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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Super Israeli sushi chef makes waves across the globe

Chef Shahar Dan’s meteoric rise has seen him rustling up sashimi for Robert De Niro and Jennifer Lopez – but he’s still at home in his mom’s Moroccan kitchen.

These days, when he’s on vacation, Shahar Dan can be found back in his childhood home in Ma’alot, keeping his mom company as she makes couscous in the kitchen. There is not much he likes better, he will tell you, than having his mom cook her Moroccan food for him. It is a rare pleasure for the hotshot sushi fusion chef, who lives a world away, between Saint-Tropez, Paris and London, and who spends his days and nights cooking for others – slicing and dicing for the kind of crowd that doesn’t know a harira soup from a kefta kebab. Not that he is exactly complaining.

“My philosophy is, enjoy the ride. Just follow it wherever it goes,” says the boyish 40-year-old, in jeans and a black, button-down shirt, a silver chain around his neck, as he sips a late-afternoon cappuccino. “There is nowhere like Israel,” he shrugs, “but in the meantime, I am having the time of my life out there.”

Dan’s father, the scion of a rabbinical family who immigrated to Israel in the 1950s and became a high-school teacher in Ma’alot after a long military career, was not, initially, too impressed with his middle son’s choice of profession. “Dad was old-fashioned. He thought cooking was a low-level job. He was thinking more like ‘lawyer,’” says Dan. But it’s not like he grew up dreaming of yellowtail sashimi with jalapenos either.

Aimless after the requisite post-army South-America-on-a-shoestring trip, Dan moved to New York and, none to keen on schlepping furniture, turned to that other staple of illegal Israelis in the Big Apple in the 1990s – selling women’s clothing at the Soho free market on Wooster and Spring streets. Fate came in the form of a late-night party at the Palladium and a pretty Catholic girl from Barcelona on the dance floor. The two got married a few weeks later at city hall, and her parents – restaurant owners back in Spain – gave him a piece of advice when they called to give their “mazal tovs” over the phone: “She likes to be cooked for.”

Wanting to please, Dan started watching some daytime cooking shows, and from there it was just a few subway stops away to enrolling in the city’s French Culinary Institute, from which he graduated 10 months later at the top of his class. “Turns out I was good. Everything I made always came out tasty,” he grins. “Everyone was in shock, including me.”

Of Japanese food, Dan knew precisely nothing. “I had never eaten sushi in my life,” he admits. But after a few unpaid apprenticeships “chopping stuff” at restaurants around town he walked into the flagship Nobu in the Tribeca neighborhood and asked for a job. He started as a line cook at the takeout section next door, and later moved over to the restaurant and turned into a prep cook. A year and a half later he was promoted to sous chef. “I loved that food. It was simple. Uncomplicated. It spoke to me,” he says.

Kisses and kudos

What followed that meteoric rise were three years filled with kisses from Hollywood actress Liv Tyler, kudos from former President Bill Clinton and so many other celebrity sightings that Dan can’t quite remember who was who. “There was one regular – that guy from ‘Gladiator’ – you know, the one who played the king,” he says, trying to be helpful. Oh, and on the night that Puff Daddy and Jennifer Lopez were breaking up, he confides, coming up with an arguably dubious claim to fame relating to the two music stars, he was peeking out from the kitchen as he put the final touches on his omakase tasting menu for them. “Nah, I didn’t really get to know Robert De Niro,” he says. “It was more like, ‘shalom, shalom,’ if we bumped into each other in the bathroom or something.”

In 2002, having mastered the signature black cod with miso, rocked the rock shrimp tempura, gotten divorced, remarried and divorced again, Dan packed up his chopsticks and moved to Miami, to serve as the executive chef for SushiSamba, the popular Peruvian-Brazilian-Japanese fusion restaurant famous for dishes like lobster with papaya salsa, and guava sorbet and scallops with caper sauce.

“In those years there were almost no other Israelis in the American cooking scene except for us,” says celebrity chef Nitzan Raz, owner of Israel’s own SushiSamba as well as several other trendy Tel Aviv restaurants, whose early career was spent alongside Dan’s across the ocean. “But I think Israelis have the chutzpah to push themselves – and we did just that – and had the time of our lives.”

Next stop for Dan was Monte Carlo, where he opened Pacific, an Italian-Japanese fusion restaurant that at its peak played host to everyone from Prince Albert of Monaco to Paris Hilton, all munching away on his Italian meatballs with miso sauce and sushi mozzarella with salmon. On Grand Prix racing weekends Pacific could achieve a million-euro turnover. “I loved the excitement of the kitchen, the women who walked out of magazines and up to my tables. I just loved the action,” he says. “It was a dream.”

“He is modest,” says Roy Sofer, who also worked with Dan in New York and today is a cookery teacher and a consultant to various restaurants in Israel, including the popular Giraffe chain. “There are several Israelis who have had success abroad in recent years, largely because, having gone through the army, they have both the discipline and inventiveness needed in a kitchen. But you also need talent, and Dan has it.”

In the last few years Dan has been working as a private chef for billionaire Pakistani brothers based in Europe, whom he cannot name publicly because of a confidentially agreement. “I fell into a job with guys who like to party,” he says, describing an extravagant lifestyle that has him traveling by helicopter between his bosses’ homes and yachts, preparing everything from their favorite simple breakfast (“hard-boiled egg with caviar, served on a pewter plate” ) to massive midnight “snacks” (“could be anything – fresh lobster and calamari maybe, or just simple steak and chips” ) for their parties with friends, including American rapper 50 Cent, actor Leonardo DiCaprio or any number of Saudi Arabian sheikhs. “I do everything for them,” shrugs Dan. “I am always on call. I might be in Monte Carlo, and they will call me and tell me to come to them in Saint-Tropez to make mint tea. No problem. That’s the job.”

Having an Israeli chef does not matter a whit to the Pakistanis, he says, and if they discuss Israel at all it’s in the context of, say, an Israeli chopped salad, not the Palestinian question. But Dan has to agree with Sofer and Raz – the Israeli upbringing has been good training. “My ability to get things done and not let my bosses down comes from home. Whatever they want, they get. I never say no, I can’t or I don’t have. There is no such thing. It’s an Israeli mentality.”

This month, with some time off, Dan is home, having had a seder meal with his siblings, sitting in Jaffa cafes with old school and army friends, taking his nieces to the playground, and hanging out where he is always happiest. “I love the kitchen in the home I grew up in,” he says. “It is some sort of base for me. Only I don’t touch a thing in there. I don’t want to compete with Mom.”