Interview with Chef Simone Shapiro of Rooftop Restaurant, Mamilla Hotel.
This is the first in a series of interviews with top chefs in Israel and I thought it was appropriate to start with one of the few female chefs in Israel. I met Simone Shapiro, Chef of Rooftop Restaurant at the Mamilla Hotel, for a drink before the restaurant opened one night. She talked to me about her love of food and how she fell in love with Israeli cuisine.
Simone’s Training and Background
At the age of 17, Simone Shapiro began her career working at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bistro in Los Angeles, while studying at Culinary Art School. Starting as an unpaid intern, she then became a night-time prep cook. It wasn’t long before she left school and worked in the restaurant full time, learning from the cooks around her. She decided to move back to New York, where she grew up and continued to work for Chef Keller at his three-Michelin-starred restaurant, Per Se. She left there to work at Gramercy Tavern, one of New York’s most iconic restaurants. There she also trained for front-of-house work (serving in the restaurant). Her next move was to Paris, where she was able to hone her French culinary skills working at La Dame de Pic (one Michelin star).
Many young Americans fall in love with Israel before they move; for Simone things were slightly different. While she was in Europe, she decided to visit her sister, who was already living in Israel. On a whim, she applied for a job as a chef at the Rooftop Restaurant at Mamilla Hotel. She intended to only stay for a few months before returning to Paris, but she quickly fell in love with Israeli food and decided to make Israel her home. She enjoyed going to the market each morning to buy fresh vegetables, herbs and spices to use in the kitchen.
Being the only female chef in the kitchen had its challenges to begin with and it took her a long time to gain the respect of her fellow chefs. Simone has spent her whole working life in a kitchen, so that is her natural habitat. It is, therefore, the place where she feels the most comfortable and confident. That confidence helped her to gain the respect of her colleagues and superiors. After four years of working hard in a kitchen full of men, she took over the position of Head Chef of Rooftop Restaurant and she now manages a team of 12 cooks. She is still the only female chef.
I asked Simone a series of questions, to understand more about her experiences as Chef of Rooftop Restaurant and her life in Israel.
What is your favorite food memory?
My favorite food memory is the BLT canape at Bouchon Bistro. I will never forget trying it for the first time and I still have it in the back of my head when I think of my best bite. I think that was definitely one of my favorite memories. That was one of the first dishes that I tasted of his (Chef Thomas Keller) and when I put it in my mouth, I just completely fell in love with food.
What’s the first dish you learned to cook?
I learned how to make Confit Cod au Fond Braisage. We made a butter, mushroom, wine and sage sauce and we poached the cod in the sauce. It was the first preparation of French technique that I learned. I couldn’t believe how you could cook such a delicate piece of fish to be soft like butter. Cooking fish is for me one of the most challenging things but also the most fun. So I remember working on the fish station and being incredibly inspired.
When did you know you wanted to become a chef?
I always used to cook at home and I was in the kitchen with my father having spent a year in Israel when he asked me what I wanted to do next. I turned to him and said, “I want to be a chef”. He looked at me and said, “You are going to be the best chef in the world”. The next day I signed up for culinary school and a month later I was in Los Angeles by myself.
What was your favorite restaurant to work in?
My favorite restaurant to work in was Bouchon Bistro in Beverly Hills.
What inspires you?
I am inspired by Israeli cuisine and the mix of cultures. I love it that here at the Rooftop I work with an Iraqi chef, a Moroccan chef and Arabic chefs. Together with my French background, we are able to create really amazing food. We are making some changes to our menu right now and I am really taking influence from the cooks that I am working with to incorporate their style, especially the four Arab chefs.
Which famous chef do you take most inspiration from?
There are a lot. When I first got here I was very much into French chefs and Anne Sophie Pic was my idol. Once I moved here, I started buying Israeli cookbooks and I fell in love with Yotam Ottolenghi’s style of cooking. I thought a lot about how I can take Israeli food and use my French twist on it.
Thomas Keller and all the chefs that I have worked with in the past, still influence my cooking. I am determined to bring Chef Keller to visit Israel. Israel and Israeli food are finally being recognized in the culinary world.
Can you name one ingredient you love cooking with and one that you hate?
I love cooking with butter with fresh oregano as a close second. There is nothing I don’t like to cook or eat.
On a special occasion do you prefer to stay at home and cook or eat out?
I love to do both. We normally go out for lunch and then come home and cook dinner. I really think it is important to go out to eat, just to see the new trends in food. I also love to sit in restaurants.
What is your favorite local restaurant?
I go to Chakra a lot and I am very good friends with the chef. He uses local ingredients to create simple but good food. I love the atmosphere and the music there. He serves great wine and they are not trying to do something modern or flashy. There is nothing better than simple good food so I find myself there about once a week.
What is your favorite street food?
I love Sabich from a tiny little hut called HaSabichiya on Shamai Street.
What is your favorite restaurant worth traveling out of town for?
I was recently in Haifa and I ate at Venya Bistro and I had the best time of my life. We sat at the bar, we had great food and it was a lot of fun.
What is your favorite dish to order at a restaurant?
Steak and fries that is what I normally order at Chakra.
What is your simple foodie pleasure?
I love scrambled eggs made with half butter and half eggs.
What do you think is missing from the Israeli cuisine?
It is difficult to think of anything because I have found in Israeli cuisine what for me was missing in other cuisines. What was missing in American and French cuisines, I have found in Israeli cuisine, which is why I have decided to stay here and cook Israeli food.
There are some types of restaurants that are missing here, especially fine dining. But Israelis think of very creative ideas and are willing to try anything when it comes to food.
If you could open a new restaurant, what would it be?
My dream is to have a small bistro of my own. I have a name in mind which would reflect that I am really now half American and half Israeli – even in my cooking. Putting aside all the French techniques I learned in school, I now cook half Israeli and half American. In the kitchen, I only speak in Hebrew and apart from my family, I have no other English influences around me.
My boyfriend’s mother, Zvia Yossef, is a Kurdish Queen and she has definitely influenced me. Every week from Thursday night until Shabbat she is in the kitchen making kubbeh, yifrach and other food. She has taught me several recipes from her grandmother.
At the end of the interview, Simone returned to the kitchen and sent me out a few of her favorite dishes to sample.
The Proof is in the Tasting
I couldn’t resist the focaccia bread, with flavored olive oil and olives. Bone marrow is a trendy dish in Israel right now but the Roasted Bone Marrow at Rooftop is the best version of the dish that I have tried so far. The almonds and herb salsa on top of the bone marrow added a lovely freshness to the dish and I also loved the toasted spelt bread which added an additional a nutty flavor.
Tomatoes All Shapes & Colors salad was served with large challah croutons and almond cheese. I am a big fan of almond milk but had never tried almond cheese. It added an interesting taste and texture to the tomato salad.
So that I could try a selection of the main courses, Simone put together small portions of the Charcoal Grilled Entrecote, Beef Fillet Rossini and the Lamb Chops. The lamb chops were my favorite as they were moist with a rich flavor. They sat on a bed of grain cassoulet with apricot chutney, which added the perfect balance of sweetness to the meat.
She also insisted I try the Mushroom Risotto which was incredibly rich and creamy; it was hard to believe it was parev. It also had the perfect amount of truffle flavor.
I ordered the Ras el Hanout cocktail to accompany the food, which was a simple but beautifully flavored drink.
Look out for more interviews with top Israeli chefs in the future. If you have any suggestions for who I should interview and what I should ask them, please comment below.