The southern charm that oozes out of Chef John Besh was widely appreciate on his recent visit to Israel. Although he worked his way through a week of cooking in steamy Kosher kitchens, I couldn't help but notice that his blue eyes remained wide-eyed and cool, constantly engaged with the people and scene around him. His presence left a strong impression in the Rosh Ha'ayin and Israeli community, and we were lucky that he also left behind his Kosher Creole Jambalaya.
Why did you choose Gumbo and Jambalaya as the dishes to cook in Israel?
I wanted to share the New Orleans style one-pot country cooking with the people of Israel. The majority of creole cooking stems from these two dishes - they serve as the basis for creole cuisine. I have learned that the one-pot cooking is common in many ethnic cuisines in Israel, so it is nice that we could share this. The New Orleans Jewish community has adapted creole cuisine to meet Kosher laws, and I have made replacements in my dishes to suit this community; some of this I brought with me to Israel.
Besides the one-pot cooking, do you notice other similarities in Israeli and New Orleans cuisine?
Yes, quite a few similarities. Because we are a port city - just like Tel Aviv - many cultures come together from all over the world. Each culture leaves their piece in the cuisine, like a base of our cooking is the Spanish sofrito and paprika. Gumbo comes from an African influence. Our food has a reputation for being spicy, and that is not necessarily the case, we just really believe in seasoning our food, which is true in the food here from what I can taste.
Also, there is also a lot of abundance in NOLA, just as there seems to be here. We are approximately the same latitude, but in our neck of the woods it rains all the time. The fields are very fruitful all year with okra, peppers, collard, mustard and other greens. Our Creole tomatoes are the most delicious in the world. I love the way Israelis use tomatoes in many of the dishes.
What is the best part about being a chef?
The common bond you get to share with those around you. Recently I had the chance to work with the Make-a-Wish Foundation. An 11 year-old girl came all the way to New Orleans from Wisconsin because she wanted to cook with me in my restaurant. That was such a powerful experience. It was really more rewarding than any other visit from a “famous person” combined. Each of us has been given a great talent and it is such a pleasure for me to be able to use my talent to make people happy. It is ideal to spend my days this way.
Where else would you like to visit in Israel?
I would love to spend a little more time everywhere, in particular Eilat, the Galilee and Haifa areas.
What has been the most rewarding experience in Israel?
Getting to cook for the Israel Defense Force soldiers. I am not sure whether it is the same in this country, but attention to our soldiers is often left to the side, and it will be rewarding to give them the attention (and good food) they deserve for their hard work.
Have you had any new food experiences here?
I have spent a significant amount of time in the Mediterranean, so the flavors are familiar to me. I did experience combinations of flavors, like Moroccan Harissa using pepper and olive oils, that were done is such a simple way that it tasted like a fresh experience. The combination of Za’atar, sumac, olive oil and garlic is done passionately here and really creates rich flavor in the foods.
What would you like to cook for an Israeli politician?
Well, I did get to cook for Ehud Barak when he was in New Orleans. He ate at Domenica and he was pretty excited that Chef Alon is Israeli also.
Yields 12-15 servings
3 pounds lamb sausage, diced
8 skinless and boneless chicken thighs, cut roughly 1 inch cubes
1/2 c olive oil
6 each large onions, diced
4 each bell peppers, diced
10 stalks celery, diced
12 cloves garlic, minced
9 cups parboiled/converted white rice
6 cups crushed canned tomatoes
6 cups rich chicken broth
2 teaspoons dried thyme
2 dried bay leaves
3 Tablespoons smoked paprika
1 Tablespoon cayenne pepper
2 tablespoon celery salt
1 tablespoon black pepper
1 tablespoon celery salt
2 bunches green onions, chopped
Heat a cast iron pot and start rendering the sausage in the olive oil, while stirring slowly over medium heat. While the sausage is rendering, go ahead and season the chicken thighs with salt and black pepper. Add the chicken to the pot and continue to stir intermittently. Cook the chicken until it becomes golden brown in color.
After the chicken has browned add the onions to the pot and allow them to brown as well, prior to adding the bell peppers, garlic and celery. Be sure to continue stiring from time to time in an effort that will ensure everything in the pot cooks evenly. Next add the rice and remaining dry ingredients to the pot while stiring frequently for the next 3 minutes. Raise the heat to high once again and add the tomatoes and chicken stock to the pot. Bring the liquid to a boil before reducing the heat to medium/low and covering the pot for 15 minutes.
After the rice has simmered for 15 minutes go ahead, remove the lid from the pot and fold in the green onions. Turn the heat off and cover the pot again for an additional 10 minutes.
Remove the lid, fluff the Jambalaya and serve!