Green Fig chef Gabriel Israel has always had an eye for the visual arts.
A self-proclaimed troubled kid, Israel doodled through classes. With attention-deficit disorder and dyslexia, he says, drawing held his attention better than schoolwork.
When Israel got suspended from school at 16, he taught himself how to graffiti, at first copying other artists, eventually developing a style of his own. The Tel Aviv area native eventually went on to spray paint in France and Venice Beach. While serving in the Israeli Defense Forces, Israel took up tattooing, opening his own shop when he got out.
That visual point of view shows up in Israel’s food. Throughout his life and all of his artistic endeavors, the ink-covered chef has always found solace in his main outlet of creative expression, cooking.
As executive chef of Green Fig, a greenery and wood-filled modern Israeli restaurant inside YOTEL in Hell’s Kitchen, as well as the hotel’s neighboring street food-centric rooftop terrace, Social Drink & Food, Israel fuses his discerning eye with his globally-inspired palate. The chef combines flavors from the Middle East, Mediterranean and North Africa into stunning dishes that incorporate the natural flow, as he says, “Order in the disorder” aesthetic of his art.
Photo by Rated Ruwan
At Green Fig, a small slab of slow-cooked pork ribs, called “Not Kosher” BBQ, are served atop za’atar dusted potato “rocks,” crumbled in hand to mimic stones. The starchy hunks are splashed with white labane and verdant zhug, a fiery Yemeni hot sauce with cilantro and parsley. The pile is served on one side of square piece of grey slate. Paper thin rounds of white kohlrabi balance the plate.
His carrot steak, a Moroccan spice scented whole carrot charred on the grill, follows a similar visual approach. Placed in the bottom third of a rounded tree slice platter, the orange root sits atop green carrot top pesto, and is crowned with house-made mozzarella, micro fennel, basil and crumbled spices. “For me, it creates a picture in my eye,” says Israel. “I like stuff that is not equal, things that are natural.”
Since he was about six or seven years old, Israel has been fascinated by the powers of good food. The chef still fondly recalls lingering meals among the olive trees at his grandfather’s summer retreat in the South of France, he says, “People were so happy to eat what he was making: beignets, fried zucchini flowers. That’s where I got the love for [cooking].”
In an homage to his grandfather, Israel serves zucchini blossoms as a Green Fig special when he can get them.
Israel’s grandfather inspired the young chef’s passion, but his father propelled him. When Israel was 14, his father helped him land his first professional culinary gig, just outside of Tel Aviv. The company was the outside vendor for his father’s event space. “He knew I was into cooking,” says Israel. “Whatever our interest was, he decided to push us into that field, like, get your ass off the couch and start making money.”
Photo by Rated Ruwan
After the army and the tattoo shop, Israel packed his bags for Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. Three months in, Israel went to a career fair where he scored a job at Daniel Boulud’s high-end Mediterranean concept, Boulud Sud. Israel left school to work at the restaurant. “It was really intense,” he says. “It was really enriching in the style and the way they cooked; it gave me a lot of ideas.”
While there, Israel explored new products and ingredient combinations. As a teenager, the chef mostly cooked kosher; however, his time at Boulud Sud exposed him to new combinations with dairy, pork, shellfish and seafood. Just as his visual background appears on Israel’s plates, the influences of Boulud Sud are evident in his current menu with items like the aforementioned ribs and seafood-centric plates including skin charred sea bream with with smoked red peppers, seasonal vegetable puree, chickpeas and “hraieme crema,” a dairy-free sauce inspired by a spicy Moroccan fish dish.
That experience at Boulud Sud was invaluable to Israel’s evolution as a cook, but after years of discipline in the army, then following orders at a high-end restaurant, the chef felt a need to break free from the structure.
He found his way out in one of the restaurant’s most popular brunch items, a dish he ate and cooked from a very young age, shakshuka, a North African and Middle Eastern dish of eggs poached in a heavily-spiced sauce of tomatoes, chilies and onions. Israel’s rendition was so good, the staff at Boulud Sud gave him the nickname “Shuka.” There, it was going for $20 a plate. “I knew I could do it better, because it was something I grew up on, like, hot dogs for New Yorkers,” Israel says.
Photo by Rated Ruwan
With a couple of friends, Israel opened Shuka Truck, a popular food truck specializing in the Mediterranean speciality. It had a good run, but after a while, the group parted ways. Now, guests at Social Drink and Food can sample Israel’s lauded shakshuka during weekend brunch.
At the helm of his own restaurant kitchen, Israel is trying to build a fun, laid-back environment for his team of chefs. They listen to rap and, sometimes, Israeli music as they work. With several Hispanic cooks in the group, Spanish music often plays through the speakers. The chefs go on outings to spice shops. “I’ve had so much structure in my life in the army, Boulud Sud,” says Israel. “I’m younger, all tattooed up, different in who I am. I run my kitchen different, as well.”
Sara Ventiera is a roaming eater and traveler who looks for amusing stories across the United States. She works from New York, Los Angeles and various places in between. Her work has appeared in theVillage Voice, New York Daily News, Zagat, FoodNetwork.com and more.