If you’re going to learn how to make babka, it’s best to learn from the Israeli master of yeast dough, Lehamim bread bakery founder Uri Scheft. The same goes for fish; one should get schooled in fins and scales by chef Meir Adoni, who specializes in preparing any sea creature.
That’s the concept behind “Chef Mentor,” a new series of cooking workshop videos that launched this fall and offers insights, tips and hands-on instructions by top Israeli chefs. Members pay NIS 100 ($29) and are granted access to the growing library of Chef Mentor videos, where they can choose four different workshops. For now, the half-hour-long workshops are available only in Hebrew, but are being translated into English as well.
It’s the first time that a series of online cooking workshops are being offered with Israeli chefs, following the concept of MasterClass, an online platform that features superstar chefs such as Gordon Ramsay and Thomas Keller.
In this Israeli version, it’s instructive to watch Scheft (who founded the Breads bakery in New York and owns the Lehamim chain of bakeries in Israel), Adoni, pastry chef Efrat Libfreund or meat master Matan Abrahams preparing their specialties at a kitchen counter. There’s something remarkably personal about this kind of online workshop, perhaps because it’s viewed on a small screen, with the chef perched above the kitchen counter and looking right at the viewer.
It’s all about brevity in these short, half-hour workshops, with plenty of tips and tricks offered during just 30 minutes of viewing time, said Avi Meisels, the ultra-Orthodox businessman who came up with “Chef Mentor.”
“It’s instant culinary gratification,” said Meisels, who admits he isn’t much of a cook. “It’s made for the smart phone generation.”
Future workshops may include lessons on vegan cooking and gluten-free cuisine, or different ethnic foods and a focus on Israeli cooking.
The chef workshops aren’t created solely for religious or kosher households, although the recipes are all kosher and the chefs speak and dress modestly, in keeping with ultra-Orthodox standards, said Meisels.
Meisel’s first chef to come on board was Adoni, perhaps best known for his kosher restaurants Blue Sky and Lumina in the Tel Aviv Carlton, as well as eateries in Berlin and New York.
Adoni loved the idea and even more, appreciated that it wasn’t an orchestrated, competitive cooking show with expensive product placement.
“He felt it was a pure culinary experiment,” said Meisels.
Adoni led Meisels to other Israeli chefs, and for the Haredi entrepreneur, it was a lesson in developing his product. He wanted real chefs, people with a message about the foods they prepare, as well as different specialties.
Meisels has never actually tasted any of the food prepared by the chefs, even those who have kosher restaurants, as he only eats food that is certified by particular rabbis.
In fact, Meisels, 33, is an unusual choice as the creator of an online culinary course.
The ultra-Orthodox businessman from Bnei Brak has never actually watched a cooking show. Meisels owns Klichen (the name comes from kli, the Hebrew word for tool, plus “chen” from kitchen), a chain of several high-end kitchen stores in Bnei Brak and Jerusalem that appeal to the Haredi customer.
Besides selling Le Creuset pots for cholent — the tagline for that one was “Stop burning your cholent and buy a good pot” — and Arco knives, Meisels and his wife, Libbi Meisels, who does most of the buying and staff hires for the kitchen chain, found they were answering the ultra Orthodox community’s version of culinary discovery through their stores.
“Haredim are also eating polenta and cooking Asian food,” said Meisels. “Even Haredi newspapers are showing different kinds of recipes than kugel.”
Meisels first began offering cooking workshops at his stores, staffed by knowledgeable Haredi chefs, and found they would fill up in the course of one day. He figured that if people were investing so much time and money in their after-hours hobby, including paying for the workshop and a babysitter, then they were interested in learning new cooking techniques.
And while he has never watched Netflix, Meisels figured out that what he wanted to create was Netflix for the kosher culinary world. It wasn’t going to be a cooking show, per se, nor would it be geared solely for the ultra-Orthodox customer.
It isn’t the first time that the Haredi entrepreneur has entered the secular world. Born and raised in Jerusalem, and educated solely in ultra Orthodox yeshivas and institutions, Meisels broke into the business world in his early 20s, first buying an inexpensive investment apartment in Israel’s south with a bank loan.
With the profits from that first investment, he went into business with his brother, who owned restaurants in Jerusalem, but ended striking out on his own and opening his first kitchen supply store. He figured that even ultra-Orthodox Israelis were cooking differently and looking for tools and guidance.
The stores have been a success, and Meisels actually spends about ten hours of his day learning in a kollel, a yeshiva for adult men. (He does most of his business between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m.).
Meisels calls himself a “strange bird.”
“I’m a religious guy operating in a secular world,” he said. “But I get good ideas.”