Here is what happened to Erez Komarovsky, the oracle who brought the first post-pita, post-challah bread to Israel: In 1994, he came home to Tel Aviv from Northern California, where he had interned at Acme Bread Company and Metropolis Baking Company. Previously, he had trained in Paris at Le Cordon Bleu and studied kaiseki cuisine in Japan, and he had come back to Tel Aviv before, but having been trained in those very rigid culinary traditions, he was bored simply implementing what he’d learned. He felt like a mechanic. So he went to California because he heard great things about food in San Francisco, and there, he became entranced and inspired by the art of sourdough breadmaking.
In Israel, bread was plain. It was pita, it was challah, it was sliced and white, it was sliced and wheat. It was wholly utilitarian and representative of a culture that was close enough to periods of ration to think that fancy bread was a little too Marie Antoinette for them.
His return to Tel Aviv after five years single-handedly sparked the country’s first artisanal bread revolution. He opened up a bakery in Herzliya in an out-of-the-way industrial area. People traveled from throughout the country to see what the fuss was about, and once they found it, they paid what was previously thought to be an absurd amount for bread. Before this, there hadn’t been any dedicated bakeries for quality breads like this—oat-nut and seeds and garlic and figs, you name it, whatever struck him as interesting, potentially delicious, and seasonally available. The food industry went nuts; the country went nuts. He called the bakery Lechem Erez (Erez’s Bread), and he opened up an adjoining café. He opened up another and another, until there were more than 30 of them selling bread that had beetroot and Roquefort and fennel and artichoke, all depending on the season and all depending on something even less quantifiable than that: his whim.
Now, this wasn’t the first time sourdough had been sold in Israel. There had been sourdough in the 1930s and ’40s when the bakers came from Poland and Russia and Germany before the Holocaust. They made sourdough and baked it in wood-fired ovens. But then there was the war, and so there were rations. The government had to produce enough bread for everyone, so they closed the small bakeries and subsidized the large ones. They couldn’t make sourdough anymore. Now they just had to make quantity.
And all these years later, here was Erez Komarovsky, challenging the uniquely Israeli notion that it was not worth going out of your way to have something good and delicate with the idea that it wasn’t a waste of time or effort to make something delicious in a small quantity and to allow people to enjoy their food. He brought back wood-fired ovens. He made each batch by hand. This was real bread, he said, and he sold it at a price that no one before him had thought anyone could charge your average Israeli for bread.
“He’s an artist,” says Uri Scheft, who opened the Lehamim bread bakeries in Israel 16 years ago and expanded his operation to New York, calling it Breads, in 2013. Scheft watched, wide eyed, as it became clear that the totally bonkers chance Komarovsky had taken was working out. Komarovsky was changing ideas about bread—what it could be, what people were allowed to want—for an entire country.
“He was an artisan baker before people even used the word artisan in Israel,” says Adeena Sussman, an American food writer and chef living in Israel and the author of the forthcoming Sababa: The Sunny, Spicy Flavors of Israeli Cuisine. “He codified bread baking for the average Israeli.”
In 2010, with more than 30 bakeries in a country the size of New Jersey, he sold his share of the business. He continued with the company for one year as a consultant, as was obligated in his contract. He trained bakers and wrote down recipes. And then, the minute his period of consultancy ended, Erez Komarovsky disappeared.
Here is where he ended up: in the northernmost tip of Israel, in a 50-home village called Matat, about half a mile from the Lebanese border, on a hilltop in a tiny gated community that overlooks the Druze village where he buys his meat. A never-ending garden surrounds the house, growing cherries and sugar snap peas and romaine lettuce and pumpkins and two kinds of artichokes and lavender and fennel and isabela and mint and wild mint and river mint and sage and poppy seeds and cilantro and mammoth sunflowers and garlic and olives and apricots and cabbage—which he calls beautiful—and young okra and tomatoes and onions and thousands of raspberries arranged to climb up and around and through an arch. The garden is also dotted with ovens: a woodburning oven for pizza, a smoker, a tandoori oven that he bought in New Delhi, six total. There is a coop that holds his two chickens. There had been more, but a few days before I visited, 11 of them were killed ruthlessly in the middle of the night by a wolf. When he found the feathers of their remains, he was distraught. He put both his hands to his bald head and he cried. How he had loved waking up to the sounds of the chickens. He is building a newer, stronger coop.
He had been looking for this place for years. He had wanted to leave Tel Aviv, to exit its status quo, its sameness, its unchangingness. The bakeries were a success, yes, but he had begun to feel depressed. He was losing his passion for bread. He hated being a business owner. He had 300 employees. He was working 20 hours each day and never felt like he was doing enough. “I created a monster,” he says. “It was too much.” He wanted some peace. His partner, Michael Gluzman, a professor at Tel Aviv University, wanted to stay in the city but saw how Komarovsky was suffering and agreed to move. Everyone else asked how he could give up something that was working so well; how he could slap success in the face like that.
In the downstairs space of his new home, he began to hold cooking workshops. He would gather a group of people at a market in nearby Acre, take them shopping for fish or meat, then take them back to his home where they would go through his garden, pick what they needed, drink wine, and watch Erez cook and listen to his ideas.
This only added to his legend. “He became this elusive figure near the Lebanon border,” Sussman says. “When he resurfaced, he became like Israel’s own Willy Wonka, and the golden ticket was entry to one of these seminars.”
Attendees who were lucky enough to be granted entry made the pilgrimage, and what they saw filled them with awe. Everything was picked from his own garden right then in front of them, him making on-the-fly decisions about what to use and how to use it. Nothing was arranged in advance. You were submitting to the will of this sorcerer. When people returned from the seminar, they gushed about what they’d experienced but wouldn’t reveal what actually happened. (My own theory is that spending a day with him is so intimate, that later, when you talk about it, it feels silly. I felt this when I came home and told my editor about it: To be around him is to feel electricity and possibility. I felt like a gushing schoolgirl.)
When he found this place, it was a dump, he says. There was no terrace and no garden. “This was what I needed,” he says. Matat gave him some anonymity. It opened his eyes and expanded his circles. He spends time with the Druze who sell him meat and the Muslim craftsmen and vendors who live nearby. After all the time running the bakery, he was finally exposed to something new. No, better. He was finally free. He didn’t feel like he was exiled; no, he felt as if he’d moved to a different country.
Most of all, it allowed him to break from tradition. He was from Tel Aviv. His parents were from Tel Aviv. So he came here, where he started to mingle with the Druze. He loved their food, but he found them too traditional, too. It reminded him of the Japanese and the French, who never dared depart from what they’d been doing for years. “It’s wonderful to have tradition,” he says. “But the other side of this is oppression. It’s oppression if you are not 100 percent in line with the tradition.”
He had always been a hell-raiser. Back when he was 25 and running a catering business—this was before he went to California—he wrote a column for Israel’s alternative city paper, Ha’ir (The City). In it, he published a recipe for suckling pig that ran on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year. He lobbied the government to overturn its ban on the sale of bread during Passover and was successful. During the second intifada, he conducted a series of dinners with Duhoul Sfadi, an Arab chef, at his restaurant in Herzliya. He objected to anything that anyone did just because it was what was always done.
That is what he’s been railing against—the idea that you have to keep doing the same thing over and over just because it’s been done before, because your parents did it that way. He loves the diversity of Israeli cuisine, but he thinks it only exists because of the diasporas. Meaning you can make your stuffed cabbage with sugar because your grandmother is from Poland, and the other guy can make his with pepper and garlic because his grandmother was from Romania. But some traditions he sees in Israel infiltrate and make a person smaller: the tradition of the religious right, the tradition of Arab-Israeli conflict, the tradition of doing everything you’ve done because your parents did it. He used to think food was political. He used to think everything was political. Now, he says, he’s not really that political anymore. “I lost hope,” he tells me. He doesn’t think there can be peace between Arabs and Israelis. He hasn’t for a long time.
In his workshops and with his catering, he rebelled against traditional cuisine. He helped usher in the age of Levantine cuisine, which is a combination of the cuisines of Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, and Israel, far more integrated than Israel’s cuisine alone had ever been, using seasonal, very specific spices like sumac and baharat—showing his visitors and guests at his seminars how you could grow these spices, pluck them from your garden, and put them into your food. Komarovsky was teaching Israelis to use these familiar spices in more natural ways, ways that had been dismissed because everyone had just been following recipes all these years.
He wears big glasses over his gentle eyes. His face rests in a smile. On the day I visit him in Matat, he has on Crocs and shorts. We spoke briefly the night before. He wanted to know why my Hebrew was so good. (It’s not.) I told him it was because my mother is Israeli—born in Poland but raised here—though she lives in the States now. I was going to be accompanied by my sister, who had recently moved to Jerusalem from New York. He asked if he could have us both over for a meal, but I declined. She is Orthodox, I told him, and she wouldn’t be able to eat his food, which isn’t kosher.
That’s all I told him, and when I arrive he has already prepared for us to make three challahs. One has beetroot and horseradish woven through it. He says this is to represent my family’s Eastern European past. We bake it and eat it dipped in sour cream. The second one is laden with olives to represent my Israeli heritage. We bake it and dip it into plain yogurt and open up a bottle of rosé. The third—I’ve never seen this before and he confirms he’s never done this before—has large chunks of bacon throughout, which he got from his Druze butcher. This is to represent my departure from tradition—that having bacon in my challah doesn’t make it less of a challah, and it doesn’t make me less of a Jew, that traditions were meant to be upended, that food should reflect reality.
And that’s what his message is to all of Israel and beyond: Any tradition that lives just because it is tradition doesn’t deserve to be a tradition. And if you stay where you are successful just because you’re successful there—if you deny your own misery because things seem to be going well—then you aren’t truly worthy of your success.
Here is how to live your life, according to Erez Komarovsky: Don’t take people’s advice. Ask yourself why you’re doing the same thing you were doing last year; ask if there is a very good reason for it, and then ask again. Become a “rhinoceros,” someone with such thick skin that when people come to you with their questions—how could you leave and how could you write that and how could you throw your own people under the bus like that—you could recognize that those questions are about their limitations, and not yours. Stop following recipes. Recipes don’t teach you anything. You can read them to understand what they’re trying to get at, but then forget what you read and go do it yourself. That last one is most important. A recipe is a way to force a food to be the same forever. It denies what Komarovsky thinks is the essential nature of food. “Cooking is endless,” he says. “Each time it comes out completely differently. The reason it does that is because you’re different every time you make it and you’re different every time you eat it. It depends on your mood and your hormones, both the cook’s and the eater’s, and it depends on the chemistry between me and the people that are eating and also it depends on the moon and also it depends on so many variations that every time it will taste different.”
He doesn’t do the workshops much anymore. He was doing four a week, and he became depressed doing that, too, so now he does one or two on occasion, and he charges an almost prohibitive amount to do them.
Once a week or so he leaves Matat and drives the two and a half hours to Tel Aviv, where he has opened a catering business—just a regular catering business, where he will outfit a meeting or a wedding with the kind of ingenuity that made him famous. To get him to take on your job is a great honor here.
I join him one day at one of his catering gigs in Tel Aviv. Sitting in the hall he reserves for these events, he shows me on his phone the centerpiece for a dinner he is overseeing for a Jewish heritage organization’s meeting in Germany: It is a pot of dill whose canister is surrounded by a challah baked around it, using chicken stock instead of water for the challah. He is an artist, just like Scheft says.
I follow him to the kitchen, where breadsticks are baking. He pulls one out of the oven and hands it to me. It’s too hot, so I drop it. He apologizes and tells me his nerve endings are just about gone from all the bread he’s baked in his life. He has burns all over his arms.
He loves bread again. Now, when he’s on a catering job, he finds himself drawn more and more toward the bakery, rather than just the kitchen.
He likes this life better. There is nothing to resent when it’s all so unpredictable. Yesterday he was writing and testing a recipe for pancakes with beets and strawberries from his garden in Matat and it was all very relaxed. Today he’s doing this. Tomorrow he’s going to Eilat for a job. “I don’t want to become a vegetable and to die emotionally,” he says. “It’s a question of the personality. Personally, me, I need changes. I need to wake up to a new project.”
He leaves me then to attend a meeting. A server comes around with a basket of pastrami sandwiches: bread, pastrami, horseradish. I sit and eat slowly, and for a long time after that, I feel like I could do anything I’ve ever wanted to.