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An Israeli Chef Looks to the Landscape

Erez Komarovsky influenced a generation of Israeli chefs by embracing local ingredients and dishes long before it was in style.

The chef Erez Komarovsky carrying freshly picked grapes from his organic garden in Mattat, Israel, near the Lebanon border. Rina Castelnuovo for The New York Times

MATTAT, Israel — The winding path to the chef Erez Komarovsky’s home, overlooking a village here in the Upper Galilee in Israel, is lined with a wild mix of pomegranate and olive trees, fennel and chickpea plants. It is fragrant with lemon, quince or apple blossoms, depending on the season.

There, in a stone house about a quarter-mile from the Lebanese border, Mr. Komarovsky, 55, tinkers with his latest culinary creations: a whole-eggplant dish roasted in his pizza oven, or a free-form babka with quince plucked from his garden. This summer, it was a festive torte of tiny fresh grape leaves encasing lamb and rice, topped with a pomegranate-fennel relish; the dish is just as good with Swiss chard in the fall.

The outdoor kitchen at Mr. Komarovsky’s home. Rina Castelnuovo for The New York Times

Until the early 1990s, Israeli chefs were still looking to Europe for inspiration for their restaurants. Mr. Komarovsky was instrumental in changing that, incorporating techniques he learned abroad into local recipes at his Lehem Erez bakery-cafe in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv. In doing so, he influenced the next generation of chefs — like Meir Adoni, who opened Nur restaurant in New York this year — to look with pride to their own ethnic culinary backgrounds.

“Erez is the prophet of new Israeli cuisine,” said Janna Gur, the editor of Al Hashulchan, a popular food magazine in Israel. “The general public doesn’t know him. But he is so connected to the seasons, to the produce, to the local gastronomy. This is what Israeli food is all about.”

These days, Mr. Komarovsky is concentrating on the cooking of the Upper Galilee, incorporating Lebanese, Druse (a religious and ethnic group in the region) and hyperlocal ingredients into his recipes.

The chef tending to one of the many ovens on his property. Rina Castelnuovo for The New York Times

Mr. Komarovsky, whose parents are of Ukrainian and Polish heritage, has always loved the food and people of his native Israel. He grew up in Tel Aviv, accompanying his grandmother on her weekly outings to the Carmel market, and hanging around his Egyptian neighbor’s kitchen — an experience that led him to develop a taste for ingredients like okra, eggplant and cardamom.

He also spent summers as a child at his father’s orchard in the Negev in southern Israel. At the almond harvest, he watched Druse farm workers and their families making mansaf, a baked dish of lamb, yogurt and rice or bulgur, using lamb they raised.

“From them, I studied how to eat with my hands,” Mr. Komarovsky said.

After military service, he traveled abroad. In Paris, he studied to be a chef at the Cordon Bleu; in Berkeley, Calif., he made sourdough and other artisanal breads at the Metropolis Baking Company and Acme Bread; in Gifu, Japan, he studied kaiseki cuisine.

Mr. Komarovsky preparing challah dough. Rina Castelnuovo for The New York Times

In 1994, yearning for his homeland, he returned to Tel Aviv, and opened Lehem Erez in 1996. One bakery grew into 30, and, in 2010, he sold his business and moved to Mattat with his partner, Michael Gluzman, a professor of literature at Tel Aviv University.

“Lehem Erez became too big, too complicated for me,” Mr. Komarovsky said. “I needed to get in touch with my desires again.”

An array of produce from the chef’s garden. Rina Castelnuovo for The New York Times

Now, he is gathering wild foods alongside his Druse, Arab and Jewish neighbors, and he is immersed in the land, working in and cooking from his vast garden. He’s planning a Rosh Hashana harvest meal with this flavorful, colorful and seasonal lamb and rice torte, so traditional in the fall, to be followed by a cake with figs picked from his own trees.

Mr. Komarovsky may have left his thriving bakery business, but he remains extremely busy. He cooks for groups from abroad in his kitchen, and travels to Tel Aviv to cater huge Israeli weddings. He also consults and writes cookbooks that share his philosophy about cooking from the land.

“I wasn’t trying to develop an Israeli cuisine,” he said as he picked some fresh chickpeas. “I came back to Israel to develop a local cuisine.”

Recipes: Swiss Chard and Lamb Torte With Fennel-Pomegranate Relish | High Holy Days Collection

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