In January 2018, JArts Executive Director Laura Mandel and famed local chefs Michael Leviton and Tony Maws took a culinary trip to Israel. JArts does a great deal of food programming (see our Beyond Bubbie’s Kitchen annual Jewish food fest, now in its 10th year, on March 3, and our Kitchen Exploration Series, exploring the intersection of history, cuisine, neighborhoods and identity in Boston). Now JArts is creating Taste of Israel (Feb. 24 to March 2), where 10 local restaurants will offer special Israeli menu items created by pairing Boston-Israeli chefs with other local chefs. Diners can make reservations at the restaurants and enjoy these inspired menu items. Chef Michael Leviton answered some questions about the trip and his involvement in helping to plan Taste of Israel.

The JArts trip to Israel last January was an inspiring week. Can you tell us a bit about what struck you most? How did this inspire Taste of Israel?

The trip was inspired by a meeting with Israeli food writer and critic Gil Havov about seven or eight years ago. He was speaking about the idea of Israel as the ultimate culinary melting pot. What struck me most about the trip was exactly how right he was. The blending of traditional foods from throughout the Middle East was obvious, but we also ate great food from North African and Eastern and Western Mediterranean influences, not just Askenazi and Sephardic cooking—elements from Jewish cuisines from all across the globe. Younger chefs are incorporating ideas and flavors from all over the world now, too. There’s this idea that all great cuisine shares this basic aesthetic of simplicity, purity and harmony with the seasons. What was so striking was that we saw this in so many ways. That so much food sang with its intensity. And I think we went from playing with the notion of what is Israeli food to taking it further back to what is Jewish food?

All of these influences—the blending of cuisines and cultures, of traditional and modern, are the inspiration for Taste of Israel.

You and Tony Maws will be joining forces to cook for the week. Tell us about what you’ll be making and what excites you. Is there a dish or flavor you’re most excited to bring to people? 

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I have no idea what we’ll be cooking. But some of the things that I keep cooking at home are inspired by Yemenite flavors—roast chicken or a really rich chicken soup with hawaij, and there’s now always zhug in my refrigerator. I would also love to play with this dish of stewed calf lung that may have been the best thing I tasted while we were there. I have also been making a dish of roasted carrots inspired by our dinner with an Ethiopian family. The carrots are roasted with Berbere spice and then served with tahini and cilantro.

Why do you think this new concept matters in Boston? What do you hope it will do for our community?

I think my secret hope for Taste of Israel is that it makes people think, in a positive way, about the notion of Israel, as our guide, the lovely Orit, put it, a great big, beautiful balagan (a mess or mishmash). The food is a window into that world. Hopefully, it becomes the lure by which we get folks to either go for the first time or to return to visit with a different perspective.

[Since he wrote this two weeks ago, chefs Leviton and Maws have finalized their menu, serving one night only on Thursday, Feb. 28.]

For the table: Classic Israeli hummus, garden pickle and dukkah

First (Tony): 
Beet-cured salmon, pickled red onions, za’atar and avocado puree

Second (Michael):
 Berbere-spiced carrots with carrot puree, tahini, coriander and savory sesame brittle

Entrees (Tony): Black garlic harissa-rubbed lamb, merguez sausage and lamb fat-roasted carrots and onions, or sabich-style yellowfin tuna, roasted eggplant, Israeli salad salsa and amba vinaigrette

Sides (supplement): Freekah mujadara, green shug roasted Japanese cauliflower, schmaltz and hawaij-forked potatoes

Dessert (Michael): Coconut malabi, dates, pistachios, Cara Cara navel oranges

Find out more about Taste of Israel restaurant week here.

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