Fifteen years ago it would have seemed absurd. Between 10 and 20 English speaking young adults, mostly from the United States, living in geodesic domes on an organic farm in Israel, growing heirloom variety vegetables for a posh, up-and-coming restaurant in Tel Aviv’s trendy Yaffo district. But as the father of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl once declared, “if you will it, it is no dream” and indeed, green agriculture, haute cuisine and diaspora Jewish education have all caught on in the holy land and are even finding exciting points of intersection.
The popular restaurant Shakuf, is the brainchild of seasoned Israeli chef and dedicated locavore Eldad Shem Tov. Shakuf is not even one year old and is already receiving rave reviews. Inspired by Shem Tov’s experience in globally celebrated kitchens like New York’s Per Se and Copenhagen’s Noma, Shakuf gracefully marries the kind of modern, molecularly influenced fare that foodies dream of with the eco-conscious practices necessary to ensure a healthy future for us all. Shakuf diners are treated to a tasting menu guided by seasonal availability and local Mediterranean flavors. Perhaps most demonstrative of the restaurant’s vision is one of its most marveled at first courses — an adorable edible “planter.” Tiny tops of carrots, radishes and other veggies peak out from a blend of edible “dirt” consisting of ground chickpeas and nuts. Eaten without utensils, the planter highlights the important role of fresh veggies at Shakuf while challenging food perceptions as diners munch away at the savory “dirt.”
Equally inspiring plates include a deconstructed shakshuka (poached eggs in a spicy tomato sauce), raw red snapper served with kohlrabi and iced red pepper shavings, and an exquisitely grilled carrot served with bone marrow and greens, designed to bring out the essential flavors of a once considered hum-drum carrot. Indeed Shakuf is one of the most compelling recent examples of high quality, inspired food bursting onto the stage in Israel, where such luxuries where once looked down upon by a more pragmatic, labor motivated society.
The Hebrew word “shakuf” translates to “transparent,” and indeed Shakuf strives for transparency not only in its food preparation but also in its commitment to green agricultural practices. Unlike many Israeli restaurants whose produce comes the nearby shuk (market), Shakuf’s fruits and veggies come from three or four boutique, organic farms around Israel. Of these, the Chava v’Adam Eco-Educational Farm located outside of Modi’in provides at least 50% of the produce gracing Shakuf’s plates. A farm committed to providing hands-on experience as a working model of sustainable, green farming practices, Chava v’Adam is powered solely by the sun, waters its many plots through water catchment and grey water systems, and builds its structures from mud, straw and other recycled materials. Among its numerous plots is Shakuf’s, about one dunam, or a quarter acre in size. Decisions on what is grown are made by Shakuf, as advised by the farm based on seasonality. Currently on the plot are seven varieties of heirloom tomatoes, three varieties of okra (including a red one, which is quite tasty eaten raw), peppers, all kind of greens and sweet corn among other things.
Originally, farm staff tended to the plot. However, the responsibility was recently handed to the ten to twenty English speaking young adults, mostly American, who call the farm home as they complete a five month long apprenticeship program aptly named Eco-Israel. A MASA program, Eco-Israel apprentices live in geodesic domes and study permaculture, farming and sustainability along with Hebrew and the culture and practices of Judaism. While they do have traditional classroom time, the most important element of the program is learning by doing: participants use compost toilets, outdoor showers, mud-ovens, and most importantly, their own hands to work the land. “These kinds of things can only be experienced by doing- you can’t show a slide about them” explains Idan Eliakim, Eco-Israel’s permaculture instructor. Additionally, the “ecos” (as they are called on the farm) learn how green practices tie into Judaism — an agriculturally based religion at its core — and experience first hand how the framework of Judaism provides great care and love for the land.
Growing vegetables for a high-end, environmentally conscious restaurant like Shakuf adds one more layer to the multidimensional program of Eco-Israel, and in the words of the program’s director Nadav Solowey, provides “a real challenge for a real professional experience.” With everyone from Mother Nature to the patrons at Shakuf to the apprentices at Eco-Israel benefiting, certainly these kinds of joint endeavors will only continue to become more and more commonplace in Israel and throughout the world.
Editor’s Note: Are you interested in learning more about the sustainable agriculture movement in Israel? Do you want to visit innovative places like Chava v’ Adam and Shakuf? Would you like to get your hands dirty on an Israeli Farm? Join Hazon and the Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership for the Israel Sustainable Food Tour, November 2-7, 2011. Visit http://hazon.org/foodtour for more information.
Cindy Katz is an ex-New Yorker living in Ra’anana, Israel. She likes to write about what she eats and where she goes in Israel, and she also coordinates a women’s program for Darfuri refugees in south Tel Aviv.