Chefs Michal and Ruthie: Israel’s culinary jewels
Jennifer Ong (The Philippine Star) - February 28, 2013 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - Manila is in for a treat. Two women have come all the way from Israel to share some good food. Chefs Michal Ansky and Ruthie Rousso have been invited by the Embassy of Israel to talk, cook, and dine with some of our own chefs and foodies.

Chef Michal and Ruthie are two extraordinary women whose passion for food knows no bounds. And they are no ordinary food lovers, but successful food celebrities: Chef Michal is a culinary expert Judge in Master Chef Israel and chef Ruthie is a permanent judge in Israeli Iron Chef. Here, they share their all-consuming love for food and their burning devotion to family.

PHILIPPINE STAR: How did you find out you wanted to be a chef?

MICHAL ANSKY: I don’t consider myself to be a chef, but more of a gastronomist and a food judge. I have a master’s degree in Gastronomy, with a keen interest in the anthropology, sociology, and history of food and ingredients. I think my expertise is a good starting point especially when observing and judging food. Details such as the “journey” of the dish/ingredient and influences add flavor — figuratively — to discussions.

My mother (Sherry Ansky) is a famous chef and food writer as well in Israel — she had a passion for food and cooking. She cooked a lot and we’ve had a special respect for home-cooked meals — as if it were sacred.

RUTHIE ROUSSO: I grew up in a house where food was the language. My mother (Nira Rousso) was considered the Julia Child of Israeli cuisine, but I mostly felt it was a burden. As a child, I was embarrassed about the sandwiches she sent me to school and did not understand why everything had to be so complicated. Questions like, “Why can’t we eat plain scrambled eggs without Parmesan cheese on top?” cropped up.

At the age of 20, just as I finished military service, I moved to New York. I worked there with renowned chef David Burke, and after about a year, I realized food was my passion. Burke opened the world of culinary arts for me — an exciting world that had no boundaries.

I eventually enrolled at the French Culinary Institute in Soho. I got addicted to the adrenaline, burns, and thrills that came with foods that were delicious and beautiful, and I could not leave the kitchen since.

What gave you your big break in the culinary world?

MICHAL: I believe it was when I established the 7 Farmer’s Market. The 7 Farmer’s Market is a revolutionary concept as it allows farmers to connect with markets/groceries directly, thereby eliminating delaying and long processes. These farmers have the opportunity to interact with the customers themselves, and take on a more active role in selling their produce. This results in the elimination of middlemen, cheaper prices, and a wider variety. Today, Israel-grown tomatoes are sold in Europe for 7 euros (P378), but in this market, a kilo of tomatoes is sold at nearly 6 shekels (P60), and with a much larger variety.

My husband and I went around the country to look for these farmers and introduced the idea of opening their own booth/mini-store. Farmers from different areas, selling produce such as poultry, meat, wine, cheese, etc., eventually accepted the idea.

Chef Michal Ansky: “Israeli cuisine is a blend of many cultures.”

RUTHIE: After school, I returned to Israel and started writing in a nationwide newspaper. They asked me again and again to write about food, but I did not want to. I refused because I didn’t want to get in the same field where my mother is engaged.

Even after the birth of my first daughter, I was asked again to write a personal food column in the paper. Finally, this time, I agreed mainly because it gave me a little peace and stability from the crazy life that journalists in Israel had. I did not know that I would love writing about food. It was a practical decision.

What was the first dish you learned to cook?

MICHAL: Since my grandmother and mother were from the former Czechoslovakia, I was first taught Ashkenazi cuisine: fish, soups, breads, and noodles.

RUTHIE: The first dish I ever cooked myself was during a week after moving out of my parents’ house but just prior to military service. I was hungry and I did not know how to cook. I put a piece of malawach, a Yemenite puff pastry, in the toaster with a hamburger inside.  It turned out to be the mother of all junk food, but it was really delicious! After that, this dish has become our signature dish. No wonder we all gained weight.

Who is your cooking inspiration?

MICHAL: My love affair with food began from my childhood, thanks to my grandmother. She used to distract me with stories about “cookie soldiers” and other tales of fiction while feeding me.

My mother and grandmother served as my inspirations. So much so that when I wrote my book Food from Home, I dedicated the book entirely to my mother and grandmother.

I love my grandmother’s noodles. She makes them with matzah meal flour and eggs; she makes crepes and rolls them and slices them like fettuccine. But I also love her charoset and her matzah balls. My grandmother is a great cook.

RUTHIE: My mother is clearly the most influential person in my life, but surprisingly not only because of her cooking. In general, I notice that things that push me to the kitchen are usually not related to food. It can be a beautiful painting, a sad song, how a waiter served me croissant on a plate, and not necessarily the croissant itself. Go figure.

What is the essence of Israeli cuisine?

MICHAL: Israeli cuisine is a blend of many cultures, so its dishes cover a multitude of years, space, and cultures. I believe the emphasis on vegetables, spice, color, and flavor gives Israeli cuisine its own essence.

RUTHIE: I believe that Israeli cuisine is progressive, as it is a combination of agricultural and culinary traditions that developed here for thousands of years and those of immigrants who came to Israel. Since the Israelis have no uniform “kitchen culture” traditions, it is easily broken and played around with. Therefore, Israeli food is very dynamic, has intense flavors and colors, and subject to many influences.

What are your must-have tools in the kitchen?

MICHAL: The best and freshest ingredients. The quality of your materials revolutionizes your dish and sets a standard for the consumer. Regardless of your training, our ingredients have a major impact. And who doesn’t love a fresh green vegetable?

RUTHIE: Definitely, a sharp, sleek knife of good quality; a big cutting board and the freshest ingredients one can find.

What do you like more: savory or sweet?

MICHAL: A mix of both. I really love the Passover menu — peas, artichokes, bundles of fresh herbs, mountains of spring carrots, and lots of ripe strawberries. The amount of dishes you can create from this is unimaginable — it’s even tastier when laced with virgin olive oil. I love working with strawberries as well, as we have some of the juiciest and sweetest ones in Israel.

RUTHIE: No doubt, I prefer savory —especially when it comes to meat.

If you had to serve a gourmet three-course meal in just two hours, what would you cook?

MICHAL: I would probably start off with some Dudu Salad, a very healthy and light starter which would titillate your taste buds.

For the main course, I would cook my personal favorite, the Shawarma Salad. Laced with some vinegared rice and spices, the dish is truly a representation of modern Israeli cuisine. With some turmeric, paprika, and chili peppers, I assure you this dish will spark up any dinner.

Lastly, I would have Salep — a traditional and heralded Mediterranean dish — for dessert.  Salep is flour made from orchids, and is made as custard, in Israel. I would also lace it with some roasted nuts, coconut, and rose water.

RUTHIE: I would first start off with some sashimi for my appetizer, using the best Middle-Eastern fish that I can find. I would then lace the fish with some tomato seeds, radish, hot pepper, water cress, Atlantic salt and, of course, extra virgin olive oil.

For my main course, I’d go with roast beef. My idea (and recipe) of a delicious roast beef dish is a tender sirloin, wrapped in spices and served with some spicy mustard and thyme on the side.

Lastly, my dessert would be lime sorbet. It’s easier to make one these days, thanks to ice cream-making machines. Get some fresh lime juice, add a little sugar, and within minutes, you can have some healthy, sweet and sour sorbet. Preparing these dishes may seem long, but it’s the enjoyment of every minute of cooking which matters.

What advice would you give someone who wants to become a chef?

MICHAL: Study and work hard if you will be pursuing it as a degree/profession. While I was studying for my master’s degree, it was very intense with all those books and theories. From cured meat, cheeses, wine, olive oil, and vegetables to production, history, and even anthropology, you really have to see life through the lens of food.

RUTHIE: Think twice. It’s a very demanding, back-breaking job. Before you enroll in a prestigious culinary school, I suggest an internship period beforehand. This would enable you to understand life in the kitchen, and give you an assurance of what you really want. The job is definitely fulfilling, but without as much glamour as people think.

What do you look forward to most about coming to the Philippines?

MICHAL: I am excited to see and experience a new cuisine and the strong culture embodied by the Filipino kitchen. The Philippines is a country worth exploring and studying, with its own unique culture.

RUTHIE: I am really excited to visit and experience a country and cuisine, which I am not familiar with. I am glad to have this opportunity, and would like to sample some of the Philippines’ local products and cuisine.

I am also happy to expose and share the different aspects of Israeli cuisine with the local Filipino chefs and restaurateurs. Thinking about the Philippines excites me so much I can barely sleep at night anymore!


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