Three trailblazing culinary leaders share their perspectives and thoughts about women in Israel’s food industry.
It is well-documented that in Western countries, the culinary arts are a male-dominated field, with fewer female cooks than males and even fewer female head chefs. According to research by Zippia, in the United States, male chefs outweigh female chefs 3:1, and even fewer women are head chefs. Worldwide, according to Chef’s Pencil, only 6% to 7% of Michelin-starred restaurants are led by women.
Though this gender discrepancy is also the case in Israel, it may be changing. Naama Szterenlicht, Avivit Priel Avichai and Adeena Sussman share their passions and perspectives about women in the food industry, and how Israel might continue to close the gastronomic gender gap ahead of International Women’s Day on March 8.
Szterenlicht, the former restaurant owner of Tel Aviv’s HaHalutzim 3 and now master distiller of Israel’s Zoara Distillery, makes hyper-local distilled spirits from Medjool dates, accented with local herbs. After her restaurant closed, Szterenlicht found herself “only wanting to touch raw material, plants, to be in nature and touch something real,” she said.
She ventured into the Israeli craft spirits industry by creating natural syrups for non-alcoholic tonics and then started Zoara. Szterenlicht connects to the “romantic” side of the culinary arts—plants’ aroma and taste, where they grow and when, their health and digestive benefits, the traditions and cultures surrounding them, experimentation with them, preserving them and “the challenge of adding value to them where they may otherwise be wasted.” Being present with their characteristics and processes, she said, also connects people to the land in which the plants grow. Szterenlicht spoke highly of the community that is built with other culinary leaders who share this perspective of curiosity and investigation of nature; it is a community of collaboration and respect.
As a female culinary leader, she said: “I was asked more than once if I was the manager or owner’s wife. But once I open my mouth and explain what I do, people show me respect.”
She added that while there are indeed more men in the culinary industry in the Jewish state, the gender diversity that exists is not well-represented on Israeli television shows like MasterChef, where the number of male judges far outweighs the number of female judges. She noted that “there are many great women in our field—winemakers, CEOs, farmers, olive-oil makers, sommeliers, chefs, wine importers and women who innovate new culinary methods. We are all happy to help each other, and we have a lot to give.”
‘The diversity of cultures in Israel’
In 2018, pastry chef-turned-executive chef Avivit Priel Avichai was named Time Out’s “Best Female Chef” in its Tel Aviv Eating & Drinking Awards. With partner Limor Ophie Lami, she opened Ouzeria, a favorite in Israel for the last 10 years for its colorful, flavorful small dishes made from local ingredients. Located overlooking the Levinsky Market in the trendy neighborhood of Florentin in South Tel Aviv, the restaurant was inspired by tapas bars of Spain and Greek “Ouzerias.”
Priel Avichai has been working in food hospitality for more than 30 years, beginning with her schooling at Israel’s Tadmor Hotelier school to the Dan School for the Art of Cooking to running restaurants and then heading them as head chef. Like Szterenlicht, Priel Avichai forages for local ingredients in addition to using home-grown methods of cooking, fermenting and dehydrating.
The challenges that women experience in the culinary industry, she said, mirror those of all careers globally. “Because of societal expectations for women to be at home with the family, not many women remain long enough in the kitchens to become chefs, but I feel it is changing with the younger generation,” she said. “Women can be whatever they desire, as long as they are driven and determined.”
Both Szterenlicht’s Zoara Distillery and Priel Avichai’s Ouzeria were recently featured on a tour of Israel run by Via Sabra and hosted by cookbook author Adeena Sussman, with another tour planned for March 19-27, in which the group visits restaurants, businesses and workshops, several of them female-run and owned. “From chefs to home cooks, community leaders to entrepreneurs, women play a crucial role in shaping the culinary scene in Israel,” said Susie Baumohl, director of marketing of Via Sabra.
“Food always has a way of bringing people together, crossing borders [both literally and figuratively] and allowing people the opportunity to learn about history and culture in a whole new way,” continued Baumohl. “Via Sabra tours introduce visitors to culinary leaders, including many women, who represent the diversity of cultures in Israel—from famous chefs to the modest home cook. It is our mission and joy to immerse travelers in Israel that exists behind the headlines—often a side of Israel they never knew existed—and expose them to the broad range of cuisines, tastes and flavors found here.”
Sussman pointed out that “what is really nice about the trip is that these were people that I was interested in featuring, and their gender is just a bonus. They are the best in their fields and they are women, which is always something to celebrate. … It is important to support other culinary women in the industry and to highlight their work.”
‘Sharing knowledge and passion with audience’
Calling Tel Aviv the “greatest food city in the world,” Sussman immigrated to Israel in 2018 after relocating to Tel Aviv a few years prior, publishing her award-winning Sababa a year later. She is the co-author of 14 cookbooks, including Chrissy Teigen’s Cravings: Hungry for More and Cravings: All Together: Recipes to Love—all New York Times best-sellers. Raised in an Orthodox family, Sussman’s recipes are kosher, and her soon-to-be-released cookbook is all about Shabbat.
According to Sussman, her status as an immigrant to Israel impacts her experience in the culinary industry more than her gender. “I have never felt that being a woman has held me back in the culinary field, especially because I was never interested in working in a typical restaurant setting, which is male-dominated,” she said. “I have had great experiences with men in the food industry in Israel, and they have been extremely hospitable and supportive and interested in sharing their knowledge and passion with my audience.”
Through mentoring young women in Israel, she takes an active role in ensuring that there is a strong future generation of female culinary leaders in Israel, including new olot, female immigrants to Israel. “I make an effort to support young women in the culinary field who are interested in breaking into the food industry in Israel,” she said, “and I really enjoy my role as a mentor.”