Meet Chef Jason Hemi
At Eat.Drink.TelAviv we are excited when we have a chance to share with you some interesting personalities in the food industry here in Tel Aviv be them chefs, food stylists and photographers, food importers, business owners and tour guides.
Eat.Drink.TelAviv’s Meet.Talk.TelAviv would like you to welcome Chef Jason Hemi. Jason is a Toronto native who has spent the last year here in Israel working in the restaurant industry and is finishing up an incredible experience at Hadar Ochel, working with and learning from famed Israeli chef Omer Miller.
I met Jason at the Carmel Market in hopes of finding a quiet spot to sit and enjoy a coffee. It’s Friday afternoon so that seems almost impossible. Jason, who arrives sporting dark black sunglasses, warns me that he might be a bit sluggish, because he had a bit of a “long night.” He is enjoying the last few weeks of being in Israel and making the most of his Thursday nights.
Jason is familiar with the area surrounding the market, and soon takes us on a walk through the small streets and alley-ways that house small restaurants and cafés in Keren HaTemanim (The Yemenite Quarter). We settle on an undisclosed location, he orders a cappuccino and I get an Americano. Much to Jason’s relief our drinks arrive quickly and he immediately begins to sip his caffeinated beverage allowing his senses to awaken.
The young Canuck revels in his work and is passionate about the desserts he creates. He loves food, and comes alive when talking about his culinary adventures. One thing you can notice when spending even a little bit of time with Jason is that he is a spark of energy, with a youthful charisma that draws you in even as he stumbles excitedly to tell you his stories. As the interview goes on, he ramps up like the Energizer Bunny, filling with verve as he elaborates about his experience here in Tel Aviv.
Prof. NomNom: Hello Jason, so let’s start by asking where were you trained?
Jason Hemi: I studied culinary school at George Brown (in Toronto). I can’t right now remember it’s been so long. I wasn’t classically trained as a pastry chef but they always seem to put me there. Which was ok, since I was super interested in pastry it was a lot of fun. Now I’m a poissonnier – a fish guy.
Prof. NomNom: So you are a dessert and fish guy? That’s a weird combination wouldn’t you say?
Jason Hemi: Well I really just come up with dessert ideas for the menu. I’ll come to them with like 6 ideas, and it was just something I would just mess around with my own free time after work. While I was at work I was be at the fish station. So I was more like a “dessert consultant.”
Prof. NomNom: When did you know you wanted to be a chef?
JH: I was working as a bus boy at a restaurant, and I just come from a business background and I was looking for a career or something, and I saw the chef yelling at everyone and he was like the top dog and I’m like “he’s the only guy driving a Cadillac here, I can do that!” I swear to god that’s how I started.
Prof. NomNom: Where did you work in Toronto?
JH: I started working as a bus boy at “By Mark” by Mark McEwen. While in school I worked for “C5” at the ROM (Royal Ontario Museum). Once I left school I did a small stint at “La Pallette,” and left that to work at “Auberge du Pommier“. Got fired from Auberge du Pommier, and opened up my own bread business for 6 months, and then I wanted to get back into the kitchen so I started working at “Frank’s Kitchen” on College Street, where I learned the most valuable lessons in this industry.
Prof. NomNom: Ummm… you were fired from Auberge?
JH: Well, I was not a good cook at the time. I was a shitty cook who came right out of school. The difference is now, that in my school out of a class of 60 people only three of us are still cooking in restaurants. Thankfully, I gained a lot of experience at “Frank’s Kitchen.”
Prof. NomNom: Is that where you got your passion for pastries and desserts?
JH: Pretty much! I mean I got put in the pastry department at Auberge, in La Pallette, and C5. I guess they didn’t know what to do with me so they always put me in pastry. But I liked to make it because I came from a kosher home so it was one of the easiest things to experiment at home (and still keep kosher) and try something new.
It’s a lot easier to go out and buy eggs and sugar than it was to buy kosher steaks. I never played around with lamb because it was too expensive or pork because it was completely not allowed.
Prof. NomNom: What were some of the dessert you created while you were in Tel Aviv? What was your favourite?
JH: I didn’t create this, but it was fun to do in Israel – deep fried ice cream. It was apricot ice cream; it was a terrible combination to deep fry. But I had a lot of fun with it, I mean apricots were in season and they are only in season for a very short time.
I love making ice cream! I got a set recipe in my head that always works and it’s beautiful. One day the freezers at work actually broke down. In the middle of the night all the ice cream melted. They have a giant ice cream machine there but they don’t use it. It’s just easier to buy it then to make it. Especially on a small staff, it’s just easier. So the sous-chef comes upstairs and says “Jason you have a ice cream recipe?” and I wrote it down off the top of my head and said “This, go.” And in a half hour you can have 2 litres of ice cream.
Prof. NomNom: So they have an ice cream machine but never used it?
JH: Ya, so basically I was the only one who used it, to play around with it. So when I made deep fried ice cream I took lady-finger cookies and candied pistachios as a bread crumb mixture, instead of well… bread crumbs. The head chef heard about the ice cream with pistachios and lady fingers and Instagrammed it saying it was on the menu at Hadar Ochel, and the sous chef was a bit upset that he had to prep it since I wasn’t working that day.
Prof. NomNom: Is there a difference between an Israeli and N. American palette when it comes to dessert?
JH: When it comes to desserts there is a lot more pistachios here.
Prof. NomNom: That’s it? More pistachios.
JH: A lot more pistachios. Sweet cheeses are a thing. Like pastry based pastries. Like doughs, a lot of stuff you find at the shook (Carmel Market) – the Arab pastries like Kanafe. It’s a very Middle Eastern thing. The pistachio is a very dominant pastry item in Middle Eastern cooking (and baking).
Prof. NomNom: So do you find it difficult to introduce new ideas for dessert?
JH: Sort of. I gave them 6 ideas for the menu and one was this vegan option for a fruit soup. And it involved compressed melons, a watermelon soup with balsamic on top. And they were like ”what do you mean with balsamic on top of a melon dessert?” And I’m like “you don’t get it, it’s awesome.” And they never did it.
But then I made a Tarte Tatin, which Frank taught me from Frank’s Kitchen. It’s an open face pie with the pastry on the bottom, fruit and caramel on top. Delicious shit. Anyway I made that with a chai ice cream, which was the exact item from Frank’s Kitchen. It’s seasonal fruit, pate brisee (crust), with chai ice cream on top. The combination is stellar you can’t beat it. It’s one of the best desserts I’ve had. And it’s so simple. Anyway that’s what it is, and I brought that over there and they were like “Whaa, if we do that we have to get rid of the apple crumble. And the apple crumble sells like crazy and we make it very fast here. So we can’t do it.”
And I was like “Good I don’t want you to do it, because I took it from Frank.” (giggles)
Prof. NomNom: So sometimes creativity loses out to production capability or logistics?
JH: It’s always logistics. Anyway, my pride and joy was I made this sticky toffee pudding and they put it on the menu. I mean only two weeks working there and they put MY sticky toffee pudding on the menu! I make it with Silan, which is another ingredient you find here in Israel that’s great.
And that lead to my banana split, which was the greatest thing ever! This was Halva ice cream, with caramelized bananas in a silan toffee sauce, with pistachios and all of it plated on a pancake. It was the most ridiculous thing you ever saw in your life.
Blarg: That sounds so delicious!!!!
JH: It was the greatest thing I ever created! And we had it on the menu for a grand total of two days. Basically all the desserts come out of the bar, so it has to be made efficient for the bar. This one had to come out of the kitchen. And because I was the one who created it, I had to make it. Every time a banana split was ordered they were like “Jason banana split!” And I had to stop what I was doing and go make one. It took THREE pans to make. One for the pancake, one for the bananas and one for the toffee. It was ridiculous. I’m juggling three pans, which we don’t even have three burners. (giggling) I’m using the grill as a burner.
Prof. NomNom: That sounds sad because it sounds so good.
JH: Yeah. But logistics, logistics man. Remind me to tell you about that contest we had. Of course I could have made 15 pancakes ahead of time and put it in a bain-marie (bay marie). And the sauce was premade but you have to caramelize the bananas. And the ice cream is at the bar, because they have a freezer specifically for ice cream that’s the right amount of cold. We have a freezer in the kitchen that freezes the F@#$ out of everything so it gets too cold.
Anyways they kept all the halva ice cream in the kitchen freezer so it became rock hard. So I mean logistically it wasn’t possible. The other chefs didn’t want it, but the head chef loved it and Instagrammed it and said it was in the restaurant so they had to keep it on for a couple of days. But when they kept it they made my life a living hell to get it out of the kitchen. I still had to do my fish and salad duties and now I have this stupid banana split to prepare. Which was the hardest—
Prof. NomNom: Well… not just any stupid banana dish…. YOUR stupid banana dish!
JH: YEAH!!! (laughing) My stupid banana dish, which was the hardest dish to hit my line, I promise you it’s a fast kitchen, a very fast kitchen. (So the dessert had to go.)
Prof. NomNom: So given that you made this complex dessert, where there any lessons you learned from making this dessert for a restaurant?
JH: When you design any dish for a restaurant, you have to think logistically “how am I going to get this out of the kitchen?” “what do I need?” Everything needs to be planned. It’s called “mise en place”
Prof. NomNom: It’s a French term that means “putting in place” or “everything has its place”
JH: It’s a phrase cook’s live by. I know cooks with the tattoo that says “mise en place.” (Jason indicates his inner forearm). How fast can you execute from the time that the bill comes from the printer? Do you need a cutting board? Can you cut things before hand? Also, how many pans do you need to use for a dish? For a banana split you need three pans, which you don’t need or have, I mean you need a special F@#%in Teflon pan for the pancake. It’s not easy so you have to “mise en place” yourself. You have to understand how ready things have to be for service.
JH: So look you gotta hear this, we had this big contest at work. There are 20 chefs/cooks in the restaurant. We shut down service for about 3 hours. I was in the restaurant for 20 hours before this. 20 hours on my off time…. Sorry I’m explaining this so badly.
Prof. NomNom: It’s okay, take a deep breath. Your energy is contagious! So you were telling me about the contest?
JH: The contest was to create a new dish for the menu. Doesn’t matter what kind – savory, sweet. If you won the contest you got a 1000 shekels and on the menu (and you’d beat 20 other cooks.)
I came in third. I lost out to a guy I trained. And you know what I was happy to do it. I didn’t feel like winning. I just felt like going balls out and by the end I made a dish that was too difficult for the prep kitchen to make downstairs and recreate. And like, it was (too hard to recreate). (chuckles)
The dish that won was a crab bureka, with preserved lemon aioli on it, a little salsa and a bit of micrograins. It was delicious and amazing. I even helped him figure out how he was going to do it. He didn’t know how to make aioli and he didn’t know how to take apart crabs and I don’t think he’s ever worked with phylo dough before so it was really funny.
My dish was harissa rubbed lamb shanks, braised in Israeli merlot. It’s an Israeli restaurant so it should have in Israeli feel to it. Crab burakas were so much better as a dish for our restaurant, a snack food with aioli. It looked beautiful. He made a great dish! (For second place) The onsite baker made a dish, and he took my silan toffee sauce. I had like 4 liters of it in the fridge. He’s like “I need silan for this dish I’m making” So I’m like “why don’t you use my toffee sauce.” And he’s like “ya sure!” So I’m helping everyone who won. And I came in third with these lamb shanks.
I had to learn how to make a real harissa. I marinated the lamb in the harissa overnight. Slow cooked it for 6 hours, when it came out it was really tender. Then I put it in a dry oven. Served it with couscous and fresh figs.
Blarg: Yummy! That was a cool story about the competition!
JH: Well in the end it’s not really a competition. It’s about the pursuit of flavor. It’s not competing between us, it’s about elevating food, and elevating each other. It was a contest but it wasn’t the way I see it. I wanted people to become better from the experience. I wasn’t going to be like “if you use my toffee sauce it would have been so much better” and not give it to him. (laughing)
Prof. NomNom: Who are some of the celebrity chefs you’ve met? Were there any that you met that really impressed you with their humility?
JH: Gordon Ramsey. I’m not joking. He was like totally high from the experience he had before. It was something simple at the [Hudson’s] Bay, he was just doing a product promo. And he was just excited to be there, and people were so excited to see him make like a yogurt smoothie. And someone from the audience yells out “Beef Wellington.” And Gordon is like “That’s my favorite dish, you get a free frying pan!”
Anyway I got him to sign my George Brown chef’s coat. He was like “it’s an honor.”
He asks, “what’s your name?” “Jason” “Okay so I’m going to write Chef Jason because that’s who you are. Chef. Okay Chef?” Gordon Ramsey called me chef! Crazy right?!?
Prof. NomNom: Anyone else on the chef’s coat worth mentioning?
JH: Jamie Oliver, was the same day at a book signing somewhere else in Toronto. We had to buy his book, but whatever, it’s “Jamie’s America.” I was so worried he wouldn’t sign my Chef’s coat because he already signed the book. His people told me that Mr. Oliver doesn’t HAVE to sign the coat. But when I gave Jamie my Chef’s coat to sign he jokingly says, “this chef’s coat is very dirty.” Sorry chef.
Prof. NomNom: And the last chef to sign it?
JH: The last chef to sign was Omer Miller (head chef at Hadar Ochel and HaShulchan) He’s a famous chef here (and Jason’s boss). (He signed my coat) and put it up on Instagram. (Pictured above.) He wrote the nicest thing I’ve ever seen. And he was so genuinely interested in this coat. Everyone else sees it and signs it, but he was like “What is this?!? Who is this? Gordon? Jamie? No way!”
And on the sleeve I have Alvin Leung, he’s a 3-star Michelin rated chef from Hong Kong. He is not a well-known chef around the world, but some chefs know who he is.
Prof. NomNom: So is there anyone you would love to have sign the coat?
JH: Anthony Bourdain! Oh he is the one guy I really want to sign the coat. I would give him the whole back of the jacket. That whole piece of real estate. He wrote the book on the whole lifestyle. That book wanted me to be a cook even more (Kitchen Confidential.)
Prof. NomNom: What’s your future looking like?
JH: I see myself coming back to Israel. I’m leaving in two weeks, but want to come back. I have a lot to learn. I was thinking France for a long time, but now I believe Spain is where it’s at. I do believe Toronto is a great place to learn too. I love Toronto.
Prof. NomNom: You mentioned Spain, is that a trend now, to go to Spain for training?
JH: The Spanish are so interesting. Mugaritz, El Celler de Can Roca, elBulli – which just shut down but…
Prof. NomNom: elBulli’s Ferran Adrià I believe is opening up a cooking school instead.
JH: Whoa, now I have to go back to school!
Prof NomNom: Well you could always try for a summer course?
JH: Yeah maybe. (laughs) But you know it’s really cool that while some people went elsewhere for experience, I came to Tel Aviv.