautiful vineyards. Grapes are grown all over the country: the north is the most famous wine region. But one of the most startling sights is driving through the Negev desert, a moon-like, barren landscape. All of a sudden a green swath spreads out before you. It’s grapes or olives or both. A startling sight. (And, by the way, Israeli olive oil is marvelous.) The wine of Palestine was being exported to Rome 3,000 years ago. If I saw an Israeli wine on the menu here, I’d definitely give it a good look. A big obstacle Israeli wineries face in the States is that their wines are usually relegated to the kosher section of wine stores, not a place many vinophiles hang out. I found it surprising that up-to-date wine making techniques anywhere in the world could qualify as kosher, if a rabbi paid regular visits and certified it. Most wineries have tasting rooms that are open to the public, just like here. Close your eyes and you could be in Napa.
If there is one thing that you want people to take with them after watching the documentary, what would that be?
It’s too early to say. What I think the film will look like today will change as it’s shot, edited, as music is added, etc. I don’t fix an image and make a film to match. I think flexibility is the key to making good films. It’s an organic process. As with all of my films, I hope viewers will relate to the people, to see that there are passionate people in Israel who are making a difference in their lives and making their country a better place. There’s is a rich, lively culture there which should not be stereotyped.
I was most surprised by the Negev. It’s vast and scorchingly hot. To me it seemed almost uninhabitable, let alone a producer of amazing food. Yet, almost every kind of fruit and vegetable grows there in sand that looks like nothing could possibly sprout. It’s also spectacularly beautiful in its own way with two giant canyons and other natural wonders. I’m told it’s a wonderful place to hike, birders love it. And, I ate some great food there, too.
What culinary trends from Israel do you see making their way to the United States in the near future?
It’s already happening. When Michael Solomonov opened Zahav in 2008, there weren’t many Israeli inspired restaurants in America. Falafel and hummus, sure. But fine Israeli cuisine was hard to find. Now, it seems a new Israeli restaurant is opening every month in New York. My guess is that’s a national trend. And, that is why I think The Search for Israeli Cuisine is well timed. Many people laugh when they learn that I’m making this film, which tells me I’m doing the right thing. Israeli cuisine is unknown to most Americans, but not for long. After I describe the food scene to people, the laughing stops. They’re booking tickets.
Roger, I imagine that coming up for funding for a project like this must be complicated. Can you tell me a little bit about the process?
Funding for any documentary is very difficult. And, I’ve been very fortunate. I’m proud of the films I’ve made. This is the first film I’ve done the fundraising for completely. The good thing about working with PBS is that I retain most of the editorial control and my film doesn’t have to fit into a mold; it doesn’t have to look like every other film in a series or on network. The bad thing is they give little or no money. We began fundraising at the end of May and are off to a good start. Philanthropist Laurie Tisch hosted a cocktail party that was attended by Ambassador Ido Aharoni, Consul General of Israel, Stephen Segaller, VP, head of production at Thirteen, and others with an interest in the topic – food, Israel, Jewish affairs, showing the Israeli people in a better light. In just two months we’ve received commitments from Laurie, The Ministry of Tourism, and others. Quite a few companies, philanthropists and foundations are very interested. The project is non-profit (501c3), so donations can be fully tax deductible. PBS is a very competitive ad buy for corporations; there are a great many added value opportunities. And, of course, I’d welcome the opportunity to speak with people who wish to donate or become corporate or foundation sponsors. I can be reached at [email protected], or call me directly.
When can we see it?
We will shoot The Search for Israeli Cuisine for three weeks beginning at the end of October. The film will be edited next year and ready for its national primetime PBS broadcast at the end of 2014. Thirteen, New York’s PBS station, will sponsor the program to the national network. Community screenings will be held across the country. It will be available on Netflix, iTunes, Hulu, etc., and on DVD. We’re estimating 20,000,000 people will watch the film.
Click here to watch the video teaser I shot in Israel on my first trip there three years ago. And, to follow our progress – see photos from our fall shoot, updates and videos from the editing room, broadcast dates, screenings, and interesting happenings in the world of Israeli cuisine, you can follow us on Facebook and Twitter.