Lior Hillel has the sort of culinary resume restaurateurs dream of. Graduating from Le Cordon Bleu in 2007, Israel-born Hillel went on to work at the internationally esteemed Jean Georges Restaurant in Manhattan. Two years later, he made his way to California where he took on a head chef position at Bacaro LA, turning the tapas and wine bar into one of the city’s most select restaurants.
Jspace recently caught up with Lior to chat about Israeli flavors, the New York dining scene, and why fresh is always best.
Jspace: What inspired you to become a chef?
Lior Hillel: I was always drawn to the kitchen more than the outside. I grew up in a small Moshav in Israel and my dad had a metal factory. And I always would rather be in the kitchen than out there helping in the metal shop. So, it’s just something I love to do. And with the years, I found myself getting a lot of satisfaction out of seeing people enjoy my food.
What are some of the influences for your style of cooking?
Jean Georges is a big chef in New York, he has some influences as well on [my cooking]. Basically organic or local are things that influence my food. It is mostly fresh Israeli cooking, it’s a lot fresh ingredients local. You go to the market and buy the stuff you’re bringing home. It’s something you don’t see a lot here, which is why my cuisine is good and my cooking is good. Being Israeli and growing up around fresh fruits and vegetables is, I think, part of it.
How would you describe your style?
Packed with a lot of flavor. I would say it’s fresh California cuisine. It’s not definite like Italian or Asian or Mediterranean or stuff like that. It’s not like titles. It’s just fresh, local, simple food that showcases the local ingredient and showcases the protein or whatever it is and just gives a nice twist to it. Very light. Whatever it is, make it better.
I have a tapas restaurant called Bacaro, and with this restaurant we go to the farmers market, we bring the ingredients in and start processing them, but it’s very light processing. So for me to create a dish, my ideal thing is the least messing around with the ingredients and letting them talk for themselves on the plate. It’s all about the preparation method; it should be simple and accurate. So right now what we are doing at Bacaro is Mediterranean, not like Israeli-Arab kind of Mediterranean, but more like European-Italian, a little Spanish. A little bit of everything.
How often does your menu change to reflect seasonal produce?
We go every week to the farmers market, every week. So whatever we find in the farmers market, that’s what we are serving. If I don’t have something that we don’t have in the farmers market, I have to replace it with some other item that is strong on the menu. We have to make sure that they have it in the farmer’s market, or basically I take it off the menu.
What are some of the differences between working in a full-scale restaurant versus serving tapas, which are smaller plates?
It’s amazing and the differences are humongous. Working for Jean Georges was a great school and I’m grateful I got to work for him. The operation of fine dining is so precise, everything is so measured to the T, everything is so accurate; the knife cuts the flavors, everything must be duplicated perfectly to execute this master chef, Jean Georges’ dishes. It starts from the beginning of the day when you walk into the kitchen, you have your priorities in how you do things. Working in a small restaurant, what I do right now where I’m executive chef, going to the farmers market and actually seeing and touching the vegetables and picking them myself; it’s more satisfaction. Over there it’s very technical at the restaurant, at the Jean Georges of fine dining. Everything is so technical. Its amount of time, everything, is measured.
There is a lot of creativity, but it seems like when you cook there is no creativity. You need to have the technique and execute it right. Where I am right now, me and my cooks go to the farmers market as well, we choose and pick our vegetables and our ingredients and our proteins, it feels like we are more involved. I don’t want to sound like there is no passion with Jean Georges’ cuisine, I don’t want to come off like that, but I’m just saying it seems like there is more passion when you are more attached and connected to the produce you bring into your kitchen and you make something off of it. Maybe because I’m in a position where I can do that and with Jean Georges I couldn’t, because I was just a line cook working my way up, but with this kind of kitchen you seem like you are way more connected and there is way more passion and emotional attachment to dishes.
You’ve worked in both New York City and LA, and there is a little bit of rivalry there. How does the city’s character change the situation in the kitchen?
That’s a big, big deal. New York is the capital of culinary America. It’s so big and so robust and there are dozens of restaurants. Some of the top restaurants in the world are in New York. New York is one of those places, I had been there for almost two years, it was so cold and so harsh. It seems like here it is so laid back, in LA, but the restaurants seen here are way trendier. Establishments like Jean Georges that have been around 10, 17, 15 years, some exist, but most don’t exist more than a couple years. People change names, do a face lift for a restaurant or reopen it with a different name, because it’s very trendy. It’s like, “Oh, it’s amazing,” then you go there for three months and then you stop going because it’s boring. That is very LA and an LA crowd.
There are some establishments that have been here for many, many years, but not as many as New York. New York is harsh and the life in New York, you make very little money. Barely get paid. I used to get paid $1,200 and my rent was $800; $1,200 a month, not a week. You get by renting a crappy room and the rest went for subway tickets and stuff like that. It’s very harsh. But just to have the name on your resume and being schooled in this kind of establishment, it adds a beautiful layer to your next step and who you are and becoming a chef.
I loved Jean Georges’ food and his techniques are amazing. I’m enjoying myself eating fine dining food, but at the same time I don’t want to cook it because I feel like it’s too hustling around with the food, too much messing with the food, transferring it around. It takes so much. I believe in really simple techniques and showcasing the real flavors of what it is and not masking it with so many spices and flavors and herbs. You want to just compliment what it is.
Would you ever open a restaurant in Israel?
I would want to. It’s really difficult. I just got back a couple of days ago and I have a couple of friends who are in the restaurant business. It’s a struggle being in Israel, the cliental, the cost of living in ratio with how much you make money, it’s really difficult. I would love to, I would love to open a restaurant in Israel, I would just need to get the financial support. But I would love to if I could.
Would that restaurant serve different sorts of food than what you’re serving here? Would you then take an American influence back to Israel?
I would probably mix and match. I think it would be a nice concept of bringing stuff from here to there. Me and my business partners are working on a new restaurant that’s going to be opening hopefully within a year. It’s based on a Korean barbecue. So it’s based on that concept, but given a different Korean style, not Asian. We are still developing the ideas, but bringing something like this, Korean barbeque, to Israel or opening here with a twist, can be an amazing opportunity and I think its going to go great. But this is still in the works.
If it’s just you in a kitchen, what is your favorite thing to cook?
Just me, I would cook fresh crispy skin Sea bass with mashed potatoes on top, some caramelized shallots, and a wedge of lemon. That would be my favorite. Like, nice crispy skin.