Following her nose to Italy and back

Tamar Cohen-Zedek traveled to Italy to study veterinary medicine but the aromas of Italian cooking enticed her in an entirely different career direction. Cucina Tamar in Tel Aviv offers Israelis the scents and tastes of Italy. Her nose was happiest …

Tamar Cohen-Zedek traveled to Italy to study veterinary medicine but the aromas of Italian cooking enticed her in an entirely different career direction.

Cucina Tamar in Tel Aviv
Cucina Tamar in Tel Aviv offers Israelis the scents and tastes of Italy.

Her nose was happiest in Italy, but Tamar Cohen-Zedek’s heart belongs in Israel, where her Tel Aviv restaurant, Cucina Tamar, allows a harmonious intersection of the two. The Italian cuisine there is made from scratch on the premises, from the gelato and bread to the pasta – pappardelle, ravioli, tortellini, you name it. And it’s all prepared by hand.

Born in Tel Aviv in 1973, Cohen-Zedek departed for the University of Bologna planning to become a veterinarian. “That was my dream. I love animals,” she tells ISRAEL21c.

After a year she realized the course of study wasn’t for her. “But I stayed in Italy because I loved the smells and the tastes and I wanted to learn cooking.”

She attended culinary school for a year. “Then, I met someone who told me that if I wanted to learn I had to work rather than go to school, and he suggested some good restaurants near Bologna. I worked for free for a few months and then I became a paid worker, making pasta and everything else you do in an Italian kitchen.”

Five years passed before Cohen-Zedek returned to Israel. It was partly for practical reasons – she didn’t have the proper papers to stay – but mostly because “I’m Israeli and I am a patriot. My family and friends are here, and I missed them.”

A rare, successful female chef in Tel Aviv

She may have relocated back home, but Cohen-Zedek saw no reason to leave her beloved smells and tastes behind. She and a partner ran a catering business for two years, and then opened a five-table restaurant in January 2006.

“Piano, piano, as they say in Italy – slowly, slowly – it became 10 tables, and then we opened more tables outside and brought in a new chef.”

Two years ago, she opened Cucina Tamar in a renovated former pharmacy. Her name is on a short but growing list of prominent female chefs and restaurateurs in Israel’s city that never stops – Duet cooking show co-host Rima Olvera is one and Niva Eshed of Joz ve Loz is another – but she does not view her profession in terms of the gender of the chefs.

“When I decided to open a restaurant, I didn’t think, Oh, I’m doing this in a man’s world,” she has said. “I just did it.”

She says the same thing about learning the business side of her career. “It wasn’t easy in the beginning. I just did it. I made mistakes, and in the end you have to learn it yourself.”

Truffles with her milk

Until giving birth in July to a baby girl named Ruth, Cohen-Zedek did much of the cooking herself, working 10am to midnight shifts. She still comes in each day to work with the 20 people who staff the kitchen, serve customers and tend bar.

The restaurant on HaTsfira Street has a wood interior and is decorated with flea market furniture she purchased in Old Jaffa. Located away from main thoroughfares, the 60-seat eatery is gaining a reputation as a destination.

Tamar Cohen-Zedek
“You put in many hours, but if you love it, that’s okay,” Tamar Cohen-Zedek, owner of Cucina Tamar.

“It’s very warm. It’s like home,” she says. The kitchen is open so patrons can watch the dishes being prepared.

Entrees range from about $17 to $26. “The most expensive thing on the menu is usually a steak dish unless we have fresh truffles,” says Cohen-Zedek, who brings Ruth to work with her.

When her baby was six weeks old, someone brought in a truffle from Italy. “I put it immediately near Ruth’s nose to smell it. I wanted her to know this smell.”

Baby, business and beasts

Cohen-Zedek also sells dispensers filled with extravagant sauces and condiments, such as a 25-year-old Italian balsamic vinegar, which costs more than NIS 300 for a small bottle. “We have Israeli and Italian wines as well,” she notes.

Almost all her raw ingredients are domestic. “I like the material we have in Israel; you can do so many things with it. The climate is a bit different than in Europe but we have good produce and cheese.”

From periodic trips to Italy, she brings back items such as exotic mushrooms, prosciutto and vinegars. “I go three or four times a year, three or four days at a time. I see my friends and I eat,” she says. “I have to smell the smells again and then I can think about new dishes.”

She was last in Italy during her pregnancy, and plans to take Ruth soon for her first visit. A single mother, Cohen-Zedek’s world revolves around her baby, her business and her pets.

“The worst part of owning a restaurant is that I don’t have a life,” she confides. “There is no time for that. My parents come to visit at the restaurant. My friends come to visit at the restaurant. I have a lot of regular customers and it’s like a big family. You have to put in many hours, but if you love it, that’s okay.”

About Abigail Klein Leichman

Abigail Klein Leichman is a writer and associate editor at ISRAEL21c. Prior to moving to Israel in 2007, she was a specialty writer and copy editor at a daily newspaper in New Jersey and has freelanced for a variety of newspapers and periodicals since 1984.