Nir Zook doesn’t like to sit still. Which is the reason why he has a restaurant, bar and bistro (all situated conveniently along one Jaffa alleyway), as well as a TV show, a newspaper column and cookbook projects in the works.
“I have no patience to sit down,” reports Zook, 34, as he preps food in the main kitchen of his restaurant Cordelia, which also serves his nearby Noa Bistro and Yaffa Bar.
The fingers-in-many-pots-and-pans life of the modern-day chef appeals to Zook. He’s not the kind of guy who’d be happy with one restaurant and a set menu, which explains the three eating establishments, third season on Channel 10’s “Chef by Surprise” and weekly column for newspaper Yediot Achronot. Zook starts early each morning, not finishing until about 11:00 pm nightly, when he leaves Cordelia’s main kitchen. He leaves himself some time for relaxing with friends and resting, making sure to take advantage of a daily break time in the middle of the afternoon before the restaurant kitchen fires up for dinner.
This talented food entrepreneur started his career in his childhood home, enjoying the food his mother prepared – she provided the name and inspiration for Noa Bistro, the cozy sort of spot “you find by accident,” says Zook, “simple, local,” and welcoming. Feeling welcomed is an important element at all of Zook’s restaurants – each location has a unique look and atmosphere alongside Zook’s changing menu, completely at whim to season, inspiration and what the chef wants to cook on that day.
“Mostly, I like not doing the same thing,” says Zook. “Diversity is good for me,” applying the same theory to his work, offering evolving flavors and tastes to diners daily. Zook began working behind the stove at the tender age of 13 near his hometown of Kfar Warburg, in Israel’s southern region, and learned his profession mostly on the job. He traveled and worked in San Francisco, exploring California’s cuisine of fresh, local produce before moving on to Paris, where he worked at both a Tunisian restaurant as well as a patisserie. “I was planning a long-time career,” says Zook. “You can’t skip anything.”
That interest in pastry led Zook to open the Napoleon bakery a little more than year ago, with Chef Liran Gruda, serving a variety of sweet treats for savoring alongside a strong cup of espresso or freshly brewed tea. Each eatery, Cordelia, Noa, Jaffa Bar, and Napoleon, are all located in Jaffa – the ancient port city south of Tel Aviv – each a short distance from the other. Zook first moved to Jaffa in 1999, when he arrived back in the country from Paris and was ready to open his first business. Jaffa’s “architecture and vibe” reminded Zook of Paris and he quickly set up shop on what can now be called Zook Alley or Mitcham Zook, loosely translated as Zook Site, in a centuries-old set of Crusader buildings right near Jaffa’s ancient Old City, where Cordelia, Noa Bistro and Jaffa Bar all adjoin each other, helping establish Jaffa as a new dining destination in the city.
At home, Zook still cooks, and loves to prepare cholent, that slow-cooked bean and meat dish that is also known as hamin in these parts. A fan of simple local fare as well as the occasional special meal, he recommends his Jaffa favorites for local eats, including Itzik HaGadol for grilled meats and salads and Hoummus Khadj for the obvious, hummous. But after a full day of eating with Nir Zook, from a morning pastry at Cafe Napoleon to lunch at Noa Bistro, followed by dinner at Cordelia and drinks at Jaffa Bar, it’s gonna have to be another day.