Behind the scenes: A conversation with Roger Sherman, Director of The Search for Israeli Cuisine

Roger Sherman is the director of the upcoming documentary "The Search for Israeli Cuisine" to be aired on PBS (US) in spring 2016.  Grab a tea or coffee and read on to learn more about the film.  If you're planning a trip to Israel, be sure to take note of the restaurants he mentions as well! Watch the trailer, Like on Facebook, Follow on Twitter


Israel Food Guide
So how's everything going?

Roger Sherman
Fabulous.  We have a really great problem and that is, all our footage is wonderful and we just don't have time for even half of it, or less than half of it and that makes for a very nice problem.  I could make a six-hour film that no one would watch, but I'm going to stick to two hours.

Carmel Market
Director/Cameraman Roger Sherman shooting in Carmel Market
Photo courtesy of Roger Sherman

Israel Food Guide
Given that it's going to be screening on PBS, could it be a six-part mini series?

Roger Sherman
Theoretically, yes, but you have to ask, "Are people going to watch it?"  As much as you and I might love it, not everybody else will.  In fact, many, many people I talk to say, "Are you kidding me?"  Which is why I'm doing it, people don't know [about Israeli cuisine].  People don't have attention spans and you can't give them more than they can handle.  So in a sense, two hours may be pushing it, but I think that I have so many interesting characters that are doing so many interesting things, that I think people will be amazed at it. 

We were just watching Eli and Moran Mizrahi, of Café Mizrahiin the Machane Yehuda market [in Jerusalem].  Moran [Eli's daughter] says that it was great growing up, "...my father taught me all these wonderful things about food, and now I can go through the market and make my menu just based on what's available."  But that wasn't always so, the market was a very tough place 20 years ago and nobody was coming, and supermarkets and malls were opening, and then bombings happened.

Eli talks about opening his coffee shop and the place almost going bust.  It's one of the great wonders of the world today, but in the beginning there were bombings and stores were closing and changing hands every six months. Then there was a bombing right inside the market when Moran was in the army and she was stationed just a couple of kilometers away in the hills above and could see the market and she saw the smoke and everybody ran to the market and she froze.  She couldn't go, because God knows what had happened.
 
Then Eli starts this cafe and it was tough.  Women didn't come; it was just men, mostly workers, but people started to see the potential and come for coffee and Moran started working there - much to the chagrin of her mother - and it becomes this amazing world-renowned place because this guy believed and stuck it out. 

Fishing in Galilee
Roger filming fishing with Avigail Aharon on the Sea of Gililee, the Kineret
Photo courtesy of Roger Sherman

So it's stories like that.  People don't know about them and that's why this is a film about the Israeli people, told through food.  So it's not a food film, it's not a cooking film, though everybody in it is a food person.  You get to know who these people are.  I think that when I make films I have to represent my audience, I have to sort of be the audience, to know what people will understand and what they'll be curious about.  As a filmmaker I have to step back and not just do what I'm interested in.  I'm not making art just to satisfy me, I'm making a film to try to attract an audience and try to keep an audience for two hours.  That's not easy.

And so when I came back from my first trip to Israel five years ago, I hadn't known anything about the dynamic food scene in Israel, and nobody else I talked to knew either.  People laughed: "An Israeli cuisine?!"  And the more people I talked to, the more similar responses I got, the more I thought, wow, this is a film. 

That's why I choose films: to surprise and delight and entertain and be insightful and there's all of that here, so that's why I decided to make the film.  I'm not doing it to support Israel, but obviously it shows Israel in a very different light from what the world sees in the media everyday, which pretty much is not nice.  I'm not making a tourism film, but people are going to buy their tickets to go to Israel as soon as this film is over because it shows what a gorgeous, amazing country it is

I mean, who knew it had a gorgeous beach the length of the country?  I didn't know that.  Fantastic mountains, wonderful hiking, a desert that's just remarkable.  I didn't know any of that.  This film is about discovery.  Here's this place with an incredibly dynamic food scene, where generations have been immigrating and generations have been there, all with very distinct food cultures among other kinds of cultures.  And they've come together and many of them have maintained parts of their

Avigail Aharon
Avigail Aharon and Mike in Avigail's Kitchen in her restaurant in Tiberias, making fish that we caught a few hours before
Photo courtesy of Roger Sherman
traditional cultures, and that is expressed in the food.  That's what I'm trying to show: look at all these incredible cultures and the [food and cuisine] being made there reflects these cultures. 

So you can call that support, but I call that uncovering what people don't know.  I call that mining, I call that anthropology.  If you look in the teaser you hear Mike [Solomonov] say, "How long have you been here?" in the spice shop in the Arab section of the Jerusalem shuk, and the guy doesn't miss a beat, he says, "400 years."  That's a remarkable thing that people don't know.  If in the end that supports Israel, fine, fabulous, great, but I'm not making a promotional film.  I'm not making a tourism film, yet people are going to jump on it.  Food tourism is a gillion dollar industry and Israel is getting lots of food tourists and it's probably going to get a whole lot more when they watch my film.

Israel Food Guide
You mentioned that as a filmmaker your responsibility is to take the viewpoint of the audience and hold their attention, educate, entertain, delight for those two hours.  Who would you say your audience is, and what is that prism or filter that you're going to be using in order to craft a two-hour film?

Roger Sherman
That's a really good question.  As a filmmaker I have to think of who the primary audience is and make the film for them, and then hope and assume others will come who may not be in that primary audience.  So I'm making this film to be shown on national public television [PBS] as the primary audience.  That is a sophisticated, educated, world-traveling group of people who are interested in new things, who are interested in food - some of them - but are interested in looking at the world.  And so that's who my main audience is. 

Rama Kitchen
Roger interviewing Rama Ben Zvi in her restaurant Rama's Kitchen outside Tel Aviv
Photo courtesy of Roger Sherman

I think those same people are all over the world and it's our intention to show this film all over the world, to have the film shown on networks in countries far and wide, and then to have it available on every kind of platform known and unknown, the Netflix of today, tomorrow and the future.  Everybody says DVDs are going away, but they're still being sold.  So it will be streaming, it will be DVD sales, it will be whatever is out there.

And we will be doing screenings at community groups across the country.  The UJA has very generously offered to promote and inform their JCCs and their local organizations across the country about the film, so I envision dozens and dozens of community screenings. I can't appear at all of them, but I will appear at some of them.

There's also an unofficial tie-in: Mike Solomonov has written a book [not a companion book to the film] and it's coming out in October, called Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking.  I saw it when it was being put together, and it's phenomenal.  I make his tahini sauce and hummus from that, and other things, and I've got to tell you, I've never tasted anything like it and the proof is making it for guests and all.  A couple of weeks ago we were invited to friends for dinner, 18 people and we brought hummus.  They were licking the bowl.  So this is going to be a great book.  And Mike is just an amazing man.  I'm so lucky to have found him. 

My first trip to Israel five years ago - I was taken there by Joan Nathan, [cookbook author of The Foods of Israel Today and many others] - was an epiphany for me and I wasn't sure how to style the film.  I was thinking, "Well, I'll find somebody like me who hasn't been there and I'll follow them around, and the audience will witness their epiphany."  From my point of view they didn't even have to be Jewish, but they needed to really be into food.  I did a couple of postings on Facebook and I didn't find the right person.

Then I met a master spice blender here in New York named Lior Lev Sercarz who owns the spice shop called La Boîte, and he's Israeli.  He who told me that if I want to have the best Israeli cuisine in America, I have to go to Philadelphia to the restaurant Zahav.  So I go to Zahav and the first course comes out - it's not a course, it's the salatim [salads] and it's this hummus like you've never tasted before.  And then other things come out, and other things come out and other things come out.  And my wife is the reason I know anything about food, her name is Dorothy Kalins.  She created Metropolitan Home magazine, which had a lot of food in it; she created Saveur magazine which was a very important magazine, so she knows a lot more about anything food related that I do. 

So we were just looking at each other as dish after dish came out of the kitchen at Zahav, and then Mike came and sat down.  And he's funny, and self deprecating, and interested in you, and not all about him and he got up after 15 minutes and I looked at Dorothy and I said, "That's my guy!"  I was taking a flier on him, because he had no television experience, and you really can't test that.  It's very hard to say, "Okay, we're going to go to a market and you're going to talk and we'll film," and stuff like that.  But he was just off the charts, use any metaphor you want; grand slam, home run.  He was just unbelievable because of all the things I said before.  He's very funny, he's self-deprecating, he's very interested in what everybody else is doing.

Erez Komoravsky and Mike Solomonov
Erez Komoravsky and Mike Solomonov in Erez's kitchen in Matula, 800m from Lebanon
Photo courtesy of Roger Sherman

But he also was born in Israel, has lived in Israel, goes to Israel every year, is deeply excited by the food scene over there, and he knows all of those cultures.  He knows so many things about what is happening in Israel and the people that have come and when they have come and all of those things. 

So he can be in a kitchen and Ruthie Rousso the [Israeli chef and] food journalist is making her grandmother's Turkish eggplant with ground beef, and Mike knows the dish, he's made it, he can make connections between that and the Bulgarians where his family is from, and connections to other places around the world and take us all the way back to Spain.  He'll have some fish and he'll say, "This is so much like the tradition that comes from Holland in the 16th century."  I mean, really? I don't want to say it's deep, but it's so insightful and so interesting and that's the kind of thing that you're going to learn, and not in a classroom.

Israel Food Guide
He's able to synthesize so many things that a newbie to Israel would not have any idea, to make those connections.

Roger Sherman
That's exactly right.  So I was very lucky to find him.

Israel Food Guide
You mentioned that Joan Nathan took you on your first trip to Israel five years ago.  How did that come about?

Roger Sherman
She was leading a food press trip - she's a dear friend - and somebody cancelled.  She called me and said, "Roger you've got to come on this trip, somebody just cancelled.  In three weeks."  And I went, "Aiyaiyai!"  But I wasn't working on a film, and I thought "Okay, this is interesting, why not?"  And with my wife, we figured out, why don't I go and see what the food scene is like.  I brought a little camera and filmed around and was knocked out by what I saw.  And that's when this film was born.

So I've been really developing it for five years. I've been working on it full time for two and a half years, we shot it a year and a half ago, and I just started editing because of the Kickstarter campaign and somebody gave us a grant, and I had unspent grant money.  And I thought, "Okay, you've got unspent grant money, and someone just committed a bunch of money, if you do a Kickstarter you can edit this film."  And that's what I did.  We did a sucessful Kickstarter, which almost killed me.

Israel Food Guide
How come?

Roger Sherman
It is the most stressful month - two months because you've got to get ready for it - that I've ever, ever encountered.  There's an app, and every time somebody donates your phone buzzes, your computer screen goes ding, you have a backer! and you look and you say, "Wow! Fantastic! Somebody gave $35!"  And then that wears off in about a nanosecond and you think, "Is anybody else ever going to give?"  And we were trying to raise $72,000, and most donations are under $100 so if you do the math…that's a lot of donations. 

But this thing about crowdfunding was remarkable.  I didn't know the 477 backers.  Some people who I know really, really well with tons of money gave nothing, and some people that I've never heard of gave a lot.  And following on Twitter and Facebook and people saying "Come on, we can do this! We can make this happen!  Support Roger Sherman's film!" I mean, literally, tears come to my eyes every time I say that, even now, because… thank you, thank you, thank you, all you people that have taken on a sense of ownership of this project.  It's remarkable.

But it's so intense.  What I've been comparing it to is, everybody's overworked [in their job] and you never get through your list.  Well, if you had three of those jobs and you had to finish everything in a month... because Kickstarter is all or nothing.  You can imagine the tension.  So, even my wife didn't sleep for a month.  We set a goal of $72,000 and we got $89,000.  It's remarkable.  Just the most wonderful thing.

Israel Food Guide
What surprised you the most about the Israeli food scene?

Machneyuda
Food served in Machane Yehuda in Jerusalem. The turned over bowl with calamari spilling onto the paper was served like that on purpose.
Photo courtesy of Roger Sherman

Roger Sherman
I was surprised every day, but one of the great things was the street food.  American street food is not very good.  Israeli street food is fantastic.  It's like Paris.  In France, the street food is great.  You go to some little stall, a tiny restaurant, a little coffee shop, and you're going to have pretty good food.  And all over Israel it's the same thing.  You're going to have from 'pretty good' to 'fantastic' and the street food also comes out of traditions from other countries.  So you have this fabulous Georgian food, this little place in Jerusalem called Khachapuri that's the size of a closet and they're making this incredible bread, then they're putting cheese on it and frying eggs in it.  Oh my God. You want that everyday!
 
I guess the biggest surprise was Shabbat.  I grew up Jew-ish.  For me, Israel was Sunday school and the Bible and I wanted to go to Paris.  And I thought Shabbat was a strictly religious holiday where religious Jews pray all day on Saturday.  Boy did I have that wrong!  Yes, religious Jews pray on Saturdays, but really what Shabbat is for both religious and non-religious Jews is a time that family gets together.  And since Israel is mostly secular, there are a lot of people having great times on a Saturday.  But even the religious Jews, they're taking walks with their family, they're hanging out with their family, they're not supposed to be on their cell phones - God, wouldn't that be fantastic to not have to be on your cell phone for one day a week? And I thought that was fantastic.  I thought the idea that this is a time when families get together and every single Saturday or Friday night families get together.  They come together.  It's just a wonderful thing whether it's religious or not religious. 

So that was pretty remarkable for me, and I became sort of jealous because as we get older - my parents are no longer among us, my brothers and I don't get together as much as we used to.  I grew up with 16 cousins and we got together on Passover and on Thanksgiving and we'd play touch football in our dress clothes out on the street, and we grew up together.  I don't know my cousins as well as I used to, I really don't know their kids.  So that was something that I envy about the culture of Israel. And that's all those cultures, they come together. 

In terms of food, the big surprise was also Shabbat and that to be able to make a delicious meal that you don't touch for 12 hours, seemed impossible and yet what I learned is all of these cultures had hundreds of years to figure it out, to make the most festive, delicious meal of the week and not be able to touch for 12 hours.  Are you kidding me?  And I had some fabulous, fabulous, fabulous Shabbat meals. And that's going to really surprise people.  There's so much misinformation - there's a recent Travel Channel show that said everybody in Israel is kosher and everybody in Israel is religious.

Israel Food Guide
Well, that's incorrect, to say the least.

Roger Sherman
Incorrect.  Yes, exactly.

Israel Food Guide
So you think that will also be one of the biggest surprises for some of the audience, about the kosher issue, the religious issue, that many people have this misconception that Israelis are a bunch of religious Jews eating boring food?

Roger Sherman
Yes, exactly.

Israel Food Guide
They think of gefilte fish, matzah, bagels…?

Roger Sherman
Right.  And in fact, the Ashkenazi food that's represented in the United States, like pastrami and matzah balls and chicken liver, is not found over there except in the very religious areas.  It's starting to make an appearance because the chefs that have Eastern European roots, which are Ashkenazi roots, are rediscovering their grandmothers' food now over there, as we're doing everywhere around the world, discovering our roots.  They're doing that, they're saying, "Well, maybe I can cook this oxtail for six hours." 

Israel does not have a Jewish culture the way we know Jewish culture in the United States.  It's all of these cultures, and while the Ashkenazi, the Europeans and Eastern Europeans came first, what has taken over is the North African cuisines, of Morocco and Tunisia, then the Baltics, Turkey and Bulgaria.  It's because the climate is closer to what they had when they were at home.  And the Turkish Jews were not making what the Muslim Turks were making, and the Moroccan Jews were not making what the Moroccan Muslims were making.  Very, very different foods.

What everybody says over there is there's no time.  Nobody knows what tomorrow's going to bring and that's made a very fast culture. "We don't have time to wait for things.  We don't want a three or four-hour meal." Everybody seems to be looking over their shoulders in Israel.  When I ask what's the future of Israeli cuisine, people say, "If we have peace, there's a fantastic future for Israeli cuisine.  But we just don't know." 

And so what has happened is while people are total news junkies, they're not talking about it every minute of every day but it's always in their minds and that has made it a very fast culture.  People are moving very fast; that's part of the stereotypical Sabra [native Israeli], and a sabra is a prickly pear that's really mean if you touch it, but on the inside it has a delicious fruit.  When they drive on the highway they're honking their horns and cutting you off, and they're just tough people, "C'mon, c'mon, c'mon!" and then sit down with them, and have a meal with them, and they're the nicest people you've ever met.  And I saw that a lot.

Israel Food Guide
Is there any indication of Israeli cuisine influencing other countries' food scenes? 

Roger Sherman
I don't know if it's influencing other cuisines; what I do know is it's spreading like wildfire.  There are Israeli restaurants opening everywhere, there are hummus places opening in Japan, Alon Shaya is a New Orleans chef who opened Shaya this year; it was just named best new restaurant from New Orleans Magazine.  Mike has opened another two restaurants that are based on Israeli cuisine, a hummusiya [hummus stand or small restaurant] named Dizengoff and another is a very loose take on Ashkenazi food called Abe Fisher  where they serve shrimp and other kinds of things.

Israel Food Guide
Any collaboration of chefs that come from different ethnicities or religions?

Roger Sherman
It's very rare.  We worked very hard to find some and we filmed in an incredible restaurant called Majda, about 20 minutes outside of Jerusalem.  It's very famous now.  It's in the village of Ein Rafa, and Michal is Jewish and Yakub is Muslim.  They've been together for 18 years and they have this fabulous restaurant.  Michal is the chef and Yakub does the bar at the front of the house.  And they've had their issues about their families and all of that. 

They have two children, and Michal talks about how when she was in the army, she was in all the occupied territories, and then she all of a sudden starts to meet Arabs when she's a civilian and she tells about the first Arab meal she ever had and it was life transforming.  She says the food is about freshness, fresh olive oil, fresh lemons, fresh everything, and locally grown, and homemade labaneh, and everything homemade.  And she is making her own version of every kind of food that she's ever been exposed to which included her Moroccan grandmother and his Muslim mother.  So it's still very rare.  When people talk about mixed marriage over there, they mean Jews from different countries.

We filmed a whole bunch of Palestinian Arab places.  In Jerusalem, Chef Kamal Hashlamon goes with Mike to a Palestinian market to shop and then we go home and the two of them with his mother make makluba [traditional upside-down one-pot dish of rice or potatoes and chicken], sitting around the table.  It's a carrot makluba with chicken.  We go to Hasam Abbas' restuarant called El Babour - he now has three restaurants.  And when I go back in the end of July to do a week of pickup shooting, he and Ruthie Rousso have started a weekly Palestinian farmers market and supposedly it has things that are not commercially grown and not available in other places. 

​Influences are coming from everywhere. ​A​nd​, even illegal immigrants are opening little Nigerian restaurants, Eritrean restaurants in South Tel Aviv. ​Maybe their traditions will influence Israeli cuisine. We also went to an Ethiopian restaurant which is owned by a religious​, black​ Ethiopian Jew​. And it's a vegan restaurant, called Tenat. You probably know this, that Israel has the highest percentage of vegans in the world.

Israel Food Guide
Actually, a friend of mine wanted me to ask you if you can tell me the best vegan restaurant in Israel.

Roger Sherman
Oh, I cannot tell you the best vegan restaurant.  I can tell you that Israeli cuisine is based on vegetables.  The meat is not so great in Israel because of the kosher laws and the kosher restrictions and things like that.  And so wherever you go you can have incredible vegetables in any restaurant.  And locavore [eating local food] is a foreign idea to them because everything is so close by, you get everything from two hours away.

Roger Eating
Roger working hard
Photo courtesy of Roger Sherman

Israel Food Guide
What is your favorite Israeli food or dish?

Roger Sherman
I don't know.  Every time I watch this footage, I go, "I want that, I want that, I want that!" And I'm dreading going back there to film because there are too many places that I want to go and eat at and I'm going to be working my butt off and probably have very little time.

We talked a lot about the traditional stuff, and now the chefs are taking those traditional things and doing plays on them and pushing them forward.  They're no longer doing French food, although there might be a croissant or something on somebody's high-end plate.  So they're not afraid to take from many, many, many influences.  They'll take a Turkish dish or a Bulgarian dish or an Iraqi dish and they'll do a spin on it that's very much of the tradition yet moved in a different direction.  So it's completely identifiable but wow! look what you did with that. 

So here's an example: in Mizlala which is Meir Adoni's restaurant, which is like a bistro in Tel Aviv, he has kubaneh.  Kubaneh is a traditional Yemeni Shabbat bread which I had served to me by Gil Hovav who is a famous TV personality, journalist and publisher and is Yemeni.  And the traditional bread cooked overnight comes out burnt on the bottom, very crunchy, crispy all around, and very chewy inside, I mean just fabulous.  At Mizlala, it comes out like the best brioche you've ever had.  It's not burnt on the bottom, but it's nice and crispy all around and the inside is buttery because it is filled with butter and it fills out like a croissant even though it's not that flaky kind of croissant-y thing but it's more brioch-y and when I was served that for the first time, I just said "Okay, cancel the rest of my order, this is all I'm having."  It's so incredible. 

Israel Food Guide
Can you sum up the Israeli cuisine scene in three words?

Roger Sherman
Local.  Vegetables.  Dynamic.


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