Eyal Shani is a culinary genius. The Israeli celebrity chef is known for filling his famous pita with ‘unusual’ foods and, at his Israeli street food restaurant, Miznon (meaning ‘kiosk’ in Hebrew), he varies it according to local tastes.
In the Paris Miznon, for example, he serves minute steak and boeuf bourguignon, while in England, where he has just opened his second Miznon, he offers chicken-liver, fish-and-chip and all-day-English-breakfast pitas.
The corner restaurant, on Elgin Crescent, right by Portobello Market, is prime location material (he opened the Soho branch of Miznon in July). They are not kosher but both, of course, follow his ‘eat with your hands’ ethos.
I was lucky enough to try out a bowl of the ‘lima beans stew topped with olive oil, tomato’s ovaries and hot peppers’ nestled in some of the best and creamiest hummus I’ve ever tasted, accompanied by warm and fluffy pita. I noted that the hummus is described as ‘the best hummus plate you will ever eat’; this is not an overstatement.
Eyal has now opened 40 restaurants worldwide with his business partner Shahar Segal – including in the US, Singapore and Melbourne – so what is the secret to his success? Eyal, who has been described as eccentric, is considered in his reply.
“For me to be focused on a thing is so natural and easy that I can look at that glass and suddenly there is no world around me any more,” he explains. “I see this water and I’m entering into this water and I’m becoming one with the water and all you have is this water.
“Something in your mind is completely changing and there is a belief coming out of you… now you are carrying a belief of something that mostly is not realistic, but you believe that if you combine this and this together, something great will came out of it. If you analyse [it], there is no sense, no logic… And I’m carrying that belief into my audience – that is my power.”
By audience, Eyal means his customers, because he considers his restaurants to be a “stage”. He likes to keep things simple in his cooking, telling me that he tries to avoid seasoning or adding herbs to food, preferring to let their natural flavours shine through.
“If I will cook something [with tomato], it will carry all the information of that original tomato. I swear to it that nothing will be changed; the texture will remain, the flavours, the aromas, the shapes, so when you are eating my food, it looks very simple [but], it’s not simple. I just represent the tomato in the way it wants to be [represented].”
Eyal’s interest in food was piqued from a young age by his grandfather, an agronomist and committed vegan, who took him to local markets and vineyards. But the 63-year-old, who starred in the Israeli TV series Food for Thought and is a judge on the country’s MasterChef, says that when he decided he wanted to cook, he knew nothing about cooking.
He served in the Israeli navy but a missile had damaged his ear, so he was no longer allowed on the front line. He asked to go into the kitchen but, he says, laughing: “I invented a terrible thing! A chicken dish cooked with black coffee where the coffee was glued to the skin. I saw that people were opening their windows [in the ship] and throwing the chicken out.”
The restaurateur refined his recipe and is pleased to report that it is now the “most traditional” dish the navy serves. It is also an example of how people have not always understood his culinary vision.
Aged 22, after being heartbroken over a woman, he spent a year on a farm in the Carmel mountains and says he didn’t buy food but cooked from the land. “I was very romantic!” he recalls.
Following a meal of porcupine and red wine with friends, Eyal had a “vision” that he should cook and, in 1989, he opened his first restaurant, Oceanus, in his home town of Jerusalem, where he offered dishes based on regional Mediterranean products, including his beloved tomatoes.
He is known for being the brains behind the whole roasted cauliflower – another of his signature dishes – and one he cooks simply by boiling it first and then oven-cooking it with olive oil and salt. It is, of course, on the Miznon menu.
When Eyal started cooking 35 years ago, the Israeli food culture that we now know and love did not exist. Food, he tells me, even in restaurants, was a domestic version brought by Jewish immigrants from places including Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Morocco.
At his HaSalon restaurant in Tel Aviv, he perfected the art of fine dining, but was castigated for serving, for example, a $24 tomato. It was not until 2011 when Eyal, who studied cinematography in Tel Aviv, launched Miznon, that his fortunes changed.
“People in Israel admired me and hated me because they pay so much money for my food,” he said, explaining that he didn’t personally benefit from the high prices as he paid for the most expensive ingredients and his chefs. “But I knew that if I will put my food inside the pita, it will force me to sell it cheap… then young people will come.”
And come they did – and do. There is nothing Eyal wouldn’t try to make work in a pita – the steam inside of which, he says, perfectly cooks food – although he won’t cook with pork (but does with shellfish).
He is very happy to share his recipes, he says, but we will have to wait for a cookbook. He has put pen to paper for one book, which is 700 pages long and, he acknowledges: “I don’t know how to cut it – so much information. It’s not just how to cook, it’s a whole religion.”
For now, we’ll have to make do with eating his food in his restaurants – and that is certainly no hardship.
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