Master Chef Itzik Mizrachi Barak has served as the Executive Chef at the Waldorf Astoria Jerusalem since 2014 and is widely recognized as one of the most accomplished and enterprising chefs working in Israel today. Having worked and studied all over the globe alongside some of the most recognized names in contemporary cuisine, he has succeeded in achieving what some culinary observers might have thought impossible- elevating kosher cuisine to an international standard.
Chef Barak was most recently honored as one of only five chefs from around the world to be considered for the famed Taste of Waldorf Astoria 2016 competition. Inspired by Biblical ingredients and flavors, his dish, The Seven Species received rave reviews and is now available at The Palace Restaurant in the hotel.
JOY of KOSHER sat down with Chef Barak to discuss his professional path and cooking inspirations.
Q & A with Chef Itzik Mizrachi Barak
Where did you learn to cook?
While I have been cooking for almost as long as I can remember and many of my earliest memories are the smells coming from my grandmother’s kitchen which continue to inspire me, I don’t think cooking is something you can entirely learn in any educational environment. The day that you say you have learned how to be a chef is the day you stop developing. I am proud to say that I am always learning new techniques and go out of my way to find new approaches to food and find inspiration in unlikely places.
What inspires you?
I think that great cooking should have no limits. A talented chef is careful never to place him or herself in a box and say I only cook a specific type of cuisine. My inspiration is global and diverse. Whenever my job and my family life allow me, I like to travel to new places and understand new flavors and methodologies. This has taken me to Japan, to France, Hong Kong and into some of the top kitchens of North America and Europe. In every place, I try to listen, to smell and to taste new experiences that I can inject into my cooking.
Is kosher cooking limiting?
I honestly feel just the opposite. Sure there are certain ingredients that we can’t use and combinations of items that are universally accepted in the non-kosher world. But the art of great cuisine is to be challenged and to meet that challenge. I don’t look at a dish and say, “Oh, no that’s not kosher let’s find something else.” Rather I try to see how any “problematic” ingredients can be replaced with something in our pantry and how that new approach can actually elevate the dish. This approach has enabled our kitchen to please the most discerning diners who are interested in great tasting and great looking dishes- and don’t need to care whether it is kosher or not.
How can Israeli cuisine become better known on the international culinary map?
We’re already doing it but we need to take even greater pride in our local produce and the fact that flavors native to our country can produce dishes like nothing anywhere else in the world. We are succeeding in producing a growing class of young chefs who are cooking on a truly international level and I believe that in a short amount of time, our cuisine will become another reason for tourists and travel to Jerusalem.
What is your culinary vision?
The local Israeli produce and ingredients are top notch – so I try to focus on healthy and fresh cooking that highlights the beauty of the ingredient. Fresh fish and meat, seasonal fruits and vegetables, olive oil and lots of fresh herbs are always the focus of my dish. Diners also want to know that there is a reason to return to our hotel and our restaurants because they will always be pleasantly surprised that things are changing with the season. I make every effort to speak with the diners at our restaurants and, as the culinary director of our banquets, I meet with all hosts of the wedding and bar mitzvah parties to build the ideal menu and wine pairings for their event. We strive to make each event a unique and memorable culinary experience, perfectly tailored to the guest.
What is the hardest part of your job?
To be a successful chef today, you need to love what you do because it can be difficult work with very long hours. I would say that the hardest part of this job is ensuring that I am always ready to create new approaches and be innovative. My team and I are always challenging ourselves to push further because in a few hours, another meal or dinner service or 500-person wedding or bar mitzvah needs to be created and presented. A chef can always say, I have reached the peak and this is what I have to offer. But that will mean that he or she is no longer doing what they’re meant to do. So the hardest part is always to keep thinking and changing our approach to food. But when we succeed, it is a source of great pride and professional satisfaction- not to mention great food for the diners…
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