Chef Avi Tourgeman has a problem, one he faces daily. He must prepare elaborate menus that meet strict religious guidelines, but he must also cater to guests of all creeds, nationalities, and appetites. He and his staff must be able to cook for 200 diners at a wedding reception while simultaneously making private meals for some of the world’s most prominent personalities in politics, culture, and music. He creates the menus, oversees every detail of food preparation, and supervises a staff of some 80 people in his kitchen, yet he never attended culinary school to learn how to do all this.
“Sometimes,” he says wistfully, “I think I’d rather be a makeup artist. I’m serious!”
Tourgeman is the chef in charge of all things food related at the David Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem, one of the city’s most luxurious lodgings. In winter, he oversees two restaurants, including one that is strictly dairy (no meat). In summer he opens the Pool Grill, with a menu of chorizo, steaks, and other grilled meats, and he plans to open a sushi bar in June. Guests will be able to dine on the terrace, with its superb panorama of the Old City, and order from the dairy menu, the chef menu (meat dishes), or the sushi menu. (Because of Jewish dietary laws known as kashrut, guests can’t order from both the dairy menu and the meat menu at the same time.)
The hotel, thanks not only to the high quality of its service and spacious rooms but also to the postcard views of the Old City, is favored by well-to-do non-religious Israelis, kosher Jews, Western omnivores, international celebrities, and anyone else with deep pockets. Nightly rates start at around $350 in low season--without a view of the Old City. That makes for a demanding audience, especially when it comes to meals.
I wanted to ask Tourgeman how he juggles the demands of what seems like an impossible job. But before our interview, I enjoyed a meal of his on the hotel terrace overlooking the Old City. I started with a fish falafel in mint sauce, beef with tomatoes on a skewer, and a beautiful breast of chicken, lightly seasoned. An appetizer of grouper in a cold cucumber sauce preceded the main course, lamb chops. To enjoy with the meal, my host recommended a 2012 vintage of The Cave, a blend (like most Israeli wines) of Cabernet, Merlot and Petit Verdot from the Galilee wine region. Completing the meal was a delicious cappuccino, but with soy milk, so as not to violate kashrut. If this is what it means to keep kosher, I thought, then I’ll take it.
The Daily Meal: What do you differently in your kitchen compared to your peers?
Chef Avi Tourgeman: All of the culinary at the hotel has been changed to a restaurant style, which means even if it’s just 15 people or 25 people, we cook everything on the spot. The other hotels have regular menus all week, pre-cook the food, and put it into aluminum foil. Sometimes the food will sit there for up to three or four hours. We don’t do that.
But how can you cook on demand, including room service, with a hotel the size of the David Citadel?
It’s very hard to do with a hotel that has 385 rooms. But you don’t have a choice. You have to do it. Which means you have to cook on the spot if you want the quality. Which means you can’t give a s**t about what the general manager says about how many cooks you need, how much food you need, what is your price of the food you buy. Because the experience the guests have is what is important. Even the breakfast is important. The fruit, the vegetables, the cheese, everything has to be the best. Most hotels have three to five cooks; we have ten cooks. Yes, we have ten cooks. We are idiots, but that’s what we have [laughs].
How do you balance the needs of all the different guests — kosher, vegetarian, Asian, Western — in a single menu?
I can give you an example. We have one chef who makes all the Arabic food. We have one chef, he’s from Russia, he’s making all the Jewish food. Everybody is a specialist, you know what I mean? Even the gefilte fish is authentic. You have guests that are coming on Friday evening [the start of the Jewish sabbath]. If they want a spicy fish, they are going to get it. And we have the traditional Europeans who like the gefilte fish, and the kugel, and the garlic, and all the traditional Jewish food, and we have someone for that. So it’s okay to take a Japanese cook, Chinese cook, Arabic cook, Jewish cook. But you have to every day check them, because they’re not sharp like the chef [laughs].
You told me earlier that it’s an honor to work with the best quality ingredients. What did you mean?
We’re about to have a big event, 250 people for a wedding, and they’re going to pay 350 shekels each [app. U.S. $100), not including alcohol. That’s a responsibility for me. They’re going to get in the first place, when they’re arriving, traditional Arabic food, at the reception. Then they’ll have the traditional menu. And they’re getting the best, fresh-quality meat, chicken, and fish. When you work with fresh meat, fresh chicken, fresh fish, you feel it. I mean, thanks for the honor, you know? The owner [of the David Citadel] has given us the ability to keep the highest standards. If you want to cook at the highest level, you have to start with the finest foods. You can’t buy frozen chicken!
What is it like to cook for VIPs — political leaders, cultural icons, celebrities? Recent guests have included Senator John McCain, actor Hugh Laurie, musician Kanye West, and dozens of other well-known names.
First, everybody who eats here is having a kosher meal, but they want the international dishes. That’s very difficult for a chef. If they like to eat borscht with sour cream, and then have meat for the main course, I have to say, I’m sorry, you can’t have it. They’ll say to me, why? Because it’s kosher food, that’s why! But we have fun, too. One time I was cooking for [German chancellor] Angela Merkel. I served her the spiciest sausage she ever had in her life. And she asked for more!
But you have so many restrictions on how you prepare food...
That’s right. And that’s why in the kosher kitchen you have to be creative; you have to be sophisticated. Because you don’t have the bacon, for example. You don’t have the meat and the butter and the cream together. But after twenty years, you know what you’re doing.
Do you wish you had done things differently?
I didn’t go to culinary school. My father is a chef. I learned from him. You can’t do that today. I tell you why. I now have 85 employees that I need to schedule. I need to manage them. I need to listen to them. I need to run all the operations. I need to see that everything is being done by the recipes. That’s what I do. And, you know, I like the way everything has turned out.
Mark Orwoll is a freelance writer who contributes to Condé Nast Traveler, Town & Country, Robb Report, Departures International, and other luxury food and travel titles.