Israeli chef Gal Ben – Moshe of Glass in Berlin is taking inspiration from the Arabian Nights, the problem with eating a la carte and shooting for the moon in hope of landing a (Michelin) star.
Words Iris Wong Photos Samantha Sin
*Featured in Crave’s Issue 81, March 2017
Opening your own restaurant is a bit like playing with fire. Gal Ben-Moshe can attest to that. Having trained under acclaimed chefs such as Jason Atherton at Maze and Grant achatz at Alinea, Ben-Moshe returned home to Israel at age 26 knowing exactly what he wanted to do. A year later, he opened Glass in Berlin’s Charlottenburg.
Given its relatively low rent compared with other major European cities, ample opportunities and availability of ingredients, Berlin was an easy choice for Ben-Moshe.
“[Berlin] is a developing market. It’s not like London or Hong Kong or New York, where they have existing fine-dining cultures. Berlin is where you get the chance to shine and where I can build my restaurant from the ground up,” he says. “Restaurants are no longer built as institutions but as multi-million-dollar investments. I didn’t come in with millions of dollars. Even with very few savings I wanted to come in and do something honest.”
The day Glass opened, he received a text message from a friend: “Listen, you have balls of steel for doing this.” At the time, Ben-Moshe did not speak a word of German, nor had he ever worked in restaurants in Germany. “I wouldn’t call that bravery. I should have been more scared. It certainly makes a good story, but living through it was much more difficult than I imagined.”
Not being familiar with the market meant he had to build his own network of suppliers, and encouraged him not to fixate on what everybody else was doing. Ben-Moshe recounts his recent hunt for mutton for his new Arabic-focused menu. “I went to my main supplier and asked for mutton, and they looked at me funny and said, ‘Germans don’t like that, so we don’t have it.” So I just went on Google and found a farm that sold sheep’s milk where I also found my sheep’s meat. It’s reverse engineering tin finding suppliers. That created a different thinking process for me, which I’m happy about.”
Glass has come a long way since it opened more than three years ago, thanks to Ben-Moshe’s tireless innovative spirit and his insistence on changing the menu every two months. He has gathered a loyal following of local and even returning tourist customers, who know better than to ask for a dish that appeared on earlier menus.
For Ben-Moshe, Glass is an incubator of ideas. His latest endeavour is an exploration of modern Arabic cuisine. “Two and a half years ago I came across the book One Thousand and One Nights, or Arabian Nights. It’s like the Grimm fairy tales of the Muslim world. There are descriptions of food beyond the Arabic grandma’s kitchen, of high-end dining. It’s not just fast food. Seven hundred years ago they had a food culture that rivalled what France, Germany and Russia had 300 years later,” he says, with a sparkle in his eyes, which are tired from 20-hour workdays.
“I hate bringing politics into food. If people are stuck in their own country with borders and walls, there wouldn’t be diversity. Muslim culture has a really bad rep right now. People see all the news about trucks driving into Christmas markets and beheadings and they forget about an amazing culture with art and literature and stories and poetry, and a very distinct kitchen that is not falafel or shawarma.”
It took Ben-Moshe two and a half years to materialise these ideas into dishes. His signature Forest in Glass is a jar filled with forest mushrooms, pine nuts, sherry vinegar and za’atar crumbles engineered to be the exact size that leaves you wanting just one more bite.
“Coming to Germany, I had my first encounter with forests in close proximity to the city. I was walking my dog one day. It was early morning, and there was the aroma of the wet forest floor. It was a powerful experience for me. I wanted to encapsulate that.”
And so Forest in Glass was born.
The jar is smoked prior to serving, giving dinner guests a whiff of smoky apple wood when they open it. A customer once argued with me for 30 minutes that there was bacon in the dish, but there wasn’t. Just apple wood, which is usually used for smoking bacon,” says Ben-Moshe with a grin.
He is adamant about two things. The first is that he makes everything himself and starts preparing the ingredients six hours before his other chefs arrive (“I don’t think any customer has ever had a fish that I didn’t personally fillet, or had a piece of meat that I didn’t personally cut”). The other is his utter dislike for a la carte menus.
“At Glass you can have five, seven or nine courses. I think customers need to know that a la carte is a concept that is hurting them. Freedom comes at a price. If you want to choose your own meal, you’ll be getting a restaurant that’s cutting ingredient costs. When the kitchen doesn’t know what they’re going to serve you, they have to prepare for all eventualities, which means they are paying more for it, and you’re paying more for the food.”
And then there’s the subject that had Ben-Moshe (Half-jokingly) asking for a tissue. “There is no bigger pat on the back than a Michelin star. Hardest week of the year is the one where I sit there waiting for the phone call,” he says. “We’re flirting with it. Being avant-garde has its moments when you’re doing something crazy and that’s the week the Michelin critics come, but not when you’re doing these very safe dishes.”
He recalls working for a chef who was very eager to get his third star. “Every time a customer walked through the door and the service staff thought he or she could be the Michelin critic, the chef would ask the kitchen to make two of whatever the customer order so he could taste it. If he didn’t like he would take all the plates, which could’ve gone to other tables and throw them in the trash. That to me always seemed hurtful, because you’re damaging the experience of other customers just because you wanted that third star. I would never do that. I would also never change the concept to get a star.
“Owning a restaurant is an emotional rollercoaster. You get good news and bad news on an hourly basis. But having customers really hug you after dinner, I think that’s a really powerful gesture. To me, that’s stronger than any accolade, award or good review in a newspaper.”
While opening Glass seems to have burnt out Ben-Moshe’s entrepreneurial spirit, the chef expresses an interest in opening a restaurant in Hong Kong following his four-day January pop up in Hong Kong with Test Kitchen, if the right investors come along, He has since returned to Berlin and will continue turning his ideas and philosophies into dishes for curious diners. “There’s a culinary language that everyone is speaking at a certain time, and you want to be the one inventing them,” Ben-Moshe says. “I’m going to die one day, and I’d like [what I’ve created] to continue to exist. That’s the romantic thing about cooking – to create something that lasts longer than you do.”
|My Favourite Things with
1. What do you enjoy most about being a chef?
I can’t answer this because I don’t see myself doing anything else. I have submerged every part of my life into running this restaurant. I’m not the best father in the world, and I’m definitely not the best husband in the world. But I work very hard. There are good days and bad days. But the one thing that doesn’t change is that every day I wake up I’m happy that this is what I’m doing.
2. If you weren’t a chef, what would you be?
I’d say musician, which is funny because my wife isn’t that into music.
3. What kitchen equipment can’t you do without?
[Holding up his hands] These are the only equipment I ever need.
4. What is your favourite meal to make at home?
I’m sad to say I don’t lead a very healthy lifestyle or have time to make home-cooked meals. But I have a huge fascination lately with butter on toast. In the morning I make myself toast with really good butter. I’m a butter fanatic.
5. What advice would you give to chefs wanting to open their own restaurant?
Don’t. As young chefs working the kitchen we all thought the most prestigious thing is to be a chef-owner. It’s not true. In the end, you limit your creativity because you’re busy being a part-time accountant or calling the technician because your dishwasher is leaking. My only advice is to find a person who you can connect to and respect to be your partner, In my case it’s my wife, who I didn’t have when I opened the restaurant. Just don’t do it on your own.
6. What is your favourite ingredient to work with?
kWater. It is the base of sauce, the humidity that changes the texture of caramel, the thing that makes steak succulent and fish juicy.
7. Which city is your favourite place to eat?
London. English people know their kitchen sucks, so that makes for an amazing breeding ground for creativity. You can get everything there, and it’s a culture that is accepting.
8. What is an Israeli comfort food we all need to try?
There is no such thing as Israeli food, so I’m gonna say hummus – but warm hummus, the kind they serve in the north of Syria, Lebanon and Israel called masabacha.