David Ben Gurion is famous for saying that “the future of Israel lies in the Negev,” though, his vision is far from realized. The region, which makes up about half the landmass of the entire country, has been slow to develop and remains largely empty desert. More than 50 years later, this is gradually starting to change with the help of a chef and a hotel owner.
Five months ago the boutique Mitzpe Ramon Hotel opened along with its restaurant Chez Eugene in the Southern town Mitzpe Ramon, home to Israel’s Grand Canyon, Maktesh Ramon. Focusing on local products and bringing a touch of modern elegance to the desert they are trying to change the face and food of the Negev.
“I always dreamed about living in the Negev and having a restaurant and a hotel,” explains owner Arnaud Rodrigue, who made aliyah from France five years ago. “Ben Gurion’s dream was about Jewish people living in the Negev. For most Israelis the Negev is an empty place where nothing succeeds. I think the opposite.”
The hotel and restaurant have been instant successes. Chez Eugene has become a destination restaurant, a culinary oasis in the middle of the desert that has already received accolades. Chef Yair Feinberg, who grew up on a kibbutz in the Negev and trained at Michelin-starred restaurants in France, is the force behind the French and Israeli-inspired (dare I say fusion?) food. He is part of a growing trend of chefs from the Negev who train in Tel Aviv and abroad to return to the area. Besides being chef and partner at Chez Eugene, Feinberg is also setting up a cooking school in Tel Aviv.
A soft-spoken, modest but passionate chef, Feinberg allows the desert-grown ingredients to speak for themselves, melding locally-inspired dishes and European techniques. A simply prepared salad, for example, highlights the local greens, cherry tomatoes (Israel is one of the world’s largest producers of cherry tomatoes), and a sharp semi-hard cheese, all from the Negev. Israeli-style burekas, which are traditionally filled with white cheese, are instead stuffed with a light center of fish for a reinvented take on a local dish. Meanwhile, cigars of light, crisp dough (a very Moroccan premise) surround a rich and entirely European combination of foie gras and leeks.
Chez Eugene relies almost entirely on products from Israel and works to support Negev food companies whenever possible; Rodrigue often runs around in his car picking items up himself. Although the desert can be inhospitable, drip irrigation technology has allowed vegetable and dairy farms, wineries, olive oil production and more to thrive in the region. “We use fish from fish farms, cheese, olive oil, spices and vegetables” from the Negev, explains Rodrigue. Getting local fish from the middle of the desert is certainly an accomplishment.
Even the wine list is exclusively Israeli with an emphasis on Negev wines. Rodrigue also owns a vineyard that supplies a special Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot blend to the restaurant. Few, if any, restaurants in the region have a similar program.
A realist, Ben Gurion also said, “The Negev is the place where the Jewish people will be tested,” and Rodrigue and Feinberg are definitely finding this to be true. Although they have made great headway, it hasn’t been easy to set up shop. “Politicians do strictly nothing for the Negev,” Rodrigue laments. “No Israeli politician understands it. I received most of them in my hotel, they only talk, know nothing about their subject and fly to Tel Aviv as fast as possible. The only solution is private investment, like myself and my partners.”
Almost as if to show eternal dedication to his promise, Ben Gurion’s final resting place is in the Negev kibbutz of Sde Boker. And from there he may be able to see his words becoming true, slowly but surely. The opening of Mitzpe Ramon Hotel and Chez Eugene represent the realization of Rodrigue’s dream and, a little of Ben Gurion’s as well.
For more information about Mitzpe Ramon Hotel and Chez Eugene visit www.mitzperamonhotel.co.il.