The Fire behind Nur: Chef Meir Adoni opens up about dreams and climbing the culinary ladder

Me, me, me

I’ve been wanting to interview Meir Adoni for a while. Well, maybe not interview, (despite my dreams of being Oprah one day), but I definitely wanted to yenta my way into asking him a few personal questions. Like, how the heck a small town boy from Eilat, who learned his passion for cooking in his grandmothers kitchen made the dream of opening a New York City restaurant come true. After all, it’s not like he grew up watching Julia Child on television.
Israel didn’t get cable T.V until the early 90’s. I personally moved to Israel from New York in 1992 and can vouch for the cable drought. I can still remember my (American) mother, literally chasing the cable-guy to hook her up already. Cooking shows didn’t make their debut in his formative years, that’s for sure.

Adoni, in my books is a culinary king, a pioneer of Middle Eastern cuisine, knowing just how to pair flavors together and create a dining experience to remember. His restaurants are far beyond a one hit wonder, They keep you coming come back for more and fresh ingredients are crucial in his kitchen.  If you read the news bites on food these days, or follow such iconic chefs like Gordon Ramsay, you’ll find a daily item about his new restaurant Nur flashing across every possible media platform. His food has been photographed just about as many times as any hot celebrity in the past few weeks and all this happened in what feels like a blitz of a second. I however was slightly less interested in what was on the menu and more curious about who was in the kitchen. Don’t get me wrong, I love food, but satisfaction in my books means getting to know people and their stories. But first I knew that I would have to tell him how much his Tel Aviv restaurant Mizlala meant for me as my neighborhood hang out during my brand new mommy months. From the moment my lips hit the rim of that ice-cold glass until I wiped my mouth from the buttery croissant, I was me again, and me couldn’t wait to meet the man I held responsible for that.

Insta-Shiduch

If it weren’t for the ability to private message people on instagram, it probably would’ve taken me a bit longer to get my tuches onto the comfortable lime green chair in his restaurant. Being the nudge that I am, and Adoni being so pleasantly responsive landed me with a 10-minute time slot in his insanely busy schedule. I don’t get anxious easily but there I was nervous to meet the new face of Union Square.

We are greeted warmly into the space not yet open for lunch, and immediately offered water, and finjan, (Arab coffee). Adoni shakes my hand firmly with a smile and is comfortably informal, friendly and extremely welcoming. The restaurant is dimly lit, and very beautiful. It is simple in its décor, with adorning Middle Eastern details. In an instance, there is no memory of being in one of the most talked about restaurants, already featured as one of the top 20 hot spots from the New York times. It felt more like we were in Adonis living room. I couldn’t help but wonder if this was intentional since Adoni would be spending so much time now away from home, that creating a second and familiar space made emotional sense.  Typical Middle Eastern hospitality is warm, and inviting. Hachnasat Orchim literally translated into bringing in guests, is an essential part of Jewish hospitality appropriated to Abrahams welcoming gestures to anyone visiting his tent. Far from the desert, but in a home nonetheless, Adoni wearing jeans, a t-shirt and a NY baseball cap, sits down to discuss the meaning of new beginnings and what the heck success is about.
 

For Adoni, the dream of opening a restaurant in NYC was always something he knew would happen. Not in an arrogant way, but in a way that demonstrates that he has been connected to his dream from a young age and confident it would happen.  He tells us about being a young chef, and being asked where he saw himself in the future. I told them that I was going to work in Israel and in New York.  They looked at me like I was crazy. Fulfilling his dream was something he knew would take a lot of work, and a bit of fighting, something he says Israelis know how to do. It is a quality he ascribes to the geopolitical situation of life in Israel, one that makes you tougher, stronger and at times finding yourself elbowing your way through the crowded corridors of colleagues who don’t always praise your success. Israelis, he says have been very warm and supportive, embracing him with good wishes for the journey in the big city and are proud of his success.

Following your dreams has a price he tells me.  For Adoni, similar to other chefs, not being able to spend, as much time with his children in a way that he would have wished for is a tremendous cost to success.  He is absent for a lot of the time, but when he is with them he says they get his full attention. Our Ten minutes have quickly passed and as we continue to talk it is clear to me that Meir Adoni is also a teacher. Some of his culinary students have successful restaurants of their own, and typical to the mark of any good teacher, he’s genuinely proud when he talks about their achievements. It takes a long time to turn a vision into a reality, but Adoni believes that there is a right time for everything; a belief that has accompanied him on his current journey.

 MA: Even when people thought I was crazy for jumping on a plane to New York every opportunity I had, to meet with possible partners, I still went for it. Preparation is key. The right moment comes along, and then its up to you to grab it.

Bitter-Sweet

Adoni has to prepare for the dinner crowd, but before I let him go, I have to take a look into the kitchen, my favorite spot in the house.  He gladly lets me in, and introduces me to his team, who welcome me in with a smile.  Where are the women I ask him in the small yet organized space of male chefs? Don’t worry he assures me; they are here, just on a break. Women, he says with a balance of sincerity and a smile, are the source of strength, much stronger than us men. Next time you come back you’ll meet the rest of the team. I give him a hug just like we Israelis do, and thank him for his time and for the future collaboration we will take on together bringing more Israeli talent to the New York scene.  He walks us to the door and right before I leave, I ask him if the opening of Nur is bittersweet. After all, the road to the dream is often more exciting than the dream itself. The moment Nur opened he said, I knew I would give it my all, but I also knew that now I could start to dream the next one.  His next bite. Adoni is a hungry dreamer, par for the course in a home that is a restaurant that is sure to make its visitors taste not only food from the Middle East but from his heart.

*Photographs were taken by NY based Israeli photographer Nitzan Keynan