Renowned chefs Kemal Demirasal and Maksut Askar cook up a storm in Haifa’s popular Arab Food Festival
On a rainy winter’s evening in the northern Israeli city of Haifa, Turkish chef Kemal Demirasal walked in to the kitchen of the Hanamal 24 gourmet dining restaurant. It was the day before the opening of the A-Sham Arab Food Festival, an event that is increasingly popular with foodies wishing to expand their culinary palate whose theme this year is Turkish and Ottoman-inspired cuisine.
In a first, the Arab Food Festival is hosting two guest chefs from Turkey: Demirasal and Maksut Askar from the celebrated Istanbul restaurant Neolokal.
Wearing a t-shirt, jeans and a striped apron, his blond hair pulled back in a bun, the self-taught Demirasal described the dish he was preparing: a deconstructed version of the rich Middle Eastern dessert known as baklava. After combining some ingredients together in a large metal bowl, he began whisking furiously in order to achieve the right consistency for a delicious pistachio cream that would accompany phyllo dough crisps. The re-imagined baklava, one of Demirasal’s signature dishes, was slated to be presented to diners during one of the festival’s gala dinners.
It was his first time in the Jewish state.
“[Israel] looks like my country too, but here it’s more authentic,” he told The Media Line.
Formerly a professional windsurfer, Demirasal acquired a taste for cooking in 2007 after he lost his passion for athletics. Rather than attend a culinary school, however, he opted to learn professional cooking techniques on his own.
“Normally I should have attended a [cooking] school but I don’t like to learn slowly,” the chef recounted. “I just wanted everything to be fast so I bought several books, made a big library and studied a lot. Meanwhile, I also traveled to try different kinds of foods and to understand the [restaurant] business.”
Demirasal describes his cuisine as “minimalist” and strives for simplicity when conceptualizing new dishes. After launching his first restaurant in 2008, he quickly became acclaimed as one of Turkey’s leading and most creative chefs. In 2012, he opened the avant-garde Alancha restaurant in Istanbul which features modern takes on Anatolian cuisine, including dishes such as ‘yahni,’ a Persian-style meat and onion stew, and ‘levrek,’ grilled sea bass served with ravioli and calamari.
Always on the lookout for new challenges, two years ago Demirasal sold Alancha and established a new restaurant called Yek in the western Turkish city of Izmir that is dedicated to casual fine dining with a focus on Greek-influenced cuisine.
“Turkish cuisine is very complex because we have seven regions in the country and they’re all very different from one another,” the chef explained. “What I do is try to show the various dishes—a bit of seafood from where I live and a bit of tandoori which is from the eastern part of Turkey—as well as baklava which is a well-known dessert in the country.”
While ties between Turkey and Israel have been strained—with the former earlier this year expelling the Israeli envoy following violent protests in Gaza and Jerusalem responding by ejecting the Turkish consul-general—Demirasal stressed that political tensions have not affected his personal views.
“Politically, yes there are issues,” he affirmed, “but in everyday life I never see anything like that. I never felt any tension, neither here nor in Turkey.”
Across the street from Hanamal 24, Maksut Askar joined forces with local chef Moin Halaby to concoct dishes inspired by the tastes of southern Turkey: fried mussels with hazelnut tahini and pickled onion, lamb heart with mustard leaves and an oxtail stew.
Unlike Demirasal, it was Askar’s fourth time in Israel, though he had never been to Haifa.
“We are cooking new takes on Anatolian cuisine,” Askar related to The Media Line. “We do not only feed ourselves with our childhood memories, but also with the stories, recipes and traditions behind them.”
Both Askar and Demirasal joined dozens of other leading Arab- and Jewish-Israeli chefs for A-Sham, which also featured musical performances by Turkish singers and bands and a selection of gourmet menus with reasonably-priced dishes providing those in attendance the opportunity to explore Turkey’s gastronomical heritage.
“This year is very special because…it comes at a very delicate time since the relationship between Israel and Turkey is not amazing,” 2014 Master Chef Israel winner Dr. Nof Atamna-Ismaeel, who founded the annual event, conveyed to The Media Line. “This year we have 32 restaurants participating and aside from establishments that are serving festival dishes, we also have dinners that are being held in different places.”
Dr. Atamna-Ismaeel revealed that finding Turkish chefs willing to fly to Israel was not particularly difficult and that she believes people are willing to put politics aside.
For one of the festive meals, she prepared a series of gourmet courses together with Demirasal and Israeli top chef Haim Cohen, with each contributing recipes inspired by different parts of the Levant. Among the specialties offered: seafood orzo with Turkish peppers puree, slow-roasted leg of lamb with quince and dolma leeks stuffed with rice.
“I thought it would be great to have this concept of Turkish and Ottoman cuisine firstly to introduce people to it and then to send some kind of a message that we want to collaborate,” Dr. Atamna-Ismaeel emphasized. “Look how pretty life can be if we do things together.”