Last updated March 13th 2016
At Eat.Drink.TelAviv we are excited when we have a chance to share with you some interesting personalities in the food industry here in Tel Aviv be them chefs, farmers, falafel people, sommeliers, food photographers, and restaurant owners.
Eat.Drink.TelAviv’s Meet.Talk.TelAviv would like you to welcome Bentzi Arbel and Omri Kravitz, the two owners behind the happiest falafel joint in Tel Aviv – Mifgash Osher (Hebrew for Happiness Joint.) What makes this place so different than other down-home falafel shops is that the two purveyors are both classically trained chefs. Bentzi talks warmly about his time in Calabria, Italy learning at the Italian Culinary Institute, while Omri trained at the LeNôtre Culinary Institute Paris.
After working in the United States, Canada, France and Italy, the two individually returned back to Israel finding work in some of the top restaurants in Tel Aviv.
But Bentzi admits he was losing his spirit working in these kitchens. There was one particular hard night working at Herbert Samuel where Bentzi called up Omri, who just finished his own long shift at Sheila. Bentzi had reached a breaking point. “I’m sick and tired of this shit,” Bentzi vented to his best friend. “I went to Italy, I went to Canada, I went here, I did that, and I don’t have that feeling of fun in cooking anymore.” He recalled that one of this favourite memories that combined “happiness” and “food” was when he was five years old going with his father to their favourite Falafel joint in Haifa – Falafel Orion. There he would eat a half portion of falafel, with sweet Pineapple juice and his father by his side. And it was those moments he felt he had everything he needed. Food, Drink, and Love. What more could you ask for?
Omri agreed and he too reminisced about his favourite moments at his Falafel shop in Haifa, down the street from Orion. A long silence held between them when Bentzi said “I’m opening up a falafel shop!”
The idea made no sense to Omri, who tried to knock some logic into Bentzi, reminding him that they are trained professionals, working in the best restaurants, with many, many international internship experiences under their belt, that they were chefs, not falafel people. “We aren’t falafel people! What’s wrong with you, are you some kind of madman?” Omri pleaded.
“Yes. And I’m opening up a falafel!”
Bentzi Arbel and Omri both laugh, thinking back to that moment. It took a few months after that day for them to finally quit their jobs. Omri moved from Sharon Cohen’s Sheila to work right beside Bentzi at Herbert Samuel. Bentzi would then find his way to Tapas Ahad Ha’am, his last kitchen experience, he recalls fondly, before finally diving into the falafel business.
Sitting under the Mifgash Osher store sign sits the saying “Conceptualized in 1991″ an inside joke Bentzi says, but one with a double meaning. First, they wanted to poke fun of all the “Established in…” signs that are ever present in falafel shops all over the country. Secondly, it’s a tip of the hat to Bentzi’s and Omri’s long standing childhood friendship.
With Bentzi Arbel going to Falafel Osher, for falafel and pineapple juice, and Omri Kravitz going to Falafel Armon for a falafel with grape juice, those memories run deep and bring clarity to their mission — bring that childhood happiness to Mifgash Osher. Despite their different childhood falafel preferences, their friendship endures. So much so, Omri readily admits that Falafel Orion, is the best falafel in Haifa. Much to Bentzi’s delight.
I had first heard about Mifgash Osher from my interview with food tour guide Inbal Baum that found that two formally trained chefs had open up a small falafel joint on King George. As I sit down with the two owners, I’m impressed by their openness and friendliness, but more importantly their relaxed attitude and senses of humour. Bentzi is excited to be interviewed, sitting down with me and quickly shooting off one-liners and showing off his quick wit. Omri sits down briefly but seems preoccupied with getting things done at the Falafel shop. The interview consists mostly of Bentzi, since Omri is busy fixing the music, the lights, and serving customers.
But that’s the way it goes. Bentzi says he is the creative force behind Mifgash Osher, a great chef but a terrible cook, who without Omri would be lost. There is clearly a deep friendship between the two. Even though Bentzi did most of the talking, and talked about how great of a chef he was, he has a lot of admiration for Kravitz. They are constantly making fun of each other, a sure sign of true friendship, but Bentzi is masterful in his teasing of Omri.
At the start of the interview, I asked them to tell me about what they did before MIfgash Osher, but Omri got busy with the shop and stepped away. Without missing a beat, Bentzi quickly takes the reigns for the both of them. In rapid-stand-up-comedy-form, he lets it roll –
Bentzi: “Boom, no problem. You want me to talk about myself or the both of us, separately? Don’t worry, I can tell his story. Omri had a very hard birth. The moment he came out of his mother’s vag’, the doctor smacked his head and he is basically Forrest Gump. So he is Forrest Gump and I am Bubba. We are Bubba-Gump Falafel.”
I loved how Bentzi weaved himself into his own insult. Afterall Omri is too busy, so Bentzi expertly and easily self-deprecates. That’s a beautiful friendship right there. So I sit with “Bubba Bentzi” and ask them about Bubba-Gump Falafel… I mean Mifgash Osher.
Prof. NomNom: I just want to let you know all that stuff you said will make it’s way into the interview.
Bentzi: No problem. We are Bubba-Gump Falafel. (Bentzi laughs heartily)
Prof. NomNom: So what did you guys do before Mifgash Osher?
Bentzi: We were cooks. We are friends from the neighbourhood since 1991. We both went to culinary school, Omri when to LeNotre in Paris, and I went to ICI in Calabria. He stayed in Paris to work, I came back here. Then we started to work for the best chefs. Omri worked for Sharon Cohen of Sheila, Eyal Shani (Miznon), and Toto. Then we worked together in Herbert Samuel.
Omri: He was on pasta and I was fish, and we were basically a meter and a half away from each other.
Bentzi: It’s like today! You see I have very bad ADHD, the worst you can imagine. Basically, he is working for the both of us. It’s true. He has to get credit. He is the working man here [at Mifgash Osher], like at Herbert Samuel. This guy by himself, like for two months, ran service for 200 people, alone. Pasta AND fish!
Omri: He kept saying: “Come on you need to help me, come on you need to help me!” (Omri smiles)
Bentzi: I’m a terrible cook. Terrible. But an excellent chef!
Prof. NomNom: What’s the difference between a chef and a cook?
Bentzi: A chef is the creative and the conceptualization of the food, and the cook is the working one. I’m a terrible cook compared to him. I think I’m better than 90% of the cooks, but this guy…look he can do lots of things.
(Omri has left the interview to fix the light fixtures in Mifgash Osher, Bentzi is still sitting down yelling at him to make sure he doesn’t burn himself. Omri walks by and gives a quick update on the electrical fixture and heads off across the street to find the right parts to fix it.)
Prof. NomNom: Always on the move.
Bentzi: A professional!
Prof. NomNom: Tell me about the conceptualization of Mifgash Osher.
Bentzi: Basically it started one night. It was a terrible night. I was working pasta at Herbert Samuel. Omri was on the grill at Sheila. The pasta line at Herbert Samuel was like hell on earth. There are no pauses. You are working directly with the chef the whole time and have to memorize the dishes. So if you have a Friday night with 150 people, you have like 70 or 80 pasta dishes to make and you need to memorize them all. It’s a mess for me with the ADHD. All the time I was asking the chef “Chef come again?” And the chef would yell back “F@#$ man! Bentzi what the F@#$!” and I’d respond “Oh sorry chef, sorry I can’t memorize 70 courses.”
It was really hard. REALLY HARD! Not just for me, it’s a problematic station at Herbert Samuel.
Prof. NomNom: You can’t just write the order’s down?
Bentzi: Ha! You have no time! Try to imagine; it’s not pasta with olive oil. It’s a semi-complex pasta dish and you have to warm up the dish, put them in the oven…Basically it was one hell of a night. So anyway, after that night I spoke with Omri, who was working at Sheila, and said “Listen Omri I’m really sick and tired of this shit… I don’t have that feeling of fun in cooking anymore.”
And he told me “You know what…it’s the same here too.” And the only happy memories I have with food was going with my father to Falafel Orion in Haifa, and eating a half portion of falafel, with annas juice [pineapple juice] that’s super sweet, and sour tahini, and my father. It’s the holy triangle!
Prof. NomNom: So then what happened?
Bentzi: The next day I went to the chef at Herbert Samuel, Yuval and said “I love you Yuval, I love this place, but I’m leaving, I’m opening up a falafel place.” And he looks at me and says “Oh come-on Bentzi what the F@#$!? You are a great cook, you could be a great chef, don’t be stupid, don’t do that!” And I replied “I made my decision!”
It took five months after that, but before we both quit our jobs Omri came to work at Herbert Samuel and it was fun.
Prof. NomNom: Being best friends, how well do you work together?
Bentzi: My job is to make the menu. I make the concept and the food and Omri is more important. He executes things. Everyone knows it’s one thing to have ideas in your head, but another to get them done. That’s why we have a very good partnership.
Prof. NomNom: Being classically trained at these high end restaurants in Tel Aviv, and internships abroad, what makes your falafel and sabich different from the rest?
Bentzi: Basically we took at the tools that we got from work and culinary school to make things like really right and really accurate. I can say that outloud “It’s the most accurate falafel dish and the most accurate sabich and salad dish that you will ever eat.”
Prof. NomNom: What makes it so accurate?
Bentzi: Basically the falafel, I know because I was a pastry chef before I was a chef, that like bread, if you want it to be light and fluffy and crusty it can be between 45% to 95% water. Same with the falafel, if you have more water, it will be less dense, more light, and you feel it. The second thing I guess is that in whatever falafel [in Tel Aviv] when people put the green stuff in the falafel, there are the characteristics of the green stuff – the chlorophyll. [At a] high temperature and direct heat, deep fried it becomes bad for you. [Almost] Toxic – or at least not good for you. I don’t know exactly but at 85 or 105 degrees C it [goes] from a good thing to a bad thing.
Prof. NomNom: So that explains why your balls are so light and fluffy with nothing green in them? (chuckling)
Bentzi: (Laughing) Yes, and you know, I went back to Falafel Orion in Haifa and did an internship there. I made falafel like Orion. The same. I mean mine is better. (He lets out a big grin.)
Professor NomNom: When you say you you are the creative person you basically made the menu of Israeli staples – Sabich and Falafel?
Bentzi: This is our interpretation of Israeli cuisine. Because you know when I say Israeli, because Shwarma is Israeli, and so is Labaneh, but the only truly Israeli dish is sabich. You can’t get it all over the world. It’s an Iraqi-Jewish course, but basically there are no Jews in Iraq. You can get falafel and shawarma all over the world, you can get hummus, but sabich is the only truly authentic dish.
Prof. NomNom: What are some of your favourite restaurants?
Bentzi: Berti is very good. Love Adora, by Avi Biton, a down-to-earth, value for money chef restaurant. We love Goocha, because you know it’s a casual place. We like Dalida, it’s innovative with classic cuisine. You will have something like tartar but not what you expect. You’ll see a burger on the menu but with za’atar aioli. Very unusual place.
Prof. NomNom: How’d you come up with the name, did you miss being happy?
Bentzi: Well I missed being happy (laughs) But in all those falafel places, shawarma places, it’s like a ritual: Mifgash, mifgash, mifgash. You can probably see on King George at least five other “mifgash something.” We are two Ashkenazim who are making traditional Israeli food , so maybe we can put the classic twist on a falafel joint. Most people that don’t know us, think that the owner is named Osher. “Who is Osher, I want to meet Osher?” Because it’s Mifgash Eliyahu, Mifgash Simcha, Mifgash Uri.
Prof. NomNom: There is no Mr. Osher, just happiness?
Bentzi: Ya! We have a manifesto on the wall here. In two sentences the main issue of this place is: yes there is accurate food, and quality ingredients. We don’t have clients we have patients. We give them the attention they deserve to survive this city. There is only one TLV, and there is so much stress, high tempo town. If you can give him a thirty minute break from his shitty life, and to give him a good experience, he’ll be a customer for life.
Prof. NomNom: Bentzi that’s beautiful.
Bentzi: Some people sit here for 40 minutes. And you don’t usually see that for falafel, maybe 10 minutes tops. I think it’s the best place during lunch to meet chicks, so many chicks. It’s crazy.
Prof. NomNom: Hehe, I’m going to have to end on that one!