During the COVID pandemic, he left Israel for Toronto for a month where he cooked private meals. The chef, Meir Adoni, is doing it again.
This time however, we’re talking about a much more dramatic kind of change: Two months ago, he quietly relocated to Paphos in Cyprus – and not as a temporary measure. In an interview to Ynet, he explains: “I need to feel excited about things in life.”
In the coming months, Adoni is due to open a kosher restaurant in Paphos called “Sabba” (Grandpa) where he’ll serve shawarma and home-style Israeli dishes including mafroum, veal cutlets in beetroot sauce, fresh hummus, falafel, sabich, arais and anything that’ll make Israeli tourists feel at home.
It's not just shwarma that made Adoni leave the country: Within the year, with local and Israeli partners, he’ll be opening a 75-room boutique hotel, where he’ll set up a rooftop bar and restaurant. In the summer, he’ll open both a pastry shop and a bakery from which he plans to sell his goods to hotels throughout the island.
How did you come up with Paphos?
"I chose a location that’s a 40-minute flight away. It’s closer than flying to Eilat. A lot of business opportunities requiring my physical presence have opened up for me there. There’s an insane culinary vacuum in Cyprus at the moment. There are almost no quality restaurants on the island. There are a couple of Michelin restaurants in Limassol, but that’s it."
He adds: "Cyprus is home to a million people. They’re warm like Israelis. Cyprus is also quiet and tranquil. I keep meeting lovely people. When I first got to Cyprus., I’d get to the restaurant at eight o’clock in the morning and I’d be there on my own. I didn’t get it. Then it was explained to me – life here involves getting to work at ten. Relaxing, you them have your espresso, and no one’s rushing around.”
Is this a temporary relocation?
“No. I’ve relocated for good. I need to feel excited about things. I’ll be 50 soon. It’s a turning point. I feel younger and more alive than ever, but I have 1973 bones. Thank God, I don’t feel it, but you can’t deny your age. I feel I have the passion of a 20-year-old. No one got it when I moved to the north of Israel four years ago. These acute changes are part of what makes me feel alive.”
Was it hard to decide to move to another country?
“You need to know when to hand in the keys and leave. There’s a great new generation. I’ve reached almost every aspect of Israel – I’ve published a cookbook, I’ve set up all kinds of restaurants, I’ve done media and television – I’ve done everything possible, including high-end catering for Israel’s wealthiest families. I just feel I’ve done as much as I can. Just like I got up and left the ‘Game of Chefs’. I’ve also done the same in my personal life. I’m handing in the keys and I’m not looking back.“
We met Adoni at the Meli Melo restaurant in Tel Aviv on a visit to Israel to launch the new “Havat Habokrim” (Cowboy’s Farm) line of meats, which he been consulting for the past two years. Meli Melo is presently his only restaurant in Israel, following the closure of his other two restaurants during the COVID pandemic.
Meli Melo is owned by the Brown Hotel’s OTH group and is located in Brown’s BoBo hotel in Tel Aviv. “I create my culinary content on site. It’s a culinary bar and not a proper restaurant. It serves 400 diners a night. It’s one of Tel Aviv most sought-after spots. It’s extremely successful. It’s not easy to produce my culinary creations here. The place is dark and noisy, so the cooks are working in difficult conditions.”
Adoni currently owns two further restaurants overseas. His Berlin restaurant is celebrating its four-year anniversary and his Samna restaurant in Kiev, which is presently closed due to the war. In two months’ time, Adoni is opening a fish restaurant in Singapore and in the winter of 2023 he’ll open a kosher fish restaurant in London.
In the coming year, he’ll also open a new restaurant in the Brown hotel in Athens based on his Tel Aviv "Mizlala" restaurant which closed its doors six years ago. The hotel and restaurant will be in Athens’ spice market and will serve Arab-Greek food. His “Noor” restaurant in New York closed during the pandemic after Adoni was no longer a partner in the business.
During the pandemic, as the world’s restaurants closed their doors, Adoni realized that he had to do something beyond restaurants: He started consulting Saffron-Tech, a company growing saffron in Israel. He also collaborates with Intel where he is in charge of catering for the company's employees, offering Asian, vegan, Thai and fish restaurants as well as a couscous and shawarma stand.
How on Earth did you come up with a kosher fish restaurant in Singapore?
“There simply aren’t any kosher fine dining restaurants in the Far East. The restaurant will get its fish from the Tokyo fish market and it’ll be really good. My partners there are a Jew living in Singapore and an Israeli restaurant group who are active in the region. Singapore is a business cross-roads. A lot of Jewish businesspeople come through and there’s a Jewish community there with 300 families. It’ll be a modern Mediterranean restaurant. Our target market is everyone. The kosher certificate is just a bonus. It has doesn’t affect the food quality. Quite the opposite.”
Why the opposite?
“Because the kashrut certificate will bring in the Jews and Israelis, that will bring in the Muslims who want hallal food. Most places in Singapore now serve pork. Muslims also don’t have a lot of places they can have cool food in Singapore. People come from Dubai, Qatar, Malaysia and Indonesia. Next winter, I’m opening a fish restaurant in London. It’ll be the kind of kosher restaurant Londoners have never seen before."
He adds: "My partner there is a traditional Jews who has been disappointed by being unable to find a good kosher restaurant in London. We’ve been working on it for a year and it’ll be a knock-out. Its’ the second most important Jewish center following New York. I want to cook for the Jewish Anglo-Saxon crowd.”
You’ve been talk about kashrut a lot in recent year. Do you keep kosher?
“It began ten years ago because I was sure that I could create good kosher restaurants. I was among the first to believe that we could have good kosher restaurants in Israel. Jews from all over the world made pilgrimages to my kosher restaurants and didn’t believe they were kosher as they’d never tasted that level of kosher food. I also open non-kosher restaurants.
"Layla in Berlin and Samna in Kiev are both non-kosher. I eat non-kosher food myself. With that, I’ve a strong belief in God and I don’t believe he judges me on what I eat or don’t eat. The Creator of Heaven and Earth judges me on how I honor my parents, how I treat my fellow man and on my being good to people in general.”
“I get a lot of comments about religion and kashrut, I just tell people to drop the subject. I hold myself accountable only to my parents and to God. People sometimes ask me about my hat and stubble and ask if I’m becoming more religious."
He adds: "I’m not, but I fast on Yom Kippur and stand there in a tallit begging God to look after my wife and children who I love dearly. I also ask God for forgiveness and tell him that there are some things that I’ll carry on with into the coming year.“
And when they ask you to open a non-kosher restaurant?
“I have no problem with that. When I cook food kosher or set up a kosher restaurant, I’m totally committed to the laws of kashrut. The thing I’m most afraid of is making a person who keeps kosher sin because I wasn’t careful enough in the kitchen. That’s unforgiveable. It’s like giving non-vegan food to a vegan.
"That’s my responsibility as a chef. I’m sometimes asked how come I fast on Yom Kippur and visit tombs of sages, but eat non-kosher food. I can’t explain it. I preach loving the Creator, without fulfilling the 613 commandments. I’m a proud and good Jew and thank God for that privilege. Everyone should live in according to their own faith and how they see life.”
“I used to create boutique type restaurants working through butchers. This is what I now do for other chefs. ‘Havat Habokrim’ are responsible not only for the end product, but also for breeding and feeding the livestock. They providing age-tailored formulas for the poultry and cattle. This gives them, complete control over the product until it gets to the customer. I deeply believe in this. I grind premium meet into my burgers and kebabs. I want to get the best possible result."
What’s the story with the saffron? Will we soon have grown-in-Israel saffron?
“Exactly! Just like Israeli caviar and Israeli truffles. Saffron is the world’s most expensive spice. This high-tech company grows it in the Gush Katif region. 80% of the world’s saffron is manufactured in Iran using time honored agricultural methods. In their natural environment, saffron flowers for a single day. On that day, you abandon everything and gather the saffron."
He adds: "As the process in Iran is unmonitored, only 60% produces good quality saffron. All the rest is no good or imitation. We’ve reached four flowerings a year from the same bulb. Instead of having one or two flowers, we create artificial climate conditions and manage to get the flower to blossom several times and it’s all high quality. There’s no skein or deterioration.
"We use certain saffron varieties – not just to season rice, but also in cosmetics and for mental health. It helps with anxiety and ADHD. We’re presently raising investment funds via PeopleBiz. I’m very proud that it’s an Israeli invention and I feel growing saffron in Israel is a big victory over the Iranians.”
Finally, what’s going on right now at the restaurant in Kiev?
"The restaurant in Kiev is the most beautiful restaurant I’ve ever seen. It’s a palace and it has a kitchen that a chef could only dream of. It’s a fair ground for chefs. We opened in June 2020 and I had 30 cooks on each shift. The restaurant revolutionized Mediterranean food in the city. Until then, there were only restaurants selling pitta with shawarma."
"The restaurant closed at the beginning of the war." Adoni explains. "some 40 people then moved into the kitchen cellar, living there for the first month of the war. They brought Kalashnikovs and, at night, lay in wait for the Russians outside the restaurant. I’m constantly in touch with the cooks. We managed to smuggle some of them out to my restaurant in Berlin.
"Some of the cooks are still fighting the Russians on various fronts. Three weeks ago, we were thinking of reopening the restaurant and we started bringing the staff back, but then fresh rocket and drone attacks on Kiev resumed. For now, we’ve put the reopening on hold. We’ll just have to wait and see where it’s going."