I stumbled upon the Paris branch in June. We were a gaggle of nine adults and kids, optimistically looking for dinner in the Marais. Miznon seemed unlikely: a queue already spilled onto the pavement, the dining room looked tiny, but a vortex made of optimism and the aroma of roasting capsicum pulled us in. Twenty minutes later we were led down a corridor lined with crates of cauliflower and piles of artichokes to perch on stools at three jammed-together tables. Food arrived, in paper bags, or laid on scrunched baking paper: fish in pita pockets, roasted sweet potato, broccoli doused in tahini, beer in plastic cups. We started dainty and became animal, swept up in a food party that was all about honest ingredients and fierce fire. By the end, messy and garlicky, I wanted to hug everyone in the place.
“It’s fast food, street food but this fast food is kind of a mask,” says Shani. “We are really putting fine dining into pita. I want the energy of the street in my food, the energy of young people. But the ingredients, the knowledge, the originality, the purity – this all makes it fine dining.” Miznon was radical for Israel, where the only food you put in pita bread is falafel or cheap shawarma, neither of which Miznon offers in traditional form. In fact, the emblematic dish at Miznon is a whole cauliflower: blanched, ‘moisturised’ with olive oil, roasted to golden brown and served whole. They cook 13,000 a month in Israel and securing supply for the Melbourne operation has been a key task. Luckily, Shani finds Australian cauliflower very juicy, with a character he is still wrapping his head around.
“It’s a huge country, Australia, and everything inside the ingredients is huge,” he says. “You taste here much more space, more mood, a kind of freedom. The tastes are very wide, not dramatic at all, wide and colourful. The horizons are very far away, the sky is very big, I am cooking to that. That is what interests me. Otherwise why? I am cooking for 30 years. If I will not be born from the beginning each time I am creating something I will have no reason to do it.”
This kind of poetic preaching has made Shani a popular culinary commentator in Israel and he’s a wildcard judge on the Israeli version of MasterChef. Yotam Ottolenghi calls him “the voice of modern Israeli cuisine” in his book Jerusalem. Funny, then, that Eyal Shani’s food dream burbled to the surface relatively late in life. He trained as a cinematographer but when film work dried up in the 1980s his girlfriend encouraged him to seek work as a cook on the strength of the only dish he ever cooked, bouillabaisse from a Julia Child recipe. “My girlfriend told me it was the best in the world,” he says. Shani found work in a hotel kitchen, quickly worked his way up to second in command, and within a year decided to open a restaurant, Ocean in Jerusalem.