It came to him as a revelation on a misty mountain peak in Costa Rica.
When Benny Cohen completed his mandatory military service in Israel, he left the country to travel and see the world, as do many of his peers.
After arriving in Costa Rica, one of the countries he visited in Central America, Cohen went on a hike. Having reached the summit of a mountain after an arduous trek, he collected his thoughts.
“I decided to turn my interest in food into a profession,” he recalled. “Thank God, it’s been a good choice. I wake up each morning eager to get into the kitchen. I wake up in the middle of the night with ideas for new recipes.”
Cohen, 36, is the executive chef of Mideastro, a Yorkville restaurant whose cuisine is a fusion of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern food.
Cohen, whose family hails from Morocco, combines the rustic fare of his parents’ ancestral homeland with the flair and panache of French cooking.
He credits his Casablanca-born grandmother, Dina, with having inculcated in him a love of and appreciation for fine dining.
As a child growing up in Be’er Sheva, Cohen spent a great deal of his time with Dina because his parents were so busy working. Watching her whipping up a panoply of dishes, he developed a deep and abiding interest in cooking and baking.
By the age of five, he was a foodie. Later, he went to market early in the morning to buy the vegetables, fruits and meat for that day’s meals. Finally, he had the pleasure of imbibing the heady aromas of Dina’s culinary concoctions.
“I was hooked,” he said.
From Dina, Cohen learned the rudiments of Moroccan cuisine, which was influenced by Arab and Berber tastes and relies on such spices as cinnamon, cumin, turmeric, ginger and coriander.
Dina showed him how to prepare some of the classics of the Moroccan table – lamb shank, fish stew, cold salads and dips. She also taught him the importance of letting the ingredients do their work and saving the spicing for the end.
Cohen was exposed to yet more earthy flavours during his travels in Greece, Turkey, Spain, Egypt, Jordan and Latin America following his army service as a combat soldier.
Upon returning to Israel, he studied at the School of Culinary Arts in Tel Aviv. He then apprenticed at Doxa, a Tel Aviv restaurant specializing in French Mediterranean food. Subsequently, he refined his palate at such Israeli restaurants as NG, Nana Bar and Messa Grill.
Having learned his craft in Tel Aviv, Cohen is convinced that the Israeli restaurant scene has morphed into one of the most vibrant in the region.
Cohen landed in Toronto four years ago to help a relative open a new restaurant. The venture floundered, but Cohen remained in Canada after accepting an offer from the owner of What-a-Bagel – a local bakery-cum-cafe chain – to devise a typical Israeli breakfast and brunch menu.
After finishing this job, he drew up a menu for Shoom Shoom, an Israeli-style Mediterranean bistro in Toronto.
Cohen joined Mideastro, owned by former Israeli Leon Goldstein, three years ago. At first, he worked in the Thornhill branch. But when Goldstein opened the downtown Mideastro on Yorkville Avenue near the new Four Seasons Hotel, he asked Cohen to take charge.
Typically, Cohen arrives at 9 a.m. and leaves before midnight. At around noon, he makes lunch for his wife, Noa, an El Al Airlines employee, and their two-year-old daughter, Mika, who, he says, is “one of the biggest foodies I know.”
Cohen buys spices, ranging from cloves to cardamom, from suppliers in Morocco and Tunisia. “These spices are unlike any available here and open up new worlds,” he said.
He imports fresh herbs and vegetables directly from Israel, but uses local produce during summer months.
Working with sous-chef Yishai Aharoni, like himself an Israeli, Cohen can usually whip up a complete meal within 15 minutes.
“The cuisine of the Middle East and Mediterranean is more sophisticated than just shawarma,” he said one recent morning as he prepared himself for another long day. “I want to show people that it’s complex in terms of flavour and presentation. It’s one of the richest cuisines in the world today.”