Meet Popina’s Chef Orel Kimchi
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, restaurant owners, foodies, food photographers, farmers, butchers, bakers and edible candy stick makers.
Eat.Drink.TelAviv’s Meet.Talk.TelAviv would like you to welcome Orel Kimchi chef and co-owner of Popina Restaurant in Tel Aviv.
Chef Kimchi admits that working in the kitchen was the furtherest thing from his mind when he was younger. Born in Beit Nachemia, a moshav near Ben Gurion airport, young Kimchi never imagined he would end up an award winning chef and an owner of well regarded restaurant in Tel Aviv in the illustrious Neve Tzedek neighbourhood.
It was about two and a half years into his army service when officer Kimchi was stationed with thirty soldiers on a lonely mountain post outside Ramallah. According to Kimchi, he spent at most four hours a day sleeping and the rest of his time watching over his command. It would be a month before he would be allowed to go home for the weekend. With so much time on his hands, he was invited to help one of the soldiers in the kitchen. The soldier was learning in one of the Israel cooking schools and imparted what he could to Kimchi during that time. It was not anything fancy or over the top, just your typical army food like chicken and potatoes, schnitzel and salads. But it was good and tasty. It was then that Orel felt a deeper connection between food and people. That was the moment Orel’s explains when he “fell in love with the kitchen.”
In 2006, once he completed the army, Kimchi enrolled in Tadmor Culinary School in Herzliyah to learn the basics of being in the kitchen. On top of the academics, he landed an internship at a seafood restaurant called Kazanki to learn the ins and outs of something he had hardly any contact with growing up – shellfish, lobsters and other crustaceans.
It was a dizzying time for Orel Kimchi. Going to school from 8am-5pm and then working from 6pm to close five to six days a week took its toll on the young man. The hard work paid off in the end; he earned the position of sous-chef at Kazanki and completed the Tadmor program. The only problem was he was so exhausted he slept through his graduation. “I was very motivated to succeed, so I worked like crazy. I was working until 1am and got home after a crazy year of working double shifts every day, I didn’t get to Tadmor to pick up my certificate. I slept for 24 hours.”
His strong will to succeed would not wane once he graduated. After an extensive post-army vacation with his then girlfriend (now wife) across South America. He moved to New York City to work at, what he describes as a Jewish Fusion Restaurant, even though he assured it was more fusion than Jewish. After a year, he would return to Israel, finding work in Jerusalem’s highly regarded Cavalier restaurant.
One day a flyer would arrive inviting chefs to submit a recipe and compete in the San Pellegrino “Best Chef Under 30” competition. Without over thinking about whether he should or he could, he put forth a unique recipe that captured the attention of the selection committee. Orel was genuinely surprised, and along with twenty-five other Israeli chefs competed at Dallal Restaurant for a coveted top four position, where those chefs would present their dish to a panel of distinguished judges from the Israeli culinary world.
Kimchi would go on to the Finals in Israel having to vary his dish slightly to make it kosher and thus suitable for preparation at Herrod’s of Tel Aviv Hotel kitchen. Regardless of the last minute change, the dish won and Kimchi would be named winner of Isreal’s San Pellegrino’s Best Chef under 30. He would later venture off to Venice, Italy to compete in another San Pellegrino competition that combined sailing and cooking, culminating a fine dining experience for the judges once the chef’s regatta reached its specified arrival mark. (The strange competition/story is available HERE).
The young chef’s new notoriety allowed him to partner with co-chef and former Tadmor graduate Tzahi Ovadia to open the fine dining restaurant Popina, a beautifully designed restaurant housed in an old Neve Tzedek historical building. The kitchen is front and centre allowing you to look in on Kimchi as he leads his team through the various cooking techniques that are the central themes of Popina’s menu.
On reflection, Chef Orel Kimchi seems incredulous that the young man from Beit Nechemia who thought that “food was just for living” and “could not care about the kitchen” now is the co-owner of his own restaurant. More incredibly, he accomplished all this all before he turned 30 years old.
I join Orel during the middle of the day, during some supposed downtime, if Chef’s get any. He is relaxed and genuinely appreciative of the opportunity to share his story. A few friends had joined me a week prior for Chef Kimchi’s tasting menu at Popina, where we had exchanged a few pleasantries and upon a request for an interview, he kindly accepted. Talking with Kimchi was easy. Soft-spoken and self assured he seems incredibly grateful for what he has done in his young career and what he would like to focus on. He offers me something to eat, but I had just come from another restaurant, my curse for personally trying out so many of Tel Aviv’s restaurants. It’s not every day I eat fine dining, and it certainly isn’t every day I get to turn it down. I settle for a Americano, while he sips on a latte from the bar.
One would get the definite impression that young Orel sees himself as a good chef, with no pretension, who relishes in making great food, for his great restaurant. He seems very focused on making Popina a success within the Tel Aviv restaurant landscape. I asked him if his drive makes him feel like he is married to the place, but he quickly assures me he is not. He sees it more differently, more monogamously.
“I’m only married to my wife, but I have two babies,” he shares. He married his long time girlfriend and together they had a daughter Tamar who is now two years old. “I’m trying to combine the stuff, parenting and running a restaurant and it is hard.”
But with youthful vigor and a focused drive, you can sense that Chef Orel Kimchi and Popina are destined for a long tenure together. I can imagine ten years from now, sitting with his daughter, sipping on San Pellegrino, Orel regaling her with some very exciting but humble stories of her father culinary journey from a mountain top overlooking Ramallah to regatta races along the Venetian waterways.
Prof. NomNom: You started learning the basics at Tadmor in Herzliyah, but what did you learn in your internship at the seafood restaurant?
Chef Kimchi: I had never worked with seafood before, so my teacher at Tadmor arranged the interview at Kazanki and I got the job. Since Tadmor is a kosher school there is no seafood. My family keeps kosher, so it was my first time ever seeing shrimp or making Coquille St. Jacques or whatever. It was different for me, and I was very motivated to succeed, so I worked like crazy. At the end of the year at Tadmor, the day we were suppose to get our graduation certificate, I didn’t wake up that morning.
Prof. NomNom: Your parents or friends did not call you?
Chef Kimchi: The phone was on silent the whole day and I was so tired. When I woke up I had about forty calls from friends and from work wondering “where am I?” (he laughs) They were fine though, I still ended up working there for another half a year.
Prof. NomNom: Is that when it closed down or did you move on?
Chef Kimchi: I moved on. I was waiting for my girlfriend at the time, now my wife, to finish the army. She was an officer so she ended up staying on for three more years and finished five years of service. She has a higher rank than me.
Prof. NomNom: So she is the boss?
Chef Kimchi: Ya! She’s the boss! (laughs) So I waited for her to finish, and we did a trip to South America together for about a half a year. Peru, Bolivia, Argentina and a bit of Brazil. It was a great time. Afterwards we went to Manhattan where I stayed and lived with her brother, and she went back to start university. I got a job as a sous-chef in a place called Miriam. It’s kind of like Jewish cuisine.
Prof. NomNom: Like a deli?
Chef Kimchi: No, no… it’s a restaurant. It’s Jewish Fusion cuisine. It has nothing to do with Jewish food. I was always joking with the boss. We have Kreplach, you know what kreplach is, so the kreplach was with yam inside and sage butter or with truffle oil. And you know that has nothing to do with Kreplach, it just looked the same. But it was a very good restaurant, and I was working six days a week. In my free time I took cooking classes called My Cooking Party and there met another Israeli guy Liron. We are now very good friends. He taught me a lot.
Prof. NomNom: About cooking or about life?
Chef Kimchi: More about life but also cooking. He told me how to do a thing until now; something I tell my cooks. He would say “Imagine where you are going to be in a month from now, a half a year, in a year from now, ten years from now…” He knows that ten years from now he is going to have a cooking school in Manhattan. Three years ago he knew he wanted two lofts to do these cooking parties and now he has two lofts in Manhatten.
Prof. NomNom: The art of positive visualization?
Chef Kimchi: That was a minute in life where one man influences your way of thinking. That’s what he gave me. I knew when I came back from Manhattan, that by the age of 30 I was going to have a restaurant. I had the menu for it, and the way I wanted it to look. No connection to Popina, it looked so different, it was Orel at the age of 24 and different from Orel at age 30. But I knew I was going to have the restaurant from the vision I had made myself.
Prof. NomNom: What are some of the fun things you did in New York, what did you love?
Chef Kimchi: First off, I love New York. Tons of amazing restaurants, very inspiring place with inspiring food. Now if there was one thing I hate it is shopping. If you asked me to shop I’d probably want to kill you. And my wife knows it. But I don’t know what it is about Manhattan, because the minute I got there I became a shop-a-holic.
Prof. NomNom: Did you enjoy any restaurants in New York?
Chef Kimchi: Tons of restaurants. I told my wife I am coming back with no money. We were eating everywhere. We went to Jean-George, then next month we went to Daniel. In the day time we would eat street food or go to small places in Chinatown with no white people and no English. The menu would be just pictures and we would just point and try anything and everything.
Prof. NomNom: Did your experience in New York influence dishes you made in the future?
Chef Kimchi: Yes, yes of course. I’m not doing the same dishes, but the kreplach I told you about, I’m making my own variation. I’m doing a ravioli and taking pumpkin filling, lots of butter. I put foie gras and truffles. It’s not the same but it was influenced.
Prof. NomNom: What are some ingredients or dishes that you feel are under represented here in Israel?
Chef Kimchi: I like to cook with organs: liver, intestines, brains, cheeks, everything.I think veal cheek is one of the tastiest things and I don’t think people appreciate. Well, it is one of our best sellers here. At the end of the day it is a great meat, and it has the perfect amount of meat and fat. It’s very good. And I love brain.
Prof. NomNom: You sound like a zombie! (laughs)
Chef Kimchi: (Laughs) I love veal or lamb brain. It is also not as appreciated, and I only get it on special occasions, because it isn’t common at all in Israel. I also want people to know about Dover Sole. The fish is very hard to get, because it is one of the more expensive fish to get into Israel. We get it only on the weekend from Belgium or France on a night flight on Thursday. It costs twice as much as Grouper, which is one of the more expensive fish to get in Israel.
Prof. NomNom: When the fish fly do they fly first class?
Chef Kimchi: (laughs) No, it’s crazy because the Dover Sole comes with lobster. We try to introduce lobster and Dover Sole, which is even more unknown in Israel than brain. We are trying to do [brain] in a delicate way, with lemon butter or a chive sauce. Once it’s deep fried it’s moist and still crispy.
Prof. NomNom: You make brain sound so delicious. How do you come up with items, are you the brains of the operation?
Chef Kimchi: (laughs) I let my sous-chef and cooks come up with ideas. If it’s good I’ll find it’s way on the menu. Right now there is a sea-food pasta that Omri, the kitchen manager created. I just offered a tip or two but it’s his dish. We try to change the menu every half a year.
Prof. NomNom: I read you were recognized in a contest, youngest chef to win?
Chef Kimchi: I won the San Pellegrino Best Chef Under 30 in 2011.
Prof. NomNom: Wow! Tell me about bit about that.
Chef Kimchi: I was working at Cavalier in Jerusalem. One day a flyer came in the mail and there was a worldwide competition and this was the first time Israel was able to send a representative. If you wanted to be there you had to send a recipe of your dish, and if it sounds good to the judge you got into the Semi-finals. The Semi-Finals were at Dallal restaurant, and I was one of the four people who went onto the finals. I couldn’t believe it because I had just entered for fun. The finals were at Herrod’s Hotel and you had to do a kosher meal. The judges were Shalom Kadosh, the grandfather of Israeli cooking, Carlo Krakow [sp?], a chef with 2 or 3 Michelin stars in a restaurant in Italy, and other judges were the chef of Herrods Hotel, Golan the chef of Dallal, and Hila Alpert, a very well known food journalist in Israel.
Prof. NomNom: So it was a very well established panel of judges?
Chef Kimchi: Oh ya, and I didn’t realize it was going to be such a huge event. They tell you that in two weeks you are going to cook for 150 people in a hotel in front of a tv crew and some journalists and the judges are ta-ta-ta…and then I’m suddently like “wait…a…minute…”
Prof. NomNom: Did it make you nervous? Did you want to change your dish?
Chef Kimchi: Well I had to change my dish because I had to make it kosher. For me there is a good nervous. It just makes you focused. It’s like service time. I stayed focused and won.
Prof. NomNom: What was the recipe that you submitted?
Chef Kimchi: I had a dish that someone later told me reminded them of a Heston Blumenthal dish, but I didn’t know that at the time. He makes it at his famous Fat Duck restaurant. It was an edible beach – edible sand out of brioche and hazelnut. I made black pasta out of eggplant peels, which I dried and made into a powder. I made a ravioli that looked like pebbles, and fish swimming in the ocean, seaweed on the side, and used a foam for a sauce. And I had to do it for 150 people!
Prof. NomNom: Who helped you?
Chef Kimchi: I had my sous-chef for the first day of prep, but then another friend who is executive chef now at Lumina by Meir Adoni was there. So was my wife, who is a natural cook.
Prof. NomNom: That’s sweet. Where would you take your wife out to dinner in Tel Aviv? You can’t choose Popina though.
Chef Kimchi: Oh I wouldn’t take my wife to Popina. I took her twice only in the first year and a half since it opened. The first time was a catastrophe because I was seeing everything going on in the kitchen and I was so nervous because on my right was a journalist from Ha’Aretz and on my left of my wife was a journalist from Walla. I just couldn’t concentrate. After a few months, we came back and I was fine.
Prof. NomNom: You don’t make for a good date with the wife if you are too busy worrying about the restaurant, so where would you go on a date with her?
Chef Kimchi: I would go to Oasis. The whole crew of Oasis ate here recently. I love Rima Olivera. [Oasis] is an incredible restaurant. I’d recommend Catit [Meir Adoni]. And The Bun. It’s just very good food! They have this pork bun…it’s very good!
Prof. NomNom: What are some of your future plans? Do you want another restaurant?
Chef Kimchi: No I don’t want another restaurant, but if we do we’d do a kosher Popina. I want to concentrate on this. I’m here every day. If anything I wouldn’t mind opening up a very small pizza place. I want to do stuff related to cooking and Popina but not another restaurant, not right now. And not in Israel…. but maybe in Manhattan! (laughs heartily) I love Manhattan, it has everything.
Prof. NomNom: If there was one celebrity you would want to meet who would it be?
Chef Kimchi: I would like to meet Jiro, from Jiro Dreams of Sushi. The man is 80+ and still goes to work every day, making the perfect sushi. He wasn’t influenced by anything in the outside world. His own son is 50 something, working at the restaurant and won’t let him be the chef because he doesn’t think he is ready. The dedication and the search for perfection is crazy.
Also, Heston Blumenthal. I think he took the modernist cuisine to a new level. The Fat Duck was rated the best restaurant by San Pellegrino for three years in a row, and has 3 Michelin Stars for over 10 years. He’s the most creative chef I know.