“I just opened the cookbook and tried my best with a pasta recipe,” Chef Cohen said. “I still remember the recipe. It [turned out to be] a pasta puree and a brown rosé sauce. It was awful.” And it was a far cry from the dishes he’d helped his mother prepare — or, he jokes, bothered her as she’d prepare — for special occasions during his childhood.
After the pasta incident, he put cooking on hold but retained his curiosity about the world of food, gamely tasting everything ever offered to him, like ugali, a type of cornmeal porridge typical to East Africa. After the military, his father urged him to work in a restaurant kitchen, and he decided to dive into the culinary field.
“I fell in love,” Chef Cohen said. “I got hooked on working in a very hot, old-school kitchen.”
He soon found work in his hometown of Kiryat Gat at a rustic bistro named Kramim, where he stayed for two years before attending the famed Le Cordon Bleu culinary school in London.
After graduation, Cohen returned to Israel with education and experience under his belt and was rehired — this time as head sous chef — at that same old-school kitchen.
After a year back at Kramim, Chef Cohen brought his experience from Kiryat Gat to Tel Aviv and began work at the renowned restaurant Yavne-Montefiore under the tutelage of Yonatan Roshfeld, one of Israel’s top chefs.
“It was much higher volume and higher quality,” he said. “My life really turned over, going from a small-town restaurant to a big-city restaurant. Every day was crazy.”
A year and a half later, he became the sous chef at Herbert Samuel Tel Aviv, and five years after that, he took on his current position as Herbert Samuel Herzliya’s head chef.
Chef Cohen describes the basis of his culinary style as incorporating the freshest ingredients of the highest quality. The restaurant’s contemporary kosher kitchen incorporates Mediterranean flavors and styles with ingredients and food from across the globe, which reflects the local culture in Israel.
“We must learn from wherever we can how to make great food, make it kosher and make it our own,” Chef Cohen said. “We bring ideas from Japan, Mexico, Italy and Africa because these are places that don’t use butter, for example, and we can use their knowledge to make our own recipes.”
Of course, inspiration can strike right at home in Tel Aviv, where the street food scene is as varied as the world that inspires it. Chef Cohen says it’s possible to find everything from tried-and-true Tel Aviv classics like hummus and pita, to Venezuelan arepas and North African snacks.
With that in mind, local, Chef Cohen says he strives to create dishes that tell a story his guests can instantly understand.
To perfect that story, he uses fresh ingredients to make world cuisine for a menu that changes daily. For instance, the restaurant recently served a savory churro, inspired by the tastes of Spain and Mexico but created out of eggplant.
I will always love to put the sun into my food.Chef Mor Cohen
Fish is given a unique spin, as well; as a Mediterranean staple, seafood starts most of the meals at Herbert Samuel but always has influence from the fish’s point of origin — so it may be served as a ceviche if it’s from Peru, tataki-style if Japan, or carpaccio with a light smoke if from Italy, though Chef Cohen says the preparation style can also depend on his mood.
“Cooking only French or only Italian or only Asian, at some point you will be blocked creatively because you need to be bound to the rules and traditions of that kitchen,” Chef Cohen said. “I want to learn from all over the world.”
To find his fresh ingredients, Chef Cohen regularly visits Carmel Market, from which he lives a convenient three-minute walk away. It’s here that he can meander through stalls selling fresh seafood, produce, spices and other ingredients, and gain a sense of what’s in season and grow inspired to devise new menus.
In one of his signature dishes, Chef Cohen prepares red snapper fresh from Carmel Market crusted with herbs picked in Northern Israel, Jerusalem artichoke and homemade gnocchi in a simple sauce of olive oil, onion, salt and pepper.
His menu’s international influences draw diners to Herbert Samuel from across the globe, Chef Cohen says. And those customers have grown to be much more knowledgable and more opinionated of food since he began his culinary career.
“You can’t fool anyone,” he said. “When you put a lot of emotion and a lot of hard work into your food, the customers enjoy it more. They acknowledge it more. And nowadays people are willing to taste more things. Our guests are less afraid of things than they were before.”
That fearlessness comes with the ability to recognize greatness, something the guests at Herbert Samuel see on a regular basis. The restaurant was recently honored as the World’s Best Kosher Restaurant, and Chef Cohen says so far, the achievement is the highlight of his culinary career.
He wants to continue that momentum in the future at Herbert Samuel.
“I hope to find new places in the world, new flavors that I haven’t tasted yet, and bring that into my food,” he said. “There are so many types of cuisines that interest me. I want to bring the best that I can into my kitchen with the ingredients that I have at my disposal.”
But still, he never intends to forget his sun-and-sea Mediterranean roots.
“The essence of Mediterranean style is mostly a connection to the earth and the environment,” Chef Cohen said. “I will always love to put the sun into my food.”
Chef Mor Cohen’s Top Dishes
Cauliflower Benedict with Hollandaise