Nothing said mouth-watering like harissa-laced butternut squash spread, eggplant peel dip, chopped olives and sesame-seed challah among other Israeli delicacies atop a three-foot wood board at a suburban Washington, D.C., banquet last week.
Diner Nurit Coombe summed it up with a three-word phrase.
“That was, ‘Oh my God,’” she said after sampling the smorgasbord of 35 items.
Each of the four courses represented an element of nature, as Hedai Offaim titled them “earth,” “water,” ”fire,” “wind.”
The first course represented “earth” because of its vegetable-based dishes.
Coombe was one of 85 guests at a four-course dinner prepared by Israeli celebrity chef Hedai Offaim at the Silver Spring, Md., home of Louis and Manette Mayberg on Jan. 30.
The Maybergs have hosted a dinner prepared by a celebrity chef for the last 10 years to raise funds for the Israeli nonprofit Shalva, which assists individuals with disabilities. They chose an Israeli chef this year to mark both the 10-year anniversary of the fundraiser, and the 70th anniversary of Israel’s creation.
Offaim, 39, has become well-known in Israel for the sustainable Ofaimme Farm he and his brother Yinon started on Moshav Idan. They grow crops and raise livestock without using pesticides, genetically modified organisms or other traditional farming practices.
“I wanted to make the best cheese, and I wanted to have the best eggs and the best produce to make the best food,” he said before the meal. “And in order to do that I looked for the right way to grow it. And I discovered that no man’s an island. I cannot just start with a tomato. I need to start in the soil in which it grows and in the water and in the people who grow it, and I need to work the fields. It’s holistic.”
About five years ago, the brothers opened the Ofaimme Café in Jerusalem’s Beit Hakerem neighborhood, which is both a store and a restaurant where farm products are sold. The atmosphere inside, he said, is family-like and informal.
“Israel is a small country, we know everybody,” he said. “When my customers go into my restaurant, I have an open kitchen. The cook looks into the eye of the customer. The food needs to be food that they are proud to give you, and that you would feed your own family.”
Modern Israeli cooking, he explained, is a “revolution” of sorts, where the food often reflects the melting pot of ethnicities. He noted that in the United States, big-name chefs such as Michael Solomonov and Meir Adoni have raised the profile of Middle Eastern food in major cities, such as Philadelphia and New York, where they work.
“What are they doing? They’re bringing what their Moroccan mom took from her grandmother, what their Ashkenazi dad took from his parents and creating something completely new,” he said. “Israel, thank God, is in the Mediterranean. The influences of 70 Diasporas that make Israel what it is, in my eyes, makes it one of the most interesting, dynamic, flavorful places in the world.”
The diversity of the first course continued in the second, which represented “water.” It featured a combination of soups and alcoholic beverages intended to cleanse the palate of the intensity of the first course. It was served on a silver tray and included semolina wheat dumplings with fish in a broth along with the Turkish delicacy shish barak, a yogurt soup containing dumplings stuffed with lentils. The tray also included liqueur and sangria.
During the third course, “fire,” the staff rolled out long pieces of paper on the table and covered it with a bed of lettuce and fruits, seasoned with olive oil and spices. On the lettuce, they placed a series of skillets with various seafood entrees. One featured a white fish topped with roasted red peppers and mushrooms and submerged in a zesty marinade. Other skillets included a potato casserole and tabbouleh.
The final course, “wind,” was a light dessert of vanilla ice cream, accompanied by each diner’s choice from 60 toppings, everything from dried apples to pistachios.
Michael Epstein said he was not familiar with all of the foods, and called them “spectacular.”
After the third course, he said, “I’m eating on faith.”
Similarly Cindy Zitelman thought the presentation was “beautiful,” but not what she was used to eating. “I could recognize the cauliflower and the fish dishes,” she said. “The water course was a little creative.”
Dan Schere is a political reporter with Washington Jewish Week, an affiliated publication of the Jewish Exponent.