Recipe for success ... husband and wife team of Anette and Gilbert Bensaid who together combine business brains with creative passion and flair
Everyone in Israel has a story, and none less so than a couple of recent olim who have forged a strong symbiosis in both their life and work relationships.
Despite their hugely disparate backgrounds, their talents complement each other’s such that they have taken the life-changing step of making aliyah last November and recreating their haute cuisine Parisian restaurant, Le Cadre, in Raanana.
So, off I ventured, accompanied by the husband, to discover what makes this couple tick and, just as importantly, to examine their menu.
What first strikes you as you meet the female half of this duo is how naturally cool, elegant and model-like Anette is, and it turns out that she did, indeed, dabble a bit in that direction while studying in Paris. But she is by no means just a pretty face, as her degrees testify. The first is from the Sorbonne, in English - Economics and Management - followed by a Master's degree at Management School where she specialized in Human Resources. So there you have it - this cool and collected young woman is the business and administrative brains behind the venture, while Gilbert Bensaid, Monsieur le Patron, injects those vital elements of the chef’s passion and creative flair.
Their backgrounds could not be more different. Anette’s grandmother hid from the Nazis and was one of only several hundred Latvian Jews to survive the Holocaust in Latvian territory, while Anette herself sprouted from the country’s capital, Riga, as it emerged from beneath the Soviet boot.
Moving to Paris had already proved to be one enormous change to which she spent three years adjusting, she reveals, so that after nine years “when this opportunity arose it was a new adventure”. Making aliyah to Israel was not a totally strange experience for her though as she had previously visited as a teenager and had already left her mother-country once to live in Paris, where she met Gilbert seven years ago.
Gilbert, in contrast, grew up in Paris ensconced in a Moroccan-Algerian family of six children in which he was “le bebe”. His passions are ‘restauration’ and sport, with Paris FC being his beloved club and tennis a close runner-up. However, he declares that although he feels ‘Jewish in the soul’ he is too new to have a right to any political opinions here. While many French are moving to London, he claims, Israel seemed the natural choice when he found ‘people’ becoming difficult and life unpleasant in France plus the taxes were too high.
“The atmosphere here is different,” he says. “In France, if children would wander into a restaurant, the Patron would chase them out – but not here.” Since they made aliyah, his main problem, he admits, has been language. Yet he is not unhappy. “Life is difficult here, but France is much worse,” he asserts.
It is not surprising that Anette finds the working atmosphere here entirely different. After being accustomed to a typically French business situation where people would ring back and confirm, here she finds that she keeps having to ring the same people because “no one calls you back", but she finally realized: “ You can negotiate here!”. After crying and complaining to the electricity company, they finally sorted out the couple. She has come to an understanding: “They try to help you personally - not just because of your status.”
What led Gilbert into the world of Cordon Bleu? Surely, I put it to him it would have been easier to cook his mother’s Fez recipes or even those of his father’s family (from Oran, Algeria) as it was certainly the classic case of learning at his mother’s knee - or kitchen table - that originally fired his enthusiasm for food, cooking and, above all, making the guests happy.
How did his aspirations and skills evolve from traditional Moroccan-Jewish fare to French haute cuisine? His first experience of the world of work started in the traditional Jewish environment of the textile business in the Parisian area of Le Sentier. He started working in restaurants at the age of 24. “My passion for food developed because I loved cooking, so I started working in a brasserie, Nation, where I helped a bit,” he reveals. He especially learned his art by helping a 3* Michelin chef. Soon afterwards he jumped in at the deep end when he took over his own restaurant and learned “on the job”. His overriding gratification though is not from the cooking itself but from the end result. ”My pleasure is to give pleasure,” he states with a flourish. “When people tell me it's good, it gives me pleasure.” How very Gallic!
With that goal in mind, Gilbert says, “I pay great attention to the dishes to make them elaborate.” He even makes his own ice creams because it is so difficult to get good, pareve ices, he claims. One example is a chocolate and banana concoction he has aptly named “Anette”. He is proud to reveal that he uses real, fresh fruit with mixtures of soya or pareve cream.
We are quickly brought a fresh mint sorbet to savor - Gilbert's own take on Israeli and Moroccan favorites - mint tea. I imagine it must provide a very welcome palate cleanser between rich courses.
The husband and I had arrived at the restaurant between lunch and dinner and the kitchen was just firing up to prepare for the evening's clients, so, sadly, we did not get the chance to try out any of the array of dishes presented on the brasserie style menu.
Some classics make an appearance: Magret de Canard - the famous duck-breast dish but with the added twist of an orange sauce; Medaillon of Lamb – marinated for tenderness and flavor; Veau (veal) and Foie Gras (goose liver). Menus are adjusted daily with a new Plat du Jour for lunch.
As Gilbert declares, “I aim for quality”. He prefers to buy only the freshest ingredients at the peak of perfection, so he keeps the menu small. The main courses proffer the best of the butcher's counter that day. While it is classic haute cuisine, he admits he has blended in some of his mother's Moroccan home cooking too.
Today's offerings are salad of gizzards, tagliatelle, admittedly Italian influenced, with chicken and peppers in a Provençale sauce. Next week promises Boeuf Bourguignon.
Does he hope to be the best French restaurant in Israel? “I don't hope. I am!” he announces with another Gallic flourish.
No French or modern Israeli restaurant would be complete without a strong wine list, and here Gilbert is proud to announce and we are delighted to learn that he uses solely Israeli wines. The couple made pilgrimages to the wineries to taste their offerings and chose carefully. Tishbi and Ventura make an appearance and “the French”, he reveals, “love Petit Castel 200”.
Does Gilbert produce all these creations himself? Well, of course not. There are three people in the kitchen, two of them being French chefs, Gilbert included. Anette is in the front of house - keeping things under control.
Customers are an interesting mixture. "There are a lot of Americans and they are willing to try something new," Gilbert tells us and adds, "goose liver is a first for them. They have often been to France and they appreciate a genuine French restaurant. I even put French music on for them."
Israelis, on the other hand, tend to cross the threshold just for lunch or even just for a dessert. The typical customers, however, are South African Israelis. There are many English speakers in Raanana and many of the customers are local residents.
At the time of this interview, the restaurant had only been open one and a half weeks, but Anette declares: “We are feeling very positive. We have put in a lot of hard work to get everything sorted out.”
Gilbert provides the epilogue: “I await the guests with impatience and a smile of good humor to introduce them to the best aspect of France – gastronomy!”
You just have to hear it in French though.
LE CADRE, 142 AHUZA STREET, RAANANA.