For the latest in my ongoing series on Great Israeli Food Creators, I’m pleased to spotlight a highly talented chef now engaged in new culinary projects in Israel after making his mark in New York and Italy.
Born and raised in Kiryat Motzkin near Haifa in northern Israel, Nir Mesika grew up in a large family in which food preparation had a central place and was the focus of much passion. His grandfather, from Morocco, was a successful pastry chef and had his own bakery in Israel while his grandmother oversaw a household of nine children, with the older siblings cooking for the younger ones. Nir’s mother was an excellent cook and taught him her recipes and culinary tricks. While in high school, Nir would prepare dinner for his siblings.
After graduating from the Bishulim Culinary School in Tel Aviv in 2006, he worked for two years as a sous chef at a local seafood restaurant. In 2008, he moved to Italy where he and a friend opened Denzel, a kosher restaurant in Milan’s Jewish quarter. All the while, he incorporated elements of his Israeli, Moroccan and Egyptian ancestry into his cooking. Two years later, he was on the move again, returning to Israel.
Back in Tel Aviv, Nir worked at two of Israel’s top restaurants – first at Catit, then at Mizlala, where he also met his wife, Liat. They later moved to New York where he helped open Zizi Limona in 2012. As its Executive Chef, he earned great acclaim for its modern Mediterranean cuisine which attracted rave reviews in the US media.
In 2015, Nir attained new heights in New York’s culinary scene after he and two partners opened Timna in the East Village. Showcasing modern Israeli cuisine, it was voted best new restaurant by USA Today’s readers. Four years later, after Timna closed, he moved back to Israel.
Today, Nir is planning a new restaurant in Tel Aviv whose menu will be devoted entirely to Israel cuisine. At the same time, he’s working on a new initiative to develop food created especially for pregnant women and also real food for babies.
To gain his perspective on Israeli food, I recently asked him several questions in response to which he answered the following:
What does Israeli food mean to you?
Israeli cuisine for me is childhood memories of my parents and grandparents. As someone who came from a family whose origins were half Moroccan, half Egyptian, the kitchen was very rich. The flavours, tastes and ambience that the food left in the house were special and made a strong impact on me.
As I grew up and developed my own career, I always wanted to preserve these memories and to share that kind of food with the world. To show people how the ingathering of Jews in Israel from all over the world is so unique and has produced a special type of cuisine. It’s the result of each group of people coming from a different backgrounds, different cultures, different countries, different kitchens ultimately leading to Israeli food which is a perfect balance of flavours and tastes.
What is unique about Israeli cuisine?
From my perspective, Israeli cuisine is still evolving and isn’t 100 per cent fully formed. It was founded from a wide variety of different kitchens with each chef bringing his or her own personal childhood memories and interpretations. It will still take time until Israel’s culinary identity is defined more definitively. But we are fortunate that we’ve already created such a strong culinary foundation on which we can continue to build Israel’s creativity in the kitchen.
Why do you think Israeli food has become so popular outside Israel in recent years?
In recent years, the growing interest and desire for healthier food has attracted more attention to Israeli food given that it’s based so much on vegetables, olive oil, fish and cheeses.
Combining unique and satisfying ingredients and flavours, it features mixtures of spices, vegetables and grains enjoyed by both carnivores and vegans.
What Israeli dish do you like most to prepare, and why?
I especially love shakshuka because it’s a dish good to eat at any hour of the day and is so tasty and satisfying. Personally, I love dishes with lots of sauce in which you can dip bread.
What’s your favourite ingredient to use when preparing an Israeli dish, and why?
Tahini. It has a uniqueness that many ingredients do not have. Always fun and tasty to eat, tahini is perfect for vegan dishes. You can be creative and play around with Tahini as first or main course or dessert.
What is your favourite restaurant that serves Israeli food?
I may not be objective, but my favourite was Timna, my restaurant in New York, until it closed last year. The biggest compliment I received from our customers was when they would thank me for providing them such an Israeli experience without having to fly to Israel. The entire restaurant was based on the Mediterranean cuisine with my personal interpretation, at a Michelin level, based in part on my childhood memories.