For devotees of Philadelphia’s thriving restaurant scene, Eilon Gigi is a familiar face. But how does the son of Moroccan Jews who grew up in Ashdod, Israel find his way to the top of the Philadelphia restaurant world?
For devotees of Philadelphia’s thriving restaurant scene, Eilon Gigi is a familiar face.
Having arrived here from Israel in 2006, Gigi helped launch Zahav, Citron + Rose, Dizengoff and Abe Fisher. He also helmed Sansom Street Oyster House and is now senior restaurant manager at Urban Farmer, the flagship dining space in the new Logan Hotel (formerly Four Seasons).
So, how does the son of Moroccan Jews who grew up in Ashdod, Israel find his way to the top of the Philadelphia restaurant world?
“My dad was a sailor who worked on the tourist ships, so there was always an emphasis on hospitality in our home,” Gigi said. “Also, the Moroccan tradition is very focused on hosting; there were always large family gatherings at our home with snacks and aperitifs passed around.”
That explains being drawn to the hospitality industry — but what about the rest?
“Beshert,” he said. “After leaving the army, I traveled — first the U.S., then India. I felt a pull to return to the U.S., and when I did, I was able to find work easily — American Jews always have rachmonis for Israelis, so I sought out Jewish-owned businesses. It’s sort of like LinkedIn without the web.
“I was working at a place called Souk, near South Street, when Michael Solomonov came in with his wife. He started talking to my friend and co-worker, who is also Israeli, and it turned out that he and Michael’s late brother served in the same regiment. Pretty soon, Michael called me and offered me a job helping him launch Zahav — which was a total joyride.”
The move to the Logan Hotel was in response to what Gigi called “the biggest and greatest event of my life,” referring to the birth of his daughter. Theoretically, the hotel will provide a better work/family balance with more regular hours.
When asked whether that has come to pass, Gigi laughed, “This business is kind of like the Israeli Army. At the beginning you have to eat a lot of dirt, but eventually you move up in the ranks and life is good.”
Gigi’s wife, Lauren, regularly cooks Moroccan dishes at home; she is a central Pennsylvania native but has learned many traditional recipes from her mother-in-law, who comes from Israel for extended visits.
The Moroccan beet salad below, courtesy of Mrs. Gigi the wife, by way of Mrs. Gigi the mother, regularly graces their home table.
Gigi tapped Urban Farmer chef Richard Brower for another favorite: the wild striped bass recipe from the restaurant’s menu. Although billed as a steakhouse, Urban Farmer offers a selection of lighter dishes, as well as some new takes on the classics.
And while the wild striped bass dish is rather involved, it does wind up providing the entire meal, with the greens, fish, mushrooms and beets all on the plate.
Moroccan Beet Salad a la Gigi
2 lbs. beets
2-3 Tbsps. olive oil
2-3 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 Tbsp. cumin
2 tsps. paprika
Juice from 1 lemon
Salt and pepper
Fully cook the beets, either by boiling in water or roasting in the oven, until a fork can easily be inserted into the center. Cook and peel.
Shred the beets with a grater or food processor.
Heat a large skillet to medium low and add the shredded beets. Cook the beets over medium-low heat for five to 10 minutes until most of the moisture has been released.
Add oil, garlic, cumin and paprika and cook over low heat for another 20 minutes.
Finish with lemon juice, salt, pepper and more oil if needed. This can be served right away, but is best chilled overnight so that the flavors meld.
Serves 4 to 6 as a side dish
Wild Striped Bass a la Urban Farmer
4 6-oz. filets striped bass with skin on
Wondra Flour for dusting
1 Tbsp. canola oil
Salt and ground white pepper
2 endives trimmed of outside leaves, split, cores removed
4 Tbsps. butter
2 beets blanched in boiling salted water, peeled and quartered
4 large maitake mushrooms
1 pint orange juice
2 shallots, peeled and rough chopped
2 Tbsps. champagne vinegar
1½ cups mild- tasting oil (canola, vegetable or blended)
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp. tarragon, leaves cleaned and stripped from stem, diced
2 Tbsps. parsley, leaves cleaned and stripped from stem, diced
Set the portions of striped bass aside skin side down, in the refrigerator.
Cook endive: In an oven-proof skillet, sauté the trimmed endives, cut side down, in canola oil until well caramelized. Flip them over and caramelize the other side.
When the other side is caramelized, add two tablespoons of the butter and brown, then add the juice of the orange. Cook with the orange juice and reduce slightly. Add the remaining butter and season with salt and pepper. Add a little water and cover the pan.
Finish the cooking in a preheated 350-degree oven. Cook until tender, reserve.
Place one pint orange juice in a sauce pan and keep at a low boil until reduced to ½ cup; chill.
Prepare the maitake mushrooms: Toss the mushrooms in canola oil, season with salt and pepper and roast in a 350-degree oven until the mushrooms become crispy. Set aside.
In a Vitamix or blender, add the chilled orange reduction, chopped shallots and vinegar. Blend all together until the shallots are almost pureed.
Slowly add the mild oil to the mix. If it seems as if it might separate, add a little water. Finish with the extra virgin olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Add herbs.
Heat a nonstick, oven-proof pan and add one tablespoon of canola oil. Coat the skin side of the striped bass with Wondra flour and place in pan.
Sear until the skin is starting to color, then place in a preheated 450-degree oven until the skin is well browned and crispy. Flip and finish cooking. While the fish cooks, heat the endive, mushrooms and beet quarters with extra virgin olive oil in the same oven.
Arrange the braised endives on a plate with a little of the cooking liquid, then place the cooked striped bass on top of the endive. Drizzle the sauce around and garnish with the beets and roasted maitake mushrooms.