CHEF Aviv Lavi might not be a household name in the world of Middle Eastern food. But those he learned under certainly are.
“Working at Raphael, under Rafi Cohen, was one of the best restaurants in my life,” he told me.
“I started as commis chef, working my way up to junior sous chef. I learned every single section of the kitchen there.
“It was a massive, old school-style three Michelin-starred kitchen.
“Everything I do in my life is influenced by Raphael — whether it’s fine-tuning the dishes and sourcing the ingredients.”
Even today, at Chef Lavi’s newest venture — executive chef of Sarona in London — the influences of working at Raphael are evident.
The new restaurant calls upon all of Chef Lavi’s experiences, from a varied culinary career to provide street food, like that of the bustling markets of Tel Aviv, to the staples of Middle Eastern cuisine, taking inspiration from across the Middle East and transforming recipes with a bold and playful, modern sensibility.
The 32-year-old was born and raised on a kibbutz in the Hefer Valley, near Netanya, to parents Joseph and Sigal.
His food career began, aged 14, when he was working as a kitchen porter in, what he describes as, a “local gas station”.
He worked there during the school holidays as well as in the kibbutz dining room.
But a career in the music industry could also have been a possibility for Chef Lavi as he is a keen drummer.
He said: “I was part of a band called The Field People.
“There is a documentary in Israeli about us, but that’s not very interesting.
“Thanks to that failing career as a musician, I reached a successful career as a chef.
“I was cooking for my family from the age of 10. I learned from my Libyan grandfather, as well as a few other old ladies on the kibbutz.”
It is that Libyan influence which Chef Lavi calls on for his Sarona menu.
Another influence is the time spent training in classical French cuisine.
Although this didn’t last too long as it was “boring”. He recalled: “I went to a French school in Israel, but I ditched it to work in a restaurant.
“I was bored after a couple of months. It’s really boring to learn how to make six sauces with flour.
“I’m not interested in that and it’s not sexy, so I went to work in another restaurant, which gave me more experience and more technique.”
He also looks to the two years he spent in Mexico, where he had a falafel shop in Guadalajara called La Falafaleria.
Chef Lavi said: “There is almost no foreign food in Mexico — it’s all Mexican. Maybe the odd bit of American food, but that’s still Mexican.
“They really liked my falafel, and I used to bake my own pitta every morning. Nobody makes bread there. It’s just all tacos and things like that.”
Chef Lavi’s biggest lesson from Mexico was learning how to cook with small amounts of equipment and to rely on those around you.
And it was in Mexico that he followed his Judaism more than anywhere else, although he admits to not being the most religious of people to start with.
Chef Lavi, who stresses that he does believe in God, said: “We did go to a synagogue in Mexico and we always keep the holidays, but I’m not religious.
“I am Jewish and I’m aware of that — but I’m not practising.”
After his stint in Mexico and the experience gained at Raphael, Chef Lavi spent time working with another household name in the Israeli food scene — Raz Rahav.
His restaurant, OCD, was named as the top restaurant in Israel by French restaurant guide Gault & Millau last month, with Raz being chosen as the Chef of the Year.
“I was there for a couple of months after applying to an advert on Facebook” he said.
“In terms of experimental, modern dining, that is the only place in Tel Aviv. All of the places I’ve worked have been very different.
“I’ve always been a fan of Heston Blumenthal, as are most Israeli chefs, although if you ask the average person who he is, they wouldn’t know.
“Heston, Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsey are some of the big inspirations to chefs in Israel.”
Now that Chef Lavi is in London, he wants to really put Middle Eastern food on the map.
His new menu features modernised classics, from sabanech with labneh and pine nuts to a Moroccan lentil set with kale.
And, for the more Ashkenazi-friendly customers, there is a chicken schnitzel and mash.
But there was one dish which caught my eye — Palestinian cheese with organic tomatoes and balsamic vinegar.
“I am a very patriotic Israel and I can acknowledge that my dishes are influenced by Arab countries and Arab neighbours,” he explained.
“I think it is only fair that the local Jewish community should be able to do that, as well.
“I’m not trying to create any kind of political statement in any way.
“But I am acknowledging what needs to be acknowledged — most of the cuisine in Israel is from Arabic countries.
“The Ashkenazi cuisine is very poor, almost non-existent.”
Israeli food, he added, is a “borderless” cuisine, although often associated with things which are not Israel.
He said: “If you go to any modern Middle Eastern restaurant in London, it is usually not Middle Eastern cuisine.
“Usually there will be a lot of Greek influences, which I also have, but I’m trying to focus more on the Middle East.
“I am trying to bring something more approachable — big flavours at reasonable prices in a chilled atmosphere.”
But Chef Lavi has bigger long-term plans.
“I would like to create a modern Middle Eastern fine dining restaurant with a bar of only 20 seats.
“I want everything to be cooked fresh, by myself and one other sous chef.
“There will be a grill in the middle, which will involve all of the customers in the cooking process.
“I don’t want any waiters or waitresses — nothing.
“I also want to do supper clubs, barbecues and more outdoor cooking to expose people to the charcoal flavours and the salad culture we have in the Middle East.”
My final question to Chef Lavi, as it is to most Israeli chefs, is about Yotam Ottolenghi.
In hindsight, it probably wasn’t the most sensible thing to do.
“We are not even from the same region,” he laughed. “I have nothing to do with that cuisine, so I don’t feel related to that.
“I admire what he’s done in terms of presentation in the English market and how he’s exposed people to Mediterranean cuisine, but, in terms of food, we are nothing alike.
“I try not to be influenced by any chef, just from old grandmas in Ashdod or recipes I’m given by those who have grown up in the kitchen and taught me.
“Big chefs are doing what they are doing and have created their own language — I’m not trying to follow up what they are doing.
“I don’t try to create a trend or follow a trend. I want to be my own person.”
* Details: saronalondon.com