In this interview, Wines of Israel sits down with chef Mike Colameco—a forty-five year veteran of the restaurant industry and the host of the television show “Mike Colameco’s Real Food,” which just filmed a series of episodes in Israel—to discuss the exploding popularity of Israeli cuisine, the rise of the country’s wines, and Mike’s culinary and vinous adventures in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Wines of Israel: Thanks for joining us, Mike! We know you love to travel, eat, and taste wines from all over the world—what was one of your favorite parts of visiting Israel?
Mike Colameco: Israel was incredibly interesting. I have a kind of relationship with the ocean now, because I live down at the Jersey Shore and raised my kids there. The fact that you have a big city like Tel Aviv that’s on the beach, that’s pretty remarkable. There aren’t too many places like that—it’s a really unusual combination, so I thought that was fascinating for tourism.
WOI: What makes it so unique?
MC: You have this urban thing going on, and then if you want to chill and wear flip flops and board shorts, just make a right hand turn and head for the beach.
WOI: Is there any other city like it, in your experience?
MC: Maybe Lima, Peru. Or Miami, which is a modern creation—just like Tel Aviv.
WOI: What made you want to visit Israel?
MC: Israel has been on my radar for a while. I thought, “let’s do a couple shows in Israel.” For one, I really wanted to see what’s going on, because I’ve heard really fun things about the cuisine and wanted to see where the country is culturally, because it’s such a young scene.
WOI: What was your sense of it? Not long ago Israeli cuisine wasn’t considered on par with the great food traditions of the world. Now all of that is changing.
MC: You can’t compare it—and I’m not even sure what is Israeli cuisine. That was sort of the question I had in my head going into this. Israeli cuisine is a pan-Middle Eastern mix-and-match of everything.
WOI: How did it all come together into what it is today, which is now extremely popular all across the world?
MC: You had traditions coming in from Yemen, from Syria, from Morocco, from the entire region. There were Jews living in all of those countries at some point or another, and with that came a cross pollination of ideas. When you’re talking about ingredients, there’s hummus, there’s tahini, there are tons of spices. . . and everyone plays with that.
WOI: What is the produce like now? Israel is really taking advantage of its Mediterranean locale for fresh seafood, right?
MC: What stands out with Israel is that you have this great coastline, so you have fantastic seafood available. You’re also beginning to see some serious lamb and beef. With produce, the growing season is pretty much ten months out of the year. It’s amazing.
WOI: What are some popular cooking techniques now with the contemporary cuisine? What caught your eye?
MC: They do a lot of grilling, and especially open flame cooking, which lends itself beautifully to fish preparations and grilled vegetables. There’s a lightness to it all that speaks to Americans, and especially younger Americans. It’s also pretty vegan, vegetarian, and pescatarian-friendly. You don’t see butter, you don’t see heavy cream.
WOI: What about the seafood? How is Israel adapting to sustainability issues like overfishing?
MC: I talk to chefs all the time, and when I’m traveling, chefs will always be honest with me. The Mediterranean has suffered in some in ways with overfishing, but still has sustainable species like octopus and squid. I think we might see those more in the future in this cuisine.
WOI: Tell us about some of your favorite culinary experiences you had while visiting Israel.
MC: One place that was super memorable was the Jerusalem market. In terms of explaining the cuisine, like the diaspora, I think it might have been Yemeni mixed with Israeli, but basically the idea was all braised stuff, big pots. They have one gas stove and start everything the day before—everything is cooked overnight. It was totally cool. Again, what is Israeli cuisine? Prior to Israel the Jews were living all over the Middle East and Europe, and with the diaspora they brought with them what they were cooking at home, along with their tools, techniques, and philosophies.
WOI: What about the wines? What did that scene remind you of?
MC: It reminded me of California in the 80’s and 90’s, actually, but more consistent. By the 80’s, the wine scene in California was basically second generation. That’s what’s happening in Israeli now. After planting Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay—just like California did—they are starting to experiment more. Most of the winemakers, pretty much without exception, have been educated in Italy and Australia, or the University of California Davis. There’s a lot of technical work going on with these wines.
WOI: What are some of the challenges they are facing?
MC: Controlling ripeness is one of the challenges. You’ve got so much sun, so much heat. Getting to ripeness is not a problem at all. So you’re seeing winemakers moving to higher elevations.
WOI: What about natural and organic practices?
MC: I’m seeing more and more biodynamic producers. Many winemakers are focusing on biodiversity, because it starts with the soil. If there’s no insects to eat, then the birds don’t have food. It’s this ripple effect and one of the best things about when you walk through these fields where Israeli winemakers are doing biodynamic or regenerative farming, if they plow, it’s a horse-drawn plow. Some of them don’t plow at all. It’s all alive—unlike big, almost “nuclear” farming sites.
WOI: Did you get a chance to taste any of the rare native varietal wines when you were in Israel?
MC: That was another cool thing I want to dial into on the show. Dr. Shivi Drori, head of the oenology laboratory at Ariel University, has been going around clipping old vines, trying to figure out, what is this, what is this. So I’m the guy who’s 62 and has been in the business my whole life, and I’m drinking grapes I’ve never heard of before, stuff I didn’t even know existed! I thought I’d tasted everything. . . but I was wrong!