Dani interviews Israeli chef Eyal Shani – Dani Valent

I was so happy that my work as a food journalist meant I was sent to interview Israeli chef Eyal Shani. This story first appeared in Good Food, and was swiftly followed by a crazy day shooting videos with Eyal. If you’re a Dani Valent Cooking subscriber, you can watch our Hummus adventures here. Meantime, enjoy my story about the man behind Miznon.

Chefs often get excited about ingredients but I’ve never yet heard one wax lyrical about the atmosphere of beans. Israeli chef Eyal Shani, however, isn’t a normal chef. As part of the produce testing process for Miznon, the irreverent street food restaurant he’s just opened on Hardware Lane, Shani sourced 12 different types of Victorian green beans. He steamed them lightly, dressed them with lemon, olive oil and sea salt and put them in a paper bag as is normal at Miznon, a restaurant of few plates. The magic happened as he popped each bean in his mouth. “I understood that each pod has a bubble of air inside and each bubble has a different character,” he says. “When you eat it, it is like you are eating atmospheres in the universe.”

Shani, 58, is all about the feeling and Miznon is its expression in restaurant form. It’s a phenomenon, a riotous rumble of roasted vegetables, steaming pita bread, help-yourself sauces and a cacophony of happy whoops. The first one opened in Tel Aviv in 2007; it’s now expanded to Vienna and Paris. A branch in New York is planned before year’s end. In Melbourne now to train staff, Shani’s system is three parts story-telling, two parts magic-dust-sprinkling and one part systems. “We don’t write recipes, we are telling the story of the recipe to the cooks,” he says. “It’s not so wise, perhaps, but it makes a very special way of cooking.” Somehow, it all works and an energetic, slightly mad spirit defines Miznon as much as its veg-leaning pita pockets and atmospheric bags of beans.

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.

It was popular for his fish soup and for charcoal-cooked shellfish but Shani felt like a fraud. “I really knew nothing about cooking,” he says. “I didn’t know how to bake bread. My fish would always stick to the grill. The only reason the shellfish worked is because the shells stopped them sticking.” When a laudatory restaurant review resulted in a queue down the street, he fled for the nearby mountains. “It was a rainy day, springtime, I walked in the olive groves and saw the wildflowers, so beautiful,” he says. An epiphany was brewing. “I decided to bring my feeling for the mountains to my restaurant.” He gathered flowers and brought them back to his kitchen. “This is what we’re serving,” he told his team. “These flowers, with olive oil and bread.” He admits not knowing what he’d plucked. “My customers asked me if perhaps some were poisonous. Yes, maybe, I told them. But it’s so beautiful. And the next day I got a lot of phone calls – ‘oh my stomach’ – but nobody stopped coming because they believed I was trying to find something beyond the traditional.”

Four months later he took a trip to Italy, where he ate the first meat carpaccio of his life, followed by the first seafood terrine. Pennies dropped like rain. “I got a ticket to Israel, I went to my kitchen in the middle of the night, I cut fish in thin slices – not very well, my technique was still not good – I arranged it like a meat carpaccio, and drizzled it with lemon and olive oil. From that moment, I couldn’t stop creating food. It opened my karma.”

Shani became a spearhead of the nascent Israeli dining scene, foraging indigenous herbs, borrowing from Arab traditions, shrugging off Euro-centric lore. But as the nineties gave way to the noughties, fine dining lost its shine. “Cooking for rich people? It’s good for 10 years but I want everyone to eat my food,” he says.

Every Miznon has key dishes like the cauliflower but almost half the Melbourne menu is new, and that includes pita bread made in a red gum-fuelled oven, “each one individual with its own birthmark”. What hasn’t changed is the grandstanding of plants. “We sell meat but we are trying to convince people to eat vegetables,” says Shani. “Our vegetables are the most attractive and less expensive. If you have common sense, you will eat them.” It’s not that he’s an evangelical vegetarian, more that he thinks we overdo meat. “People need a very small amount of meat, not every day, maybe once a month,” he says. “Eating meat is not for fun. It’s because sometimes you feel like you need it.” Sharing a cauliflower can take the place of a traditional roast. “Cauliflower is like a brain, an animal, and carving it is an event,” he says. “It’s like eating meat without killing anybody.”

Shani opened in Melbourne because his friend and business partner, local property developer Ron Lazarovits, got in his ear. He loves the local ingredients – the atmosphere of those beans – but being part of a thriving new food culture also appeals. “I want to create something that will be part of Melbourne food in the future,” he says. “It is the character of the Australian to take something from elsewhere and to do it in the best way. That’s what I like. There’s huge belief here and I want to be part of that.”

Eyal Shani’s Cauliflower:  Boil it in salted water till it’s medium soft. Set it aside to steam dry. Moisturise it with olive oil with your hands. Sprinkle it with salt. Bake it in a very hot oven, around 220C or hotter, until it’s golden brown. That’s all.

First published in Good Food, August 31, 2017.

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