Shirel Berger from OPA restaurant in Tel Aviv tells how her cuisine goes beyond veganism
OPA: the roots of this word sink into multiple meanings. In Greek, there is no single definition, but it refers to several deep meanings: to something exciting, inspiring, to an affirmation of life. In Hebrew, on the other hand, it is the word used to call the grandfather. It is this meaning that Shirel Berger, chef at OPA in Tel Aviv, refers to, attributing it to a unique link, that with her grandfather, whose words made her philosophy: “always distinguish yourself”. At the age of 12, a spark is ignited by the decision to follow her grandfather’s advice, always differentiating herself in her great passion: cooking. Shirel, a woman with a powerful voice, of strong principles, transmits confidence and firmness in the choices she has made and that she makes every day in the kitchen: it is no longer a matter of making vegan choices in itself, but choices for the environment.
What is your background?
I’ve been exposed to restaurants my entire life because my grandfather had a restaurant and as a kid, we would go out at restaurants that were not popular back then, but I had something that I loved about food since I was young. I started to cook when I was 12 and after the Israel Defense Forces, I got to a restaurant in Jerusalem, where I am from, and I fell in love with the kitchen. Then I started the Culinary Institute in New York and then worked in a few kitchens there. Finally, I came back to Israel and it was a blinked decision: I missed the Israeli culture and my family and friends. I only planned to save money and travel to know more about the origins of where food comes from more deeply. One day one friend told me about veganism and I was skeptical but she convinced me to try cook with only fruits and vegetables and I just fell in love with it, because usually you don’t learn a lot about vegetables in the culinary world, but it fascinated me: it exposed me to flavors that I was never aware of.
Then, two years ago I opened my restaurantthst is called OPA, which means grandfather and mine had a huge impact on me. Once he told me “you have to open a place only when you know you have something different from other people” and I feel I found that truth.
Why the choice of veganism?
In the culinary world, I was fascinated by how many techniques you can apply to fruits and vegetables and how outstanding the flavors are. A lot of our best dishes are just accidents, experiments or a will not throw away things that didn’t come out perfectly. It’s these things that we are experimenting with at OPA. The fruit and vegetables that we have here in Israel are just outstanding and we use only local and organic. Now, having all this time to think, I get closer to what I want in this world and I understand that ecologically we cannot continue on the way that we have been consuming food. It’s not only about been vegan because if you live in a small town here and someone makes cheese is better to buy it rather than buy a fruit from Africa: it is a decision you have to make ecologically and it starts in a very deep way in what we eat, in the choice we make, in the way we treat ourselves. I think chefs today should look at themselves as modern doctors, we should understand the consequences of consuming food more than anyone.
Ecologically speaking the whole idea of understanding where the food is coming from is super important also in the vegetable world: so, veganism is not enough because it’s not for sure local or without chemicals. In my perspective there is something so much deeper such as the awareness of what we eat and how we can contribute to the world: that’s the idea behind my cuisine.
What is the soul of your cuisine?
I think the soul is the plant kingdom. We’ve been so disconnected to it, taking advantage of it and not even think of how complex the plant kingdom is. I am so fascinated with the flavors, the fermentation and everything related to it. What we do in our restaurant is taking one fruit or vegetables and making it in many different techniques and put it all in one dish. It’s not that you have four different vegetables in one course, but we take one vegetable and experiment it in different ways and flavors.
Do you think that plant-based cuisine will be the future of food?
Yes. First of all, I think we have to eat many more vegetables, but considering that the local concept needs to be in our number one agenda: this is something I am becoming more confident about and not eating on product in an obsessive way. The food waste, the amount of plastic, of shipment we use, are impressive nowadays: everything needs to be minimized. And I think we all should buy from farmers directly. That’s what I believe is the future: to work with farmers and I don’t want to see huge industrial food factories anymore. We, as consumers, can ask ourselves these questions. As a collective, we have a lot of power, but people just need to understand it: as chefs, we should be the number one activist to stop this.
Do you think the future of gastronomy will change after this pandemic?
First of all, on a very basic level, I’ve been on a fast ride since now, working in the restaurants and not having the time to stop and think “what Is my impact on the world?”
So, understanding that everything has to change, that we have to be awakened in a very deep way, is fundamental.
We’ve come to a point in an ecological way that we have to start thinking about our world, how to take care of it and what our mission is: for me the deepest understanding is that we have to change the way we eat and consume everything we have around us. I have this awakening and I know I will go very far with it. The more you do better things the better your world around you is. I am not saying the answer is veganism, but to be more aware of ourselves and our impact on the world.
I believe that everything starts with food, with how you feed yourselves. So, I think it’s going to change: my restaurant and I will change for sure. I hope chefs will be more aware and awake because we have to be the first ones.
I hope there will be a change in the world, for the good, because we came at a point where everyone is talking about being sick and now the question is how do we cure it? I think we should begin with food.
Now that I don’t have to run and I have time to stop and think I realize, I take care of myself, and the way I look it now it is so deep, so complex that I understand the final destination of the whole concept.
It’s there something that inspires you every day to cook?
A lot of meditation, especially now that I understand that what I do is so much stress and I don’t want to be that kind of stressed chef. To create my dishes, I use a lot of meditation and listening to music. We have a rooftop where we grow vegetables and also being there is inspirational. Also, traveling was inspiring – but now I look at pictures of travel- says laughing. Nature, in general, is one of the most powerful things, to me is the ultimate place where I am in peace.