Some people use Youtube to teach themselves how to play the guitar. Others use Youtube to watch concerts or interviews. Israeli sushi chef Meidan Siboni, 30, used the video hosting site to learn how to make sushi.
At the age of 15, Siboni, wanting to oblige a cousin who was visiting from France and requesting Japanese food, hopped on the computer and began watching sushi tutorials, beginning a lifelong love affair with Japanese cuisine.
After his army service and two years of working as a chef in a sushi restaurant which went on to close, Siboni won a competition, Sushi Master of Israel, sponsored by Kikkoman, the famous Japanese soy sauce brand. The competition, which drew contestants from more than 40 restaurants in the country, provided its winner with a flight to Japan to pursue a sushi apprenticeship, so Siboni packed his knives and left for Tokyo where he was schooled for three months in traditional methods of sushi making.
After returning to Israel and appearing on reality TV program Game of Chefs, Siboni made the decision to become a private chef. With the help of photo-sharing app Instagram, where Siboni posts photos of his creations, he has been hired by the rich and famous both in Israel and abroad. He’s flown across the globe from Monaco to London to New York to cook for clients. In Israel, he cooks for at least one member of Knesset, but “I don’t think he would be happy if I told you his name,” Siboni says.
Siboni’s sashimi platters are more beautiful than some pieces of modern art and his nigiri pieces are such jewels it’s a shame to destroy them with a bite. Using flower petals and caviar as garnishes, Siboni often incorporates a “rose” made of slices of Mediterranean bluefin tuna into his perfect geometric arrangements.
His decision to become a private chef is not because he hasn’t been offered high profile gigs in restaurants. For one, he had to turn down acclaimed Chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa’s offer to work at his restaurant Nobu’s branch in Moscow. But In Israel, when he’s working on a smaller scale, rather than providing an entire restaurant worth of diners with dinner, he is able to obtain la creme de la cremeas far as ingredients go. “I have a fisherman who catches the fish especially for me and I order ingredients like fresh wasabi from Japan. The best quality I can get, I order,” Siboni says. “In a restaurant, that’s just not good business, all these products are very expensive.”
The choices for mid to high range sushi in Israel are extremely limited. One of the few swanky establishments in the country is Dinings, a Japanese fusion restaurant with a branch in London. Dinings offers sea bass, grouper and king crab sushi and sashimi, but it’s perched on the roof of Tel Aviv’s $500-a-night Norman Hotel. As a result, the majority of Israelis’ exposure to sushi is limited to the chains Japonessa and Sushi Rehavia, where mayonnaise is much more likely to be a garnish than nasturtiums and sturgeon eggs. Siboni wonders whether Japanese cuisine would improve if non-stop flights from Tel Aviv to Tokyo were established.
“We have amazing fish in Israel” Siboni says, “red snapper, fresh tuna. The shrimps are very nice, too, but they’re not kosher,” he adds chuckling.
Sushi afficionados might scoff at Israeli fish; many sushi chefs would say that cold water is needed for fish to develop oil and therefore flavour. But Siboni isn’t the slightest bit deterred. There are almost identical types of fish being caught in the warm waters of the Mediterranean to the chilly waters off the chilly northern Japanese coast. “I have my own techniques,” he says, “to make the fish taste very similar.”
Siboni’s food isn’t only for the rich and famous, he also does pop-up dinners at his studio in Jaffa. Alerting diners through various social media channels, the meals usually sell out within an hour. “I build the menu with both traditional and fusion elements. Most of the time I do omakase[tasting menu] and choose for them,” Siboni says. “I build the menu depending on the season. Last week, I had a guy from England, one from France, one from Los Angeles. Food connects people, you know?”
Ben Fisher is a musician and writer.