David Stavrou Jun 15, 2023

STOCKHOLM — A global food-technology conference is a natural fit for Sweden, where it’s not uncommon to hear locals discussing climate change, workers’ rights and environmental issues as part of their decision-making process. It is also no surprise to find young Israelis here attracting interest for their heap of new ideas, technologies and techniques. 

According to the organizers of Big Meet, current food systems don’t allow consumers to understand what they’re eating and how it affects their health and the planet. Given the escalating problems of overpopulation and climate change, they say, the need for sustainable solutions to feed future generations is ever more urgent. And anyone visiting the two-day conference near Stockholm’s northern harbor on June 1-2 could experience what food-tech companies are hoping could be part of the solution.

There was a chef from New Zealand who offered a vegan “cod” fillet based on wheat, starch, algae and proteins. Near him was a Swedish businesswoman who specializes in plant-based, gluten-free vegan burgers made from mung beans. Another Swedish company showcased a pizza that replaces dough with cabbage. There were shakes from hemp seeds, vegetarian tacos and even a new kind of flavored sparkling water that, with the help of a combination of minerals and amino acids, combats post-meal fatigue and drowsiness.

Based on their presence at the event, it seems Israeli food tech is a leading player in the field. Gitit Lahav and her business partner Shimrit Lev, for instance, founded Sweet Victory – a company that has developed a chewing gum that stops sugar cravings by blocking sugar receptors. “By doing this,” Lahav explained to her audience on stage, “those who chew the gum get the power to take back control.”

Another Israeli company, Vanilla Vida, is revolutionizing the world of vanilla production by maximizing the potential of vanilla crops. It uses technological, agricultural and industrial expertise to achieve a stable supply of quality vanilla that is grown in climate-controlled greenhouses. The company says this allows it to achieve the highest vanillin concentration vanilla bean on the market, getting more flavor from less vanilla. Open gallery view

Michal Levit, left, Shirel Berger, Shalom Sincha Elbert and Raz Rahav on stage at the Big Meet food-tech conference in Stockholm earlier this month.Credit: Miki Anagrius

A third company, the Mediterranean Food Lab, aims to bring together scientists, food technologists and chefs to create flavor for various food products by solid state fermentation instead of by using meat as flavoring.

Hundreds of attendees were working the room, spreading the word and talking to potential clients, colleagues and investors. Even though these are all business ventures, the language nearly always involved environmental buzz words like “sustainability,” “ethical trade” and “zero emissions.” 

Some of the participants – Israelis and non-Israelis alike – also paid a visit to the residence of Israel’s ambassador to Sweden, Ziv Nevo Kulman, who arranged a culinary event to showcase the Israeli entrepreneurs’ efforts. 

The biggest Israeli delegation at Big Meet was a group of young chefs who succeeded in creating a very long food line, waiting to taste their wares in the conference’s test kitchen. 

Shirel Berger, 33, head chef and co-owner of Tel Aviv’s Opa restaurant, together with Raz Rahav, 31, head chef and owner of Tel Aviv’s OCD Restaurant and his head of R&D, Shalom Simcha Elbert, 29, created quite the stir when they served their wolffish baked in coffee flour dough with a vanilla beurre blanc, ramson (aka wild garlic) oil and chili oil, accompanied by a fresh strawberry-based dessert. 

The three chefs are part of an Israeli culinary institution called Asif, a nonprofit that is endeavoring to make Israeli food culture – not just Israeli food – an important part of the global food scene.

“Asif was founded in 2021 by Israeli New Yorker Naama Shefi, who’s the founder and executive director of New York’s Jewish Food Society – a nonprofit that works to preserve, celebrate and revitalize Jewish culinary heritage from around the world,” explains Michal Levit, Asif’s director of programs and innovation. Shefi joined forces with Tel Aviv’s Start-Up Nation Central and created Asif, which is dedicated to cultivating and nurturing Israel’s diverse and creative food culture.

‘Pervasive and mundane’

Asif strategy consultant Mitchell Davis, who has been a leading voice on the global culinary scene for the past three decades, is an important member of this delegation. He lives in New York and has a PhD in food studies from New York University (a program he helped create 25 years ago), has written five cookbooks, worked with numerous restaurants, foundations and NGOs, and, more importantly, believes we should be taking food much more seriously.

This view is shared by many in the Nordic countries, who Davis sees as the ones pushing for what he calls “the food system agenda” internationally.

He cites Stockholm’s EAT Forum, which works toward “a fair and sustainable global food system for healthy people and a healthy planet.” That forum was founded by Norwegian physician and environmental advocate Dr. Gunhild Stordalen, who also supports the “chef manifesto” that deals with issues of hunger, nutrition and sustainable agriculture in connection with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals blueprint. 

Davis also mentions Danish chef René Redzepi’s Nordic Food Lab, Sweden’s many research institutes and another of his collaborators, Johan Jörgensen, the Swedish founder of the Big Meet conference. 

“Food culture is an amorphous area,” says Davis. “Everybody’s a food expert, but not everybody fully appreciates the cultural value of food. The transactions of eating in a restaurant and buying groceries are only two elements – but we’re looking to infuse that with a deeper meaning. It’s about value. When you think of classical music or dance or art, there’s an accepted appreciation of both the literal and figurative value; people spend a lot of money on them and there’s an effort to understand their meaning. But food is one of those things that are so pervasive and mundane that people haven’t paid attention to it,” he says.

“The three things I think are most important these days in food are a dynamic and diverse culture, a recognition of the impact our food decisions have on the environment, climate change and sustainability issues. And then there’s this idea of innovation and technology, which we all know we’re going to need.

“This isn’t new, but in my view a better-informed consumer public makes better decisions for itself, for its communities and for the planet. So, I’ve come to learn that Israel is perfectly situated for the food moment we need now because of the casualness of the way people eat, the variety of vegetables, the freshness, the entrepreneurial spirit and the technology. It’s a cliché and funny to even say it, but making the desert bloom is what everyone’s going to have to do not that far into the future. 

“I have no proof of this,” he continues, “but you can see that Israeli restaurants are opening all over the world. I don’t think fine dining is over, but in the future it is going to look a lot more like a table in Israel than a table in 18th-century France – which it has looked like for a very long time.”

“The French created the idea of a national cuisine,” Davis says. “They codified it and then everybody else thought they had to do the same in response. But that’s the French way. Asif’s mission is not to define what Israeli cuisine is, because it’s a constantly changing and dynamic thing. But there is a clear distinction between Israeli cuisine and Jewish food. To use a French idea after all, there’s the notion of terroir – the combination of geography, history and culture.

“The evolution of what’s being cooked in Israel is a product of the people, the land, the climate and history of the country, whereas Jewish food is much more similar to what’s eaten in places Jews have lived than it is to food eaten by other Jews around the world. Jewish food is obviously a huge part of Israeli cuisine, but you can see that elements of different communities are finding their way into a common table: there’s the Bukharan dishes, there’s the new, amazing Druze restaurant Naifa, which I visited recently; there’s the prevalence of salads; the spreads; the sharing of plates; and all these second- and third-generation kids who now have restaurants and are referring back to their grandparents.”

“Israel is perfectly situated for the food moment we need now because of the casualness of the way people eat, the variety of vegetables, the freshness, the entrepreneurial spirit and the technology” –Mitchell Davis

The chefs themselves have their own ideas on Israeli cuisine. 

“We’re still looking for and defining Israeli cuisine,” says OCD owner Rahav over lunch in Stockholm, “it doesn’t exist yet. There are so many influences from so many different food cultures, and we’re intuitively taking what we think is good for us – both in the sense of nutrition and the sense of what we love and is good for us as people. There are also the cultural influences, like those from the Arab and Druze cuisine: the elements of enjoying food together, hospitality and generosity.” 

Rahav is widely considered one of Israel’s leading chefs and his restaurant serves a fixed menu to a small group of guests every evening as they sit in front of an open kitchen watching the staff at work. The London-based “50 Best” brand has twice chosen OCD as one of the Middle East and North Africa’s best restaurants; it also received the brand’s 2023 sustainable restaurant award. 

“Drawing inspiration from pan-Jewish traditional cooking and the cuisines of the Mediterranean,” the 50 Best guide says, Rahav “utilizes Israel’s extensive pantry to deliver a memorable and unique dining experience that is wholly grounded in sustainability.” 

Elbert, OCD’s head of R&D, says the restaurant’s “nothing goes to waste” policy – which was one of the reasons it won the award – was accelerated during the pandemic.

“Because of the tough times and lockdowns, we cut the bullshit to a minimum,” he says. There was also time to experiment, creating new dishes, tastes and products instead of focusing on “table maps and fancy manners.”

“During the pandemic, people were lonely,” he adds. “They couldn’t share their meals with others outside their homes and, when they were back, we were back to what it’s really about: the culture of sharing food together while we’re telling them our story in the plates we serve.” 

Elbert goes on to use the plate as a metaphor to make another point: “A plate is round, not square,” he says. “It’s open for sharing and has no borders or boundaries.”

Rahav and Elbert don’t think food in itself can save the world, but they believe food culture is a way to influence people’s states of mind. 

“OCD opened eight years ago,” says Rahav, “and we still have six words that reflect our core values: culture, identity, modesty, chutzpah, meaning and belonging. That’s what our food is all about.”

“OCD opened eight years ago, and we still have six words that reflect our core values: culture, identity, modesty, chutzpah, meaning and belonging. That’s what our food is all about” – Raz Rahav 

Elbert adds that the restaurant business is a tough one, but one full of meaning. “If I was good at math, I’d probably be using math to lead cultural change,” he says, “but I think food is an excellent method. It’s not that the food I make will change anyone’s mind when it comes to politics, but it certainly can place people together by the table. There’s no one who doesn’t like to eat, and human interaction besides a table or drinking coffee is important. It affects everything. In that sense, feeding people is a privilege and a big responsibility.”

The third chef associated with Asif who made an impression in Stockholm was Berger, who launched her award-winning restaurant in 2018. She is also considered one of Israel’s leading chefs, and Opa won this year’s “One to Watch Award” for the Middle East and North Africa region. “Showcasing the vegetable in all its forms … Opa is putting Israel on the region’s gastronomic map,” the 50 Best wrote. “From the heart of Tel Aviv’s Levinsky spice market, chef Shirel Berger spins humble, organic products into culinary gold.”

Indeed, for Berger, it is all about the vegetables. Although she doesn’t call her restaurant vegan, everything in it is plant-based.

Berger believes the future of food is fruit and vegetables, and she’s not a fan of technological developments that create meat substitutes. “These might feel like a necessary step for some people on their way to a meat-free diet,” she says, “but the real solution must be food based on fruits and vegetables. It tastes better than meat, and people won’t stop eating meat by continuing to love meat. 

“The food that I make doesn’t look like a steak or taste like a steak. I prefer real change,” she says. “We need to forget about the meat industry. I think about this all the time, and sometimes it feels like it’s time to just stop it all and make it illegal – just like they did in Japan, where they had to find creative nutrition solutions because for hundreds of years it was forbidden to eat meat there. That’s how they came up with miso.”

“We’re part of nature and we have to be honest about the change we need to make. We became enormous takers – especially the generation of our parents and grandparents. It’s now time to start giving” – Shirel Berger

Berger is fully aware that some people see vegan diets and plant-based food as a trend. For her, though, it’s a worldview and way of life. She sees the enormous waste of food, the suffering of animals and the destruction of nature, and is committed to “seeing the bigger picture.” 

“We’re part of nature and we have to be honest about the change we need to make,” she says. “We became enormous takers – especially the generation of our parents and grandparents. It’s now time to start giving.”

The change Berger is talking about is applicable not only to food but also to the restaurants it’s served in. 

“I come from a generation that was used to chefs shouting in kitchens, to humiliation of staff members and to working 17 hours a day under enormous emotional and physical stress,” she says. “When I came back to Israel after working in New York, I promised myself that in my restaurant things would be different, that it would have a different kind of energy. And although it wasn’t easy, I know today that there’s no point doing this if you’re not enjoying the ride. People who work in restaurants won’t accept the old kind of abuse anymore. It’s just not sustainable.”

Asif’s strategy consultant Davis notes that this is strange time for the food industry. “The #MeToo movement, racial justice and the pandemic brought an end to the celebrity chef culture. Influencers are now on TikTok – people are watching them more than they’re watching TV chefs. It’s generational and a life cycle thing, at least in the United States. Right now, there’s a labor shortage in restaurants because it’s hard work, in a tough environment. 

“I’ve spoken to a French food journalist who says that the next trend in restaurants isn’t going to happen in the dining rooms, it will happen in the kitchen. There will be bigger kitchens, better hours and better pay. And then there’s something else: they just opened the first coffee shop in New York City with a robot barista because labor is now, and has always been, a challenge. We’ve never paid the real price for food: from not paying for agriculture because of slavery, we went to not paying for migrant workers who don’t earn anything.”

What Davis is saying is now clear to many. We won’t be able to continue eating in the same way as we have in the last few decades, any more than we’ll be able to avoid disaster without dramatically reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. 

Somehow, though, aside from images in restaurants and complaints about prices, food doesn’t seem to attract much attention in the media or on our social media feeds. Politics, business, sports and entertainment all seem more important. That is going to have to change soon, everyone interviewed for this article agrees. If we want a future, they say, we’re going to have to talk a lot more about food.