CONVERSATION WITH A CHEF | DAVID RAZIEL
By Jo Rittey
David Raziel arrived in Melbourne four months ago having worked for one of Israel’s most well-loved chefs, Ran Shmueli in Tel Aviv, run his own tapas bar, Shatira, completed an eye and soul opening stage in Myanmar and worked on a project in New York. We are lucky enough to have him making the most glorious vegan and vegetarian food at the Green Man’s Arms in Carlton. David apologised for his English, and yet this conversation was filled with some of the most wonderfully articulated ideas and philosophies that I have encountered.
Let’s start with when you became a chef, David?
I don’t think I have become a chef yet. It’s a process.
I think I started at home with my parents. They worked really hard. When I was about 10 years old I told my mum that we could cook for ourselves because they got home late from work and were very tired. My sister and I started to cook simple things. That was the first time I found myself in the kitchen.
My friend Yossi was from Israel and he always said that every family had their own traditional recipes for hummus and falafel. Is that the same for your family?
In my house, they didn’t cook Mediterranean food. I was born in Azerbaijan so most of the food we ate as kids was Russian and Caucasian food. I grew up in a mixed city with Arabs, and that has influenced my cooking today. Because it is a mixed country, there are Palestinians and Arabs, and so there is food from those cultures and there is an influence from the Turkish Empire. Falafel is not an Israeli thing. It’s from Egypt, Lebanon. The Ottoman Empire held all this land for around 800 years and they had the biggest impact on the area after 800 years.
The thing that has influenced me the most in the last 10 years is the farm to table movement. The restaurant where I worked in Israel was farm to table which means you have very strong contact with the famers or even in some cases the farmers will grow what you ask them to grow if you give them the seeds because you want a different sort of vegetable. Also if you want to know the feature of each season and the agriculture of the area and how it works and why. This is how I am trying to do things now. Of course it is a big movement in the world. It’s how fine dining restaurants work. It’s not so special that I’m doing it; you go with the flow. I think it’s the right way to do it.
How did you start working in kitchens?
I finished my time with the military and when I was leaving they suggested that I go to cooking school. It’s not what I did in the military. But you can go to university or other training. The course is a little bit less than two years. I said that I would go and study cooking and I discovered that it’s a very serious thing. You go deeper and deeper into it.
I would always hope that whatever people choose to do, that they would enter it deeply.
It takes you deeper into it.
Oh, so you don’t choose it, it chooses you?
Something like that, because there are levels and you want to do better and you go to different restaurants and work overseas and you realise there is more and more to learn.
Obviously you love it, but it sounds as though you are someone who is always striving to do better. Is there a level of anxiety attached to it or do you enjoy that feeling?
I don’t think it’s very enjoyable to work in the kitchen. The level that you want to get to gets higher and higher. You never get to where you want to be and you are never satisfied.
Is that what keeps you going?
Maybe. Because you always want to make it better and better. You also have to do a lot of things in restaurants that aren’t cooking; managing, pricing and that takes a lot of time. I think because of that, the art of cooking is a little damaged. You have a budget to work in. I have worked in places where there is no limit and you can spend whatever you like. These are top fine dining places. You can be very creative. Everyone knows this business is super hard.
If you want to provide time for creativity, you have to manage it. I need to work very hard and very fast and calculate everything to make time to create something different on the menu.
Who do you want to be better for? Is it for you or for the people eating your food or the critics?
I work for the food first, then for the people, and then I work for the owner, for my boss. That’s how it works for me. Working for the food means respecting the ingredients and understand what is behind every ingredient and try to make it the best. It’s never enough. You have to try to do the best.
Working for the people means at some point I decided not to work in closed kitchens, only in open kitchens so that I can connect to the customers and see how it is going; see the customers smiling or see if they aren’t happy. I don’t want to be in a closed kitchen like a lab. You understand your responsibilities when you see the customers eating and the influence of your food. If you don’t see it, there is something missing.
Do you think the diners here appreciate the lengths you go to? I know that you make your couscous from scratch and you make your own bread and we don’t see the hours that go into that. It arrives on a plate in front of us and your couscous is the most divine, fluffy, flavoursome couscous and the hummus is made fresh every day and is so silky and warmed. Does everyone appreciate that?
They are not supposed to. They just came to have some food. We serve them and we try to do our best. Of course it would be better if they appreciate it, but not everyone is interested in what is behind the food and that is ok. For those who are interested in food and appreciate the techniques, we have fine dining restaurants because it is more than food there.
For now, here, it is not only food and we have something to say; the philosophy behind the food, but we keep it at a certain level. If the customer realises that its fresh hummus and fresh couscous that we make every day, then we are very happy. I don’t know how to cook any other way. I don’t know how to make it average. If you are doing that, don’t do it, do something else.
Does it matter to you what other people are doing?
Always. You need to know where you are. Even if you decided not to be influenced, you need to know what is happening. I go to restaurants here; I eat out and I read menus. Another aspect of that is to know the prices and to know what people accept. When I eat at places here, I can see where their influence comes from. I know which chef started that. I haven’t yet found something here I haven’t seen before. I believe I will find something but not yet.
In Melbourne you eat out a lot; it’s cultural. You have a lot of restaurants here and a lot of different kinds of restaurants. I haven’t yet eaten at places like Attica and Maha and they are at a high level. What I can say is that the service here is excellent.
What advice would you give to chefs wanting to enter the industry?
Read. Read a lot. Always. Always create. Once you stop learning, you go backwards. In the kitchen you can never stand in one place; you either go forwards or you go back. You must go forward.
?Green Man’s Arms ?
418 Lygon Street, Carlton