“I want to make a film that surprises and delights,” award-winning filmmaker Roger Sherman says. “I don’t want to make a film everybody knows everything about.”
Some of Sherman’s documentaries include “Alexander Calder” (1998), “Richard Rogers: The Sweetest Sounds” (2001), “Medal of Honor” (2008), “The Restaurateur” (2010), and 2015’s “In Search of Israeli Cuisine.”
According to Sherman, he spent five years making a “portrait of Israeli people told through food.” Its reception has surpassed his wildest dreams. Screened at more than 120 film festivals and special events worldwide, “In Search of Israeli Cuisine” is now playing in major theaters nationally and will help close 2017’s Wilmington Jewish Film Festival on Tuesday, May 9.
The first time Sherman traveled to Israel in 2010, he originally had no desire to go. He rather had gone to the City of Love.
“I wanted to go to Paris,” he admits. “A friend called me and said he was leading a food press trip, and somebody just canceled and said, ‘You have to come—and it’s in three weeks.’ I guess I saw [Israel] as just the Holy Land and was not that interested in that kind of a tour.”
Nevertheless, Sherman went along and couldn’t believe what he discovered: the most dynamic food scene in the world. Anywhere from 100 to 150 cultures have either come to Israel or never left. Jewish, Arab, Muslim, Palestinian, Christian, Druze, and more make up the population and food of Israel. Home cooks and chefs were putting their own spins on their grandmothers’ recipes. Boutique wineries were getting international acclaim. Cheese connoisseurs could find unexpected flavors as found in France or Italy.
“Who would have thunk?” Sherman asks. “Israel has such a hot food scene, and it’s changing so fast. And I’m talking street food, too. You can go to Israel and not have a fine-dining experience ever and just eat incredibly.”
Most folks think of hummus and falafel—also delicious highlights in the film—however, Sherman knew there was more definition to Israeli cuisine. Upon his return, when he spoke of his culinary experience, most folks laughed at me.
“Or didn’t believe me,” he tells. “Because nobody knows about the Israeli people; we get the bad news, and that’s about all our media reports.”
Still, Sherman didn’t want a film just about food. He wanted to help audiences understand more about who the Israeli people are: their passions, why they stay and why they save their food history. Not everyone is religious, and Sherman likens the Mediterranean’s deserts to being on the moon the moon—at 120 degrees in summer. The rest is lush greens, beautiful mountains and beaches. Israel is a complex society, in a part of the world where people are often surrounded by violence, conflict and hate. At the same time, Sherman is not under any impression he or his film would incite peace through food. Yet, it’s an important reflection, nonetheless.
“Even though I wanted to make it more than about food, I didn’t know I was going to be able to do that,” Sherman admits. “Every chef I talked to said, ‘You cannot be my enemy if you’re sitting at my table.’ Every person I talked to was very interested in peace. Palestinian, Arab, Muslim, Jew … talk about what’s on their minds; peace is on their minds all the time.”
Sherman typically doesn’t use hosts in his films; he’d rather subjects speak to what they are passionate about and tell their stories in their own ways. However, he invited Chef Michael Solomonov to help guide “In Search of Israeli Cuisine.” The James Beard award winner was born in Israel and raised in Pittsburgh.
“I needed Mike because he understands all of those cultures,” Sherman adds. “He speaks Hebrew, he was born there, but he grew up in the States. So he was the perfect guy.”
As an Israeli-American chef, Solomonov often makes his way to this part of the world to stay abreast of new dishes to possibly bring to his famed Israeli restaurant, Zahav, located in Pennsylvania. The film starts in Tel Aviv, the “New York City of Israel,” and audiences are introduced to an amalgamation of Moroccan, Palestinian, Turkish, and Eastern European foods in the first 60 seconds—and that’s just one meal at one restaurant.
“Every day, every minute you’re here in this country you’re exposed to something new,” Solomonov says in the doc. “It’s about tasting new things and talking about history—this rich, abundant history.”
While visiting restaurants, home kitchens, wineries and such, Israel’s “culinary mosaic” unfolds and audiences get to know the people. Husband and wife Yacob Barhum and Chef Michal Baranes opened their restaurant Majda in the Arab village, Ein Rafa, where Yacob was reared. Their “mixed marriage” stands out in the Muslim community of about 900 people. As Yacob, Michal and Solomonov sit around the table, the couple lightheartedly recounted difficulties they had at the beginning of their relationship—which lasted 18 years before they got married.
“She’s the only Jew in this town where everybody’s related,” Sherman says. “Then they had two children. When the children came, that’s when they said the families said, ‘OK,’ and now they have this restaurant that you can’t get into.”
One of their most memorable meetings was with Shmil Holland, an Orthodox tour guide who wants to make a kugel for Solomonov and company. The only problem: Solomonov vehemently was opposed to having the dish.
“Orthodox kosher food does not have the best reputation for being high-end food,” Sherman says. “Though, now, it’s really coming on very strong in Israel.”
Kugel is a baked pudding or casserole, commonly made from egg noodles or potatoes. After a bit of haggling, and an executive order of sorts from Sherman, they met Holland to dine on kugel. This moment in the doc appropriately shows that food is more than what’s in front of us on a plate.
“They instantly bonded,” Sherman remembers. “It was fantastic. [Shmil] made a giant sheet tray of kugel for our small crew, and we devoured it … and Mike puts kugel on his menu at Zahav. Not Shmil’s kugel, but it so inspired him and he loved the experience.”
Sherman’s film takes viewers on an exploration of Israel’s culinary map and it has launched an official “In Search of Israeli Cuisine” food tour. To date they’ve had five behind-the-scenes food tours inspired by Sherman’s film; future tours will take place in May, October and January.
“In Search of Israeli Cuisine” will be screened at the Wilmington Jewish Film Festival at Thalian Hall on May 9, directly after Oscar-nominated documentary short “Joe’s Violin” at 7 p.m. “No matter what, you’re going to be starving at the end,” Sherman quips. An array of Middle-Eastern desserts, including baklava, lady fingers, namoura, and halavah will be served in a reception after the film. Sherman will also Skype in for a Q&A after the screening.
The Wilmington Jewish Film Festival continues from May 3-9, showcasing numerous features, shorts, docs, and more. Their schedule is at www.wilmingtonjff.org.