Great Israeli Food Creators – Orly Abu

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For the latest in my ongoing series on Great Israeli Food Creators, I’m delighted to feature a chef in Toronto whose culinary work and the setting in which she does it command my respect.

Ten years ago, Orly moved to Toronto with her family from Maale Adumim, just outside Jerusalem. Today, she’s the head chef at Dani Café, a dairy restaurant located just north of Toronto in Thornhill that was founded by parents of children with disabilities. It’s a social enterprise initiative run by Dani, an organization that supports people with physical and cognitive challenges, some of whom work at Dani. The kosher eatery offers tasty lunch options and delicious baked goods, with all proceeds going to programs run by Dani. The letters in its name stand for “developing and nurturing independence.”

Orly oversees all the cooking at Dani, whose menu has a wide variety of dishes, many Israeli-style, including soup, salads and a selection of main courses and desserts.

Orly in kitchen

“Israeli cuisine has a strong impact on the food we make at Dani, which is run by an Israeli woman,” says Orly. “Most of our clients are from the local Israeli community or from the Jewish community. They always love the Israeli dishes with their authentic flavour of home.”

Salads

For Orly, like for many of her customers, being at Dani is about much more than just the food given the involvement of young people with special needs in the operation of the restaurant. For my part, having run a cooking program for special needs kids for several summers at Camp Ramah in Ontario, I respect and appreciate the thinking behind Dani.

“The amazing children I work with are my big love,” she says. “With them, the magic in the kitchen is unique and so wonderful. I feel that my work with them is so rewarding. They wrap me with so much love. It’s so touching and widens my heart.”

Orly, who for the past decade has also been Head Chef at a Jewish summer camp (Winnebagoe) three hours north of Toronto, enjoys sharing her Israeli touch in the kitchen with those tasting her food.

Cakes

“My work involves so much love and is a true passion,” says Orly, whose late father was a chef and has a brother who’s a chef. “When you make food, you have to love what you do. I cook all year long, it’s my passion and something I’ll never stop loving. There’s always room for joy and creativity when you make food that’s close to your heart.”

Orly was happy to share her views on Israeli food in response to my questions:

What does Israeli food mean to you?
Israeli food is aroma and flavours from home. It’s tradition. It’s the togetherness of Friday night dinners and the special dishes of Jewish holidays. It’s food made with love and respect.

Is there anything that makes Israeli food stand out?
Israeli food is unique since it’s the most special there is. All foods are rich and tasty, healthy and full of nutrients. All Israeli food is full of colour and amazing smells.
What makes Israeli food unique is its soul, which is something you add to it and the seasoning with the Mediterranean flavours. You can’t live without the hot, spicy sauce that’s a part of Israeli food.

Why do you think Israeli food has become so popular in recent years?
I believe Israeli food has always been popular, not just in recent years. The culinary scene in Israel, in my opinion, is at an extremely high level. Israeli food is, practically speaking, simple. We all love to dip hummus with a pita or to dip bread with shakshuka. The unique flavour, the colourful food makes us respond just by looking at it.

What Israeli dish do you love most to prepare, and why?
My favourite dish to prepare is definitely fish. Since I come from a Moroccan background, during my childhood, we eat fish every Friday night. Ever since, I fell in love with preparing it. It’s very simple and super tasty. With fish you can prepare multiple dishes and always be satisfied.

What Israeli dish do you love most to eat, and why?
Hard question. It’s like asking who is my favourite child. I love it all.

What is your favourite ingredient to use when preparing an Israeli dish?
Paprika, which is my major ingredient. Sweet or hot, it’s a star in almost each one of my dishes. It adds so much and balances different flavours.

What is your favourite restaurant that serves Israeli food?
I’ve yet to be in a nice restaurant that serves good Israeli food. That’s also because I generally go to restaurants featuring dishes from other places. I don’t usually go to Israeli restaurants because if there’s one thing at I have at home, it’s Israeli food.

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  • To taste some of Orly’s Israeli cuisine, visit Dani Café, 501 Clark Avenue West, Thornhill, Ontario. www.dani-toronto.com/dani-cafe Tel: (905) 889-3264. Call to check days and hours of operation.

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