Born in Tel Aviv in the sixties, Erez Komarovsky is considered one of the true pioneers of artisan bread-making in Israel. The celebrated chef and baker takes inspiration from his time spent in France and California, but above all draws on the rich melting pot of flavours and ingredients in his native land, and on the nature around him.
Erez Komarovsky: The Pioneer of Israel’s Artisan Baking and Cooking
Born in Israel in the sixties, Erez Komarovsky is considered one of the true pioneers of artisan bread-making in Israel. The celebrated chef and baker takes inspiration from his time spent in France, California, but above all draws on the rich melting pot of flavours and ingredients in his native land, and on the nature around him. With Ukranian roots, Erez is strongly influenced by childhood memories of his grandfather baking huge loaves of white bread in Kiev. He has written a number of cookbooks, and founded Lehem Erez bakery and cafe chain. From his home in Upper Galilee, Komarovsky now runs one-off cookery courses to share his ethos.
Luxeat sits down to talk to Komarovsky about Israel’s hugely diverse culinary offering, and his belief that small bridges can be built through sharing food cultures and cooking side by side.
How would you describe your philosophy of cooking?
Rash and from the heart. No tweezers or fancy gadgets. And a love of nature.
All my cooking comes from natural ingredients. I’m trying not to disturb the flavors, but I’m not afraid of enhancing them. In Israel we live in a tough environment which has been very turbulent over the years, so that’s why I think my flavours are very strong. I use a lot of garlic, a lot of chili, a lot of lemon, and good strong olive oil. I’m not afraid of giving the opportunity for food to explode in your mouth, without manipulating it too much, just by assembling a few different flavours and cooking very simply. I use a lot of smoke and fire, because I think this is the first and the most important flavour enhancer. I grill, use wood fire, or cook over the open flame. I have 5 different wood ovens in my house, each with a different flavour, and I also like to put spices in the flame to give the smell.
You cook in your house, in upper Galilee, not far from the Lebanon border. Tell us more about your house, because when I visited the last time 2 years ago, it was like a dream. Everything you grow there in nature was just incredible.
I came to live here because nature is undisturbed, whereas in Israel it is very crowded. This area still has an open oak forest, and yes, nature is very powerful here. During winter the surroundings give me wild herbs and plants, and in summer the land gives figs, sumac and other wonderful fruits. It’s nice to take from nature what it gives to us, despite living in a very populated country. I also built an organic garden right here – we have 15 different kinds of tomatoes in the garden, and right now it’s the peak season, so everything I’m cooking is with tomatoes. People who come here to the workshop eat tomato with tomato!
All my cooking comes from natural ingredients. I’m trying not to disturb the flavors, but I’m not afraid of enhancing them.
I’m trying to learn about all local cuisines: Jewish cooking, Bedouin cooking, Muslim cooking, Christian cooking, we have many kinds of cooking in Israel, not only Jewish cooking. The food scene is much more optimistic than in politics. It’s very diverse and we exchange ideas, we are cooking together, and it’s a very nice thing. I go to Christian village which is just a few minutes from here to buy from my butcher. We drink coffee together and have a normal life, so it’s nice.
How would you describe Israeli cuisine and how would you describe the new Israeli cuisine?
It’s an amazing phenomena because as Israelis we don’t have just one tradition, we respect so many traditions that mix together and even we get confused. For example we start with a Tunisian dish, and then we add something completely different which comes from Iraqi cuisine, and then by doing it we discovered that we invented kind of idiosyncratic approach to local cooking. Because we make a dish with so many traditions in it, we don’t think about combinations, we just do it because it’s available, we can get ingredients in the markets, we can get Moroccan spices, then Iraqi spices, Persian spices, and then Indian spices… And not only spices, also amba, a wonderful kind of example of Indian mango chutney, that became Iraqi amba which means it’s practically the same thing, and we eat amba not only with Sabich, which is an Iraqi dish, we eat amba with shawarma which comes from Turkey, and we mix it with tahini which comes from Syria and Lebanon, and we can do it in a musakhan style that comes from Jordan. It’s truly incredible.
Because we make a dish with so many traditions in it, we don’t think about combinations, we just do it because it’s available, we can get ingredients in the markets
Don’t forget that our ancestors came from all over the world, and many Jews that lived in Iraq came here in the 50s, hundreds of thousands Jews came from Egypt and Syria, Morocco and all over north of Africa. They mixed with my ancestors who came from Poland and Germany and the Ukraine. It’s crazy, we can have pelmeni with amba and yogurt and it’s completely natural for us. It’s kind of nice, and I think this is why the new Israeli cuisine is so interesting, because it’s so unpredictable. Everyone has different ideas, according to what they take from different traditions.
And I would say that the best vegetables I have eaten were in Israel. Why do they taste better in Israel than elsewhere?
It’s a veggie based cuisine, especially in the winter, while in the summer we mainly have fruits because of the weather. During summer we cook with fruits, we do watermelon salad, we have mango, we have lychee and we have tons of figs and apricots, which we cook with a lot. In the winter we have local spinach, dandelions, parsley, and a lot of herbs that grow here. Personally I’m a winter cooker – I prefer cooking with herbs and wild mushrooms from the forest.
What shaped you as a chef?
Again, nature. And the fact that I wanted to study cooking in Paris at the beginning of my career. I lived there for 2 years and I was educated in a very strict manner. Then I went to Japan and studied kaiseki cuisine. And then to California in the early 90s, where I was exposed to a huge Californian food revolution which really changed how Americans eat nowadays in a very good way. Good sourdough, goat cheese and small farms, and it all came from California in the late 80s and early 90s. Coming to Israel, with all the things I saw around the world, I understood the potential of rebuilding a cuisine that comes from our traditions and not being submissive to the French rules that we are all obsessed with. In the 80s in New York, a good restaurant was a French restaurant, nothing else counted. It was the same in Israel and England and all over the world, also in England, only French food was considered, then the Italia, and then slowly, slowly other local cuisines emerged and were given the position they deserve in food history.
Coming to Israel, with all the things I saw around the world, I understood the potential of rebuilding a cuisine that comes from our traditions and not being submissive to the French rules that we are all obsessed with.
And bread. You were one of the first ones to open a bakery in Tel Aviv. It was a bit of a revolution too.
I came from a Ukrainian family and all my memories about my grandfather involve the huge loaves of white bread I used to eat as a kid in Kiev. People used to eat this way before the first world war, the Russian revolution and the Spanish flu, when everything was destroyed in the Ukraine. And then going to California, being exposed to San Francisco sourdough, and understanding that bread can be something much more than small loaves or bagels with sesame seeds. For me, Californian breadmaking influenced me much more than the French. After deciding what I want to specialise in – breadmaking – I wanted to change my profession and study baking so went to back France to study. But this French and Italian baking tradition emerged in California with the local philosophy, where you are free to do fusion baking.
What kind of bread were you making?
In a way it’s funny because the first few breads I made weren’t Israeli at all. They were rye with caraway (which is a totally German bread), sourdough, French pain de campagne with oil and wheat, and Italian potato and rosemary bread. Being a chef before, I suppose I cooked rather than baked – I put veggies, mixed spices, margarine and yeast, and slowly I became an Israeli baker, with a different approach to local baking. And now, when I’m teaching baking, I’m trying to explain to my students that we Israelis, we have to bake local breads, more than croissants and brioche and foreign recipes. We should find our own path exactly as we did with cooking. Baking in Israeli is very developed, because the knowledge came from many mny different countries, but perhaps we haven’t yet developed an Israeli baking style.
What is the future of Israeli cuisine and what are the current trends?
Well, I think Israeli cuisine is going to explode more and more. People are starting to use amazing rice and new flavours and fermenting, and they are doing it in a much more refined way, which I think is amazing. I find it fascinating, I think we will have a good future. And I think being a chef you have to understand that Israelis are not only Jewish people, Israelis are also Druze, are also Muslim, are also Christian, also people that came from Caucasia or Turkey, and also Bedouins from the south or from the north, and we have to support democratic cooking, a liberate cooking, not saying that this is only Israeli Jewish cooking. And it’s very different, in New York for example, when you say Israeli cooking, everyone thinks it’s Jewish cooking, but here in Israel it’s not. When we say Israeli cooking, it’s not only Jewish, we incorporate all other tribes that live here, we should make faith, not war.
Baking in Israeli is very developed, because the knowledge came from many different countries, but perhaps we haven’t yet developed an Israeli baking style.
You run a cooking school, tell us more about that.
It’s not really a cooking school where people are taking courses, but a one-off workshop where I’m trying to teach people and give them a love of food, an understanding about seasonality and local food, and teach the importance of using more and more organic and simple cooking, and to share the ideas that I love. Today for example I’m making cholam and masabacham, which is warm chickpeas, then a tomato salad and a dish with roasted tomatoes in a wood fire oven, and my adaptation of pappa al pomodoro with local olive oil and pita bread. It represents Israeli cooking, a little bit of that, a little bit of that… and together it does make sense in a way.