For esteemed Israeli chef and food enthusiast Menachem Katz, life as a chef began as more than just the possibility to fulfill a dream by presenting his fine fayre to a discerning audience, but instead began as an ambition and became an all-consuming way of life.
As far as ideologies can be combined, food and patriotism are the equal subject of fusion as the fascinating way in which Katz has joined Mexican American and Asian cuisine at his restaurant in the heart of Gush Etzion’s epicurean heartlands.
Even the name evokes a fusion, although this time of the cultural origins behind the flavors that charismatic Menachem Katz warmly described on my visit to his fine establishment in his forthright yet friendly New York prose.
In the run up to opening in 2013, the restaurant assumed an evocative name – Bodega.
Katz had created a fusion restaurant, with transcontinental flavors, offering Israeli boutique beers and sticking to a fervent ‘blue and white’ policy of sourcing fresh Israeli produce in a region which is synonymous with enthusiastic patriotism, therefore the name itself should, according to Katz, be a single word which has several meanings.
Bodega is Spanish for wine cellar, therefore appropriate for a restaurant which is the pinnacle of food culture in Efrat, the wine capital of the Gush Etzion region. Indeed, the restaurant’s balcony offers a clear view over the abundant vineyards in the rolling Judean Hills. With Mexican food in an Israeli wine region, Bodega combines the two almost poetically.
Furthermore, growing up in Brooklyn, New York, Katz recalls the familiarity of the neighborhood news stand “Get your magazine at the Bodega! They already know you!” he smiled, remembering the welcoming street sellers of the Big Apple. The restaurant itself used to be a small supermarket, known colloquially in Hebrew as a ‘makolet’, thus Katz likens the origins of the restuarant’s location to that of a New York bodega, frequented by many Israelis who grew up in New York and now form the vibrant, urbane and sociable Efrat community.
The venue itself, however, could not be further removed from the stature of its predecessor. A modern, stylish restaurant which encompasses live music, fine home made burritos and fajitas with the most delicate home made combination of avocado guacamole, tomato and mild jalapenos that surpass that of the most notorious meeting places of downtown Houston, with the fusion inspired sushi dishes served on an elegant wooden boat, featuring all manner of tastes bringing the American and Asian continents together with ingenious items such as avocado sushi rolls alongside salmon and wasabi rolls, with home made jalapeno dips to compliment.
Beginning with barbecued chicken wings to begin a true American steakhouse experience, I moved on to burritos which were served with the aforementioned guacemole with jalapeno and tomato which was very light and very tangy. This I found to be of importance, as it meant that the taste does not color or detract from the texture of the fresh entrecote beef, and the jalapeno equally doesnt overpower, its flavor being piccante and yet mild and fruity, a matter which I discussed over the table with no less than Jerusalem Post Managing Editor Laura Ben-David.
Of course, no food enthusiast’s visit to this establishment would be complete without moving onto a third course, this time in the shape of a home made steak burger, which Katz served with a fresh Israeli-American salad, and a series of sauces including barbecue relish, mayonnaise and garlic. For pure carnovors, this is a choice that ensures that hamburgers, if gourmet, are absolutely acceptable, even in the borgeoise company that i enjoyed at Bodega.
As a central point in Efrat, the restaurant’s evening scene is relaxed and attracts a sophisticated middle-class clientele, many of whom are young, ranging from teenagers to young families, many of whom appreciate Katz’ provenance. The draft beers are provided by local boutique brewer David Cohen, whose La Chouffe-style collection of flavors are distinctly Israeli yet interestingly modeled on the famed Belgian product.
“When talking about recently launched IPA type beers, many enthusiasts ask where the hops are, and where is the bitter. This has morphed over the years, and now Israelis are beginning to get into this detail. At the beginning, the IPA was crafted over and over to appeal and there are brands such as David Cohen’s Dancing Camel which emulates the La Chouffe Belgian style boutique beer” stated Katz, who has been involved in business with David Cohen in a previous venture in Jerusalem which fetured an intimate 28 meter bar with 6 beers on tap including such diversities as Samuel Adams and Newcastle Brown. Nowadays, The Lawn Tree Brewery in Efrat has shown interest in doing something with David Cohen.
“Modernity is vital” said Katz, a religious family man whose head covering comprised of a reversed baseball cap emphasizing his stylised persona that resembles that of a West Coast surfer, disguising his scholarly nature. “We provide the only experience of this type in the area.. We stick to domestic brands, locally farmed produce. We are blue and white, very patriotic. Young middle class people come to have a relaxed drink and a social. It is a captive audience and therefore can be the lynchpin of Efrat’s local social life among young, educated and urbane teenagers of the Gush Etzion region” explained Katz.
“Efrat was crying out for something like this” he continued. “Bringing it to fruition has been a long dream, a life’s dream after a very high level career as a chef, to open a restaurant. I tried in the Shuk in Jerusalem, but it was hard to operate in Jerusalem and live in Efrat. I then realized that Efrat was missing exactly what I could bring to it” said Katz.
“My original plan was to open a small sushi bar and offer salads, soups and Asian style dining in Efrat” he continued. “Everyone said dont do just sushi, people need meat, which is another passion of mine, along with many of my friends and colleagues who also live locally.”
The path of the patriarchs was the path to Menachem Katz’ success.
Having begun his career at Jerusalem’s Tadmor College, Katz worked as a chef alongside his studies. “I had no idea about cooking at that time” he said. “I wanted to expand my cullinary horizons so I went to Hadassah where the deans looked at me as though I was crazy. Yossi Ben Dayan was the head chef of the program. At Tadmor all chefs will will earn a ton of orders and it is all going to the hotel” explained Katz. “Yossi Ben Dayan changed my entire perspective. He said Lets have a ‘Lamb day’. Lets bring in a butcher, he will show us how to take apart an entire lamb, give all different cuts, we will bring a table, we will then feel what it means to be in the food culture!”
“My ears pricked up and i stopped, and stood back” said Katz. “If there is a prestigious place it’s Tadmor, but that one sentence from Yossi Dayan made my whole year. It was incredible.”
“I then embarked on my initial stages as a prominent Jerusalem chef” said Katz. “I opened the kitchen at Mikes Place in Jerusalem, and then started my career as a wine cook, before becoming sous chef. I then worked at a series of catering firms, and was involved in private cheffing during the changeover from the Hilton to the David Citadel in downtown Jerusalem” he remenisced.
Nowadays, Menachem Katz has a few matters that he wants to adjust to make it to perfection. “There are a few things that are being adjusted, for example we want to continue with the Latin American menu, and there is a forthcoming South American dish called cevice which is fun and we are considering adding to the menu” he said.
“In terms of target market, I have to be realistic” stated Katz. “This is a rural area, where there is not a crazy turnover, and I have to appeal to as many as can. Music and meat are popular, there were no meat restaurants here but were alot of vegan options” he conferred.
Katz encourages all comers to join in – “its a big responsibility in a community like this” he said. “This is a modern orthodox community, and I am amazed that I got this license. There is a woman singing secular music!” he jovially pointed out. “I jest but you know what i am getting at. We are cohesive and this is a central point of not only our community but also a modern, cultural restaurant and bar which can easily bring in a wide audience.”
Talking of the singing – Katz and I parted company for the evening with him admitting that for him, despite his passion for cooking, it’s music first, food a very close second.