“There’s no such thing as Israeli cuisine, of course,” Eyal Shani says – just like there’s no such thing as Jewish cuisine. “Israel is a young country with a really heterogenous population, so it’ll be years, if not generations, before this mixture of people and culinary styles can develop into anything like a national cuisine.” You might think that all of these different culinary styles have at least one thing in common – namely that they follow kashruth, the body of Jewish religious laws concerning food. But even that’s not entirely the case. “Even though most Israelis say they keep kosher,” Shani explains, “they do it to different degrees. Some people just don’t eat pork; others take it further – for example by avoiding shellfish, which technically aren’t kosher either.” Shani says that’s why he can’t say that the same rules apply at every location within his rapidly expanding mini-empire. “We tend to adapt to local circumstances, or to our partners’ requests,” the chef and entrepreneur tells us. For example, Miznon in Paris is a lot more focused on kosher rules than are the three Miznons in Tel Aviv, or the individual locations in Vienna and Melbourne… and New York, where the most recent addition to the family recently opened its doors in Chelsea Market. The only commonality among them all is not serving pork: “That would be too strange,” Shani says.
The tomato king
In his native Israel, Shani’s been a star for some time now. He can hardly walk through Carmel Market in Tel Aviv without getting mobbed. Throngs of adoring fans want to shake his hand or take selfies with him; retailers beg him to try their cheese, hummus, and vegetables. “Hey, Tomato King,” one of them calls. “Try one of these. You’ve never eaten anything like this!” Shani laughs and takes a bite. “Some people still call me Tomato King, because they saw me on TV surrounded by mountains of tomatoes. Actually, though, I’m also the Eggplant King, the Cucumber King… the king of vegetables in general, really.”
The charismatic 60-year-old has “Masterchef” to thank for his success: he was a juror on the series, and his passionate proclamations and flamboyant mane of white hair made him an instant hit nationwide. Apart from three Miznons, Shani also runs three additional restaurants in Tel Aviv that are mostly about high-end cuisine and atmosphere. In 2011, he opened his first Miznon, whose name means something like “buffet” or “lunchroom” in Hebrew. “Tel Aviv has a large proportion of young people,” Shani says. “I wanted to offer them a new kind of street food. Of course, I started with pita bread, which is extremely popular here… But then instead of filling it with the usual hummus, shawarma and falafel, I used things like curry shrimp, bœuf bourguignon or seared ribeye.” Vegetables obviously play a big role in the Tomato King’s food as well. In fact, one of his signature dishes is a head of cauliflower briefly blanched, rubbed gently with olive oil, baked in a hot oven until crisp, and served whole – a dish almost Puritanical in its simplicity, but one that countless restaurants from Vienna to New York have started copying.
“Israel probably has the best vegetables in the world,” Shani notes, “so whenever we arrive in a new city, we always start by finding out where exactly we can get good produce.” Other ingredients are simply imported from Israel or the West Bank, such as the olive oil sourced from a kibbutz or the legendary tahini produced from sesame seeds grown by a Samaritan community on Mount Garizim. Though Miznon’s food is hard to describe as “Israeli” – it’s more like a mixture of Levantine dishes with an innovative European touch – the restaurants definitely have an Israeli flair in terms of both menu and ambiance. “Our country isn’t just geographically between Europe, Asia, and Africa,” Shani remarks. “That’s where it is culturally, too.” One thing you won’t find at any of his restaurants, though, is traditional European Jewish fare.
“You hardly see that heavy, greasy, meaty European Jewish food in Tel Aviv anymore, because it just doesn’t fit with Israel’s Mediterranean climate,” says Shani, who himself has Ashkenazi – European Jewish – roots. “That’s why I think that the future of Israeli cuisine lies more in vegetables, olive oil and legumes.” He does make a few exceptions in his pita fillings, though. There’s a goulash option, for one. Another is breaded schnitzel, usually of the chicken variety, which is as popular in Israel as it is in Europe. The success of the Miznon concept in Shani’s homeland is probably partly to do with the fact that, in recent years, Tel Aviv has developed into one of the start-up capitals of the world. And where there’s an abundance of start-ups, there’s an abundance of young, successful entrepreneurs who like to go out to eat – plus Tel Aviv’s already known as a party town. The local scene that’s developed around these young hipsters isn’t particularly fussed by convention, and tends to pick restaurants based on their fun factor. With their simple decor, relaxed atmosphere, loud music and high-quality food, Shani’s restaurants are right on trend both nationally and internationally, as evidenced by the fact that the whole planet is teeming with places trying to copy their style. In the Chinese metropolis of Shenzhen, there’s even a restaurant that’s stolen not only the concept, but the Miznon name itself. The creator of the original isn’t too worked up about it, though. “When I first heard about it, I wasn’t sure at first – I thought maybe I’d opened it and forgotten all about it,” Shani laughs. “I mean, I can’t remember everything.”