The week got off to a bad start for Phillip Foss after the soup he had labored over was dumped into the garbage. Foss, the newly appointed head chef at The King David Hotel's La Regence restaurant, didn't realize that the rabbinical kashrut supervisor was supposed to open the bag of lentils and sift through them so that his final product would be deemed kosher.
Indeed, it's been quite an adjustment for Foss, who immigrated here earlier this month and has worked in some of America's finest and most famous kitchens, including New York's exclusive Le Cirque restaurant on Madison Avenue. His decision to move here was a bit spontaneous, but it's given him newfound recognition and with it, complete freedom to redesign the menu at the famed Jerusalem landmark.
"In New York, I'd be a big fish in a big ocean," he explains this week during a rare afternoon break from the kitchen. "In Israel, I get to be a big fish in a little pond. And I get to make something great out of something good."
Foss, 33, who was born in Wisconsin and trained at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, has cooked with some of the best. "I'm the black sheep of the family," Foss, whose brother is a banker in Tel Aviv, says of his career choice. "I'm not like most Jews."
During his five years at Le Cirque, where he cooked for notables like Prince Charles, Pope John Paul and Michael Jackson, he worked his way up to become assistant to the executive chef - an accomplishment, he says modestly, that was "rare for an American" in a restaurant synonymous with fine French cuisine and European chefs. He worked for several restaurants in the years following, including a two-year stint in Hawaii, where he served as the head chef at one of the Four Seasons' restaurants in Maui.
Several of the restaurants boasted a three-star Michelin rating - the top accolade for any chef - but in all of Israel, he notes glumly, only one restaurant, Moul Yam in Tel Aviv, has earned a one-star Michelin rating. Still, a lack of international prestige isn't always a bad thing, he notes, because he "can come here and have complete control of the kitchen."
Foss' career took a turn this summer while vacationing in Tel Aviv for his brother's wedding here. "I was walking down Sheinkin Street and I saw all these beautiful Jewish girls," he recalls, smiling. "It was a beautiful day and I decided to give Israel a try."
He settled here, traveled a bit, worked in a small restaurant in Tel Aviv and began working at La Regence last week. It's the first kosher restaurant in the young chef's long and impressive resume, though the prices, which include a hamburger for NIS 98, are fairly comparable to some of the others.
Foss is now in the process of overhauling the restaurant's menu and is excited to report that he's been given a "free hand" in the process. The new soon-to-be-launched specials will include dishes like double consomme with foie gras, olive-crusted Denis, and salmon gravlax, but he's had difficulty letting go of butter, cream, prosciutto ham, bacon and seafood.
"It's confining, but this will present a new challenge," he said this week, apparently still trying to convince himself.
"He's been here a week, but you can see how serious he is," says La Regence's manager Morris Omezguine, who has been with the hotel for 37 years. "We're expecting good things from him."
Foss, meanwhile, is looking forward to settling in at the hotel kitchen and establishing a local name for himself. Somewhere in the not-too-distant future, he's hoping to open his own restaurant, launch a cooking show, and most importantly, meet the nice Jewish girl he came searching for.