Like a jazz musician setting a standard tune to a Latin beat and turning tradition on its head, the chef at the Inbal Jerusalem says he might serve “a gefilte fish with a Jerusalem culinary accent or a Shabbat-morning chulent with a Mediterranean influence.”
Over at the Dan Jerusalem, the chef, who hails from a Moroccan-Jewish background, gives “Jerusalem street food” — salads and couscous and bourekas — a North African punch.
And the celebrated chef at the Leonardo Plaza Hotel in Jerusalem, Shalom Kadosh, cooking with a heady sense of place for heads of state, once served President Obama ravioli filled with Jerusalem artichoke and then a fresh grapefruit-pomegranate sorbet.
Time was, and not that long ago, American tourists staying at Jerusalem hotels were satisfied with simple breakfasts and dinners. Hotel food wasn’t considered part of the experience. Often, in fact, after a day at the Western Wall and other famous sites, tourists would patronize a restaurant outside the hotel.
But things have changed. Mediterranean cuisine has emerged as an international hit. Cooking shows have exploded into the mainstream. And the food I.Q. of the typical traveler has soared, turning ordinary tourists into foodies and locavores in search of the next authentic culinary adventure.
Israeli hoteliers have taken notice.
“Today, people actively look for gastronomic experiences and are willing to pay for them,” said Chef Kadosh, whose Primavera Italian mehadrin kosher dairy restaurant in the hotel is considered to be a hot culinary ticket for both local and foreign guests.
Jerusalem hotel executives, as well as hotel food and beverage experts observe that the advent of prime-time cooking shows such as “Master Chef” and increased travel by business executives, young couples and families who’ve been exposed to multiple culinary cultures, have had a profound impact on the quest for new-fangled food experiences.
“It has been a process that has developed over the past few years; no doubt, cooking shows and eating at chef restaurants in other hotels abroad created a new appetite for visitors to Jerusalem and Israel in general,” said Alex Herman, vice president of sales and marketing at the Inbal Jerusalem Hotel.
Haim Spiegel, director of food and beverages for the Dan Hotel chain added, “Breakfast and dinner at the hotel isn’t just for ‘daily survival’ anymore. Travelers who have been to cities like Paris, New York, Rome, etc., and are coming to Israel are no longer interested in what was called a ‘classical Israel’ visit. They want to see and experience more things beyond the traditional attractions. Thus, cooking or the art of food has become a trendy field of interest amongst tourists who wish to indulge themselves in local culinary culture.”
Jerusalem hotels actively compete to hire talented chefs who have studied and honed their crafts in Israel and Europe, while also spending time in exotic locales such as the Far East.
“We know that guests can venture outside the hotel and find high-quality restaurants, some of which are located within a block or two from our own hotel, so we need to compete,” Herman admitted. “There was a time when our Sofia restaurant was known as a good dairy restaurant. Today, we can call it a great Italian chef’s restaurant.”
Even hotel coffee has evolved, Herman added. “Guests are no longer satisfied with just a cup of coffee. In Israel, drinking high-quality coffee, espresso, Hafuch [Israeli cappuccino] etc. is also a cultural big deal and very successful, to boot,” said Herman. “That’s why you have seen several Israeli coffee chains open up branches in cities like New York. And during the past few years, high-quality Israeli wines have made headlines around the world, so we offer our guests a high-quality wine menu as well.”
According to Yacov Shaari, general manager of the Ramada Jerusalem Hotel, “Today’s gastronomic experience relates to far more than taste and quality, although both remain important. The experience starts with the eyes; presentation and selection are critical. People have to be attracted to the food by an exciting appearance and a choice, whether by display or by graphic presentation in a written menu.”
Though the Dan Hotel chain has four hotels of varying sizes in Jerusalem, each chef has free reign to offer guests his interpretation of Israeli or Jerusalem cuisine. At the world-renowned King David Hotel, Chef David Biton has garnered rave reviews for his unique offerings both in the dining room and at the hotel’s posh La Regence restaurant.
“The restaurant serves cuisine that is avant-garde yet simple; the food highlights local flavors but is internationally oriented,” said Spiegel. “At the Dan Jerusalem, which is a very large hotel (500 rooms), the chef, who is of Moroccan-Jewish descent, loves to offer Moroccan cuisine and a large selection healthy salads, couscous, etc. I would dub his offerings ‘Jerusalem street food’ with a North African accent. You won’t find his type of food at the King David or any other hotel, because this is his signature cuisine.
“At the Dan Panorama, many of our guests are either religious pilgrims or from various organizations. So, the chef in the hotel offers these guests a real authentic taste of Israel and Jerusalem, serving up salads with herbs and vegetables from the local Machane Yehuda market, bourekas and Sahlab, a hot and tasty Middle Eastern drink that is made with milk and extract from an orchid-like flower.”
At the Ramada Jerusalem, the chef has themed his menu and tossed in culinary curveballs. Shaari revealed that “each night the buffet is based on menu items typical to a specific country while maintaining choices for those not interested in what other cultures eat. Recently we have had dinners dedicated to Thailand, Mexico, China, Ethiopia, Yemen and Israel. In an effort to upgrade and vary the breakfast menu, we added some very interesting items. The most recent additions are roasted salmon and roasted tuna in the appearance of very thin slices, like deli. In fact, many guests think that they are eating deli and wonder why a glatt kosher hotel would be serving deli at a dairy meal!”
Because major hotels in Jerusalem play host to large numbers of discerning guests from North America for Shabbat and the major Jewish holidays (Sukkot & Pesach), there is an added emphasis on offering dishes that are both traditional and unique. “We have reached the stage where people will actually select a hotel because of the food they serve, including [for] Shabbat and the holidays,” said Herman. “Yes, guests always look for traditional foods, but they are also looking for a twist or something new. So we can serve a gefilte fish with a Jerusalem culinary accent, or a Shabbat-morning chulent with a Mediterranean influence.”
Added Herman, “It’s about recognizable dishes with new influences.”