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A conversation with Moran Mizrachi, chef

by simone July 06 2008
InterviewFoodThings to do

Moran at work

Chef Moran Mizrachi comes from a long line of shuk-ites. Her grandfather opened a roasted nut snacks stand there in the 1960s and her father, Eli Mizrachi, helped jump start the Mahane Yehuda renaissance when he opened Café Mizrachi in the early 2000s. Moran, the café's chef extraordinaire, trained at Paris' renowned Cordon Bleu before returning to Israel in 2001 to put her newfound skills to work. More than a chef, she is Café Mizrachi's lifeblood, and our interview was constantly interrupted by customers' hugs and greetings. As the interview drew to a close, Moran was on her feet, off into the shuk to buy vegetables for the day's quiches.

What led you into the restaurant business? When I finished my army service and my post-army trek in South America, I tried to study economics in Be'er Sheva and was bored out of my mind. So I decided to leave school and do something that really interested me instead. I thought about it and eventually decided to study cooking. It runs in the family. My father is also a chef.

At first I was thinking of going to culinary school here in Israel, but while I was trying to figure out where to enroll, I by chance ran into one of my old youth group counselors, and he told me he was about to leave for France to attend culinary school. I said "You know, I'm also thinking of going to culinary school." So he gave me a list of all the schools he'd researched in France and England. Soon after, my father and I went to France to check these places out, and I decided to study there.

I understand that your family plays a prominent role in the shuk – has it always been this way? How has Machane Yehuda changed since your childhood? Even though we lived in Nachlaot, I didn't come to Mahane Yehuda much as a child. It wasn't of interest to me then. But I was here enough to notice how much it has changed. I can't even really describe how different it looks now. It's much cleaner and more organized. And the types of stores are different. I'm not just talking about the clothing stores and boutiques. Even the food stands are different; the fancy fish and cheeses you can now buy here were definitely not available years ago.

Café Mizrachi was the first upscale café in Mahane Yehudah. Now there are plenty of others and dozens of upscale boutique shops. What do you make of this transformation? Has it been good for business? Good for the shuk? First of all, I think in general, the center of Jerusalem has always been sort of muzzled. There was a lack of life in the center of the city, no theaters or cultural institutions, attractions a vibrant city center should have. When the shuk began its renaissance, it brought life and culture to the whole area. The whole city center is now getting a face lift and the fact that the shuk is becoming more upCafe Mizrachiscale is good for the city in general.

While the fact that there are now more boutique shops and cafes in Mahane Yehudah is good for business, the feeling they create is even better. It's very heartening to see the aisles and alleys packed with people. When we first opened, this was basically a deserted alley. People that passed by would do a double-take - they were so shocked to see a café in Mahane Yehudah. Now people are constantly passing through our alley, stopping in, or just continuing on their way, but it feels less desolate. I hope that this renaissance continues and that galleries and bookstores open here as well. There's room for more development and enough business to support all the cafes that now operate in the shuk, so I only hope that these developments continue.

What makes Cafe Mizrachi unique? It has a very familial, personal atmosphere. It's a warm place; we're really invested in our customers and our service. A lot of thought goes into each dish. And we have regulars that have been coming since it opened - we test all of our new dishes out on them. Basically, the food we serve here is food we ourselves would want to eat. We have great food, great customers. Mizrachi is a place for everyone, young and old, shuk vendors, shuk regulars, one-time shoppers, students, everyone.

How does your cooking style differ from the cooking you grew up with? In some ways it's very similar and in some ways very different. We always ate well in my home. It wasn't just traditional Israeli cooking; it was a mixture of many things. We would have the chamin (stews) of my grandmother alongside international dishes that my father learned to cook on his travels. The food that I cook now is by nature more sophisticated, because I learned at a French culinary school, but I use the same good, fresh ingredients that were used in my home. I cook a lot of the same traditional recipes I grew up with, giving them a modern twist. There are ingredients available now that you couldn't get 20, 30 years ago when I was growing up. Today there are more varieties of fish available, more cuts of meat, even new spices and fruits that you just couldn't get when I was a child.

PleaCafe Mizrachi's Place in the shukse describe some of your signature dishes. I make an egg-in-a-frame with toasted bread; an endive salad with a mint and cider vinaigrette topped with hazelnuts and parmesan cheese; and real French toast. We also serve a sandwich made with camembert cheese and mushrooms that's quite popular.

What other shuk shops and stands are you most likely to frequent? There's a corner vegetable stand called Baladi – he has zucchini and grape leaves and all kinds of wonderful things. I also love David Fish, I love to go there in the morning when he first comes back from the Jaffa fish market, to see what he brought back. Another favorite is Moshe the butcher. He always has really great cuts of meat. I could go on and on.

What Jerusalem coffee shops and cafes do you remember from your childhood? There wasn’t such a café culture here when I was growing up, but there were a few places we ate at that really stand out in my mind. I used to love Babette's, the original one on Emek Refaim, where it took 40 minutes to get a waffle because they were making everything fresh and from scratch. There was also a place called Hatzrif that was great. Today's restaurants aren't like that any more - each place used to be unique, with a personal touch. All along King George St. there used to be these little bakeries and sweet shops with Austrian and Hungarian women making pastries and cream cakes with real cream - none of the fake stuff a lot of places use now. There used to also be amazing French fries here. Everything used to be hand made. It's not like that so much anymore, the personal touch.

Photos of Moran in her kitchen (top), the cafe's welcoming atmosphere (middle) and its context in the marketplace (above) by Ben Jacobson for Jerusalemite.

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