Tattoo artist-turned-chef cranks up the heat in New York's Hell's Kitchen
25-year-old gives modern Israeli dishes a dose of North African, Asian and European tastes.
Barbecue might not be the first dish you would expect to find on the menu at an Israeli restaurant in New York City. But Chef Gabriel Israel, 25, is not your typical Israeli chef.
Born in Los Angeles to an American mother and Israeli father, Gabriel moved to Tel Aviv when he was 3 years old. There, his father got into the restaurant business, and he learned to love cooking.
“I always cooked with my mom, and my grandfather was very into food,” he told From The Grapevine. “We were big eaters, and there was a lot of food in our house.”
At 18, Gabriel began dabbling in street art, as well as tattooing (he has several – in color and black and white – including two roses, a bird and a spoon dipped in shakshouka sauce). At 22, Gabriel moved to New York to attend the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, leaving for a stint at Chef Daniel Boulud’s Mediterranean fine-dining restaurant, Boulud Sud, in Manhattan. There, he earned the nickname “Shuka,” because he was in charge of making the restaurant’s shakshouka during brunch.
While cooking up Boulud Sud’s $20 shakshouka plates, Gabriel began to think he could strike out on his own, and he eventually opened the Shuka Truck, which served green, white and red shakshouka during its nearly two-year run. After the Shuka Truck closed down, Gabriel was hired at Green Fig, the restaurant on the fourth floor of the Yotel in Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan.
As a restaurant, Green Fig is best described as “modern Israeli,” an interpretation that has been made popular by chefs like Michael Solomonov in Philadelphia and Alon Shaya in New Orleans. Chef Gabriel – who traces his roots back to Morocco, Algeria, Poland and Russia – says he is heavily influenced by flavors from North Africa, Southern Europe and Asia.
Spices are a huge part of his cooking, and they are used in unique ways throughout the menu. The dinner plate-sized hot pita that accompanies his selection of mezze (hummus, tahini, sautéed tomatoes, charred eggplant, labne and pickled vegetables) is generously dusted with savory za’atar, while his gnocchi – made with olive oil instead of butter and milk – gets a touch of garlic and cumin.
“These spices are my tools,” he explained. “I know how to mix them to elevate and open flavors. I try to create homey flavors, as well.”
In a nod to his past, Gabriel tries to creatively present his food. He uses slabs of slate and wood, along with a mix of different plates for every dish. The pink tuna tartare and slices of beet pop against a smear of labne on a bright, white plate, while his “It’s All About the Mushroom” dish transforms oyster mushrooms to resemble scallops that are then dusted in a crumble made of dried mushrooms.
“I see my plates as little landscapes,” he told us. “I try to incorporate graffiti with splashes and dusts of things.”
And then, of course, there is the BBQ, which perhaps best represents Israel’s use of spice and global flavors.
Pork short ribs get rubbed with schug, a Yemenite hot sauce, and then cooked with a BBQ sauce made of the usual ingredients (mustard, vinegar, ketchup) mixed with Asian hoisin sauce and orange juice. The ribs then get plated with labne, potato wedges and a side of za’atar-dusted kohlrabi.
“The best way I can explain my food is order and disorder,” Gabriel said. “My food is not organized or symmetrical. It makes it interesting.”
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