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Bringing SA flavour to ‘secret garden’ in Tel Aviv



Sought-after Tel Aviv chef Danna-Lee Berman (32) is about to open her own restaurant in the heart of Tel Aviv, and is bringing her African heritage to the table. Even though she and her family made aliya from Johannesburg when she was only six years old, her roots have stayed with her, and she still has a strong South African accent. Now, as she opens her first eatery, that foundation will come to the fore.

Though her father’s family is Israeli, her mother’s parents are originally from Zambia and Zimbabwe. “My grandpa was a butcher. He had a huge farm, and everything was around meat. He was always teaching me about meat, how to make biltong, and he was always very particular about his meat and that nobody knew how to cook it properly. My grandmother would be on the cover of a cooking magazine. She bakes and cooks, and is the best chef in the world in my eyes. So, everything was around Friday night with ‘gaga’ and ‘grammy’. As a Jewish South African family, we always had Friday night dinner, and we loved it.”

Berman always wanted to be a chef, and worked her way up from the bottom of the industry, straight after the army. She trained at Le Cordon Bleu Australia, graduated with honours, and worked in top restaurants with leading chefs in Israel and Australia, such as Jamie Oliver’s Italian restaurant in Sydney, and Pronto and Chader Ochel in Tel Aviv. She also won Best Upcoming Chef in Tel Aviv in the Time Out Food & Drink Awards in 2018. Now, she’ll finally get to run her own show, and the “theatre” where she’ll present her work couldn’t be more special.

“The location is in the middle of the national theatre, Habima, so in the middle of busy, balagan [crazy] Tel Aviv, and it’s a small, hidden garden called Gan HaShikmim. Shikmim means “Sycamore”, a very rare tree – there are only about five left in Israel – in that secret garden. So it’s a safe haven and oasis in the middle of central Tel Aviv. It has a lot of history – it’s about 59 years old – and a lot that has happened there, but there’s also been nothing there for years. We want to bring it back to life.

“I always knew I wanted to have my own restaurant, cook my own food, and do my own thing, representing my beliefs in how restaurants should be managed and how a kitchen should look. I always knew I would own my own restaurant one day,” she says.

Even though Berman is well-known for French and Italian cooking, the Shabbat cooking that developed her love of food will make its appearance – for example, in a dish featuring pickled brisket.

“It will be very me,” she says. “I’m French trained, but I fell in love with Italian food about five years ago.” She’s well-known for her pastas, and the menu will be “a true representation of me: a lot of French, Italian techniques and traditional dishes, but a lot of South African things that I grew up with and flavours I grew up on. I don’t think you’ll be able to put a tag on the restaurant or what type of food it is, as there are so many influences.”

She loves being part of Israel’s thriving food scene, and says “Israeli food is amazing. We’re in the Middle East so there are Syrian, Lebanese, Jordanian, Egyptian, Greek, and Turkish influences, and then we have Jews who have come here from all over the globe, from Europe to North Africa. This results in the most delicious, special, unique food in the world.”

Berman was one of three Israeli chefs to take part in Tel Aviv Groove in 2022, where they brought the essence of Tel Aviv food to Los Angeles with a series of pop-up culinary events. “I love feeding and hosting people, working with new cooks, flavours, eating, smells … everything that food represents,” she told the Jewish Journal at the time. “I love it when people close their eyes when they taste something delicious. People can fight over millions of things, but when there’s good food, everyone can sit at the same table, eat, and be happy.”

Though she absolutely loves her work, it hasn’t been without challenges. She took part in an Israeli cooking reality show a couple of years ago, which she describes as a tough experience. She has also always struggled with her weight. “I was my heaviest in 2019. I started therapy, as living the life of a chef meant I was on the verge of a complete breakdown. I realised that I needed to look after myself. It wasn’t about being thin but rather looking after my health and happiness.”

Then the pandemic arrived, and “It was like the world was telling me to stop running and just stop for a minute and take care of myself. Just from making that decision, I lost 50kg and became addicted to sport.”

She has travelled a long journey, but all roads eventually lead back to her roots. “I always feel connected to South Africa, and always say I’m South African and proud of it. I still feel like it’s home. I love South Africa – everything about it. I always feel very South African even though I’m very Israeli. South Africa is the most special place in the world. I’m proud and happy to be a part of it.”

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