The food scene in Tel Aviv is hardly boring, but one restaurant seems to stand out year after year with an innovative take on Israel’s vegetarian farm-to-table movement. Since opening in 2018, Opa’s menu of sophisticated fare made solely of fruit and vegetables has provided locals and tourists alike with a gastronomic journey that’s committed to sustainability and zero-waste principles. Now, its 11-course menu is leveling up the offering.
Following the pandemic, Opa cultivated a distinct spectrum of flavors while meticulously repurposing and transforming restaurant waste into dishes. From fermenting melon peels and ice cream sourced from potato peels – each dish is presented like a work of art in homage to nature. These innovative culinary methods act as a testament to Chef Shirel Berger’s drive to minimize the restaurant’s ecological footprint and achieve impressive zero-waste goals.
Now, the new tasting menu highlights individual vegetables and fruits, employing diverse techniques to showcase nature’s diverse flavors. Chef Berger manipulates and enhances the essence of her ingredients through methods including aging, salting and vacuum packing with olive oil, producing intriguing outcomes of contrasting tastes and textures.
We sat down with Chef Berger to talk the Opa journey, what’s inspiring her now and how she manipulates fruit and vegetables to take center stage.
Can you provide some background on Opa and your journey as a chef?
Five years ago, my twin sister and I opened Opa, a restaurant that focuses on fruit and vegetables, with each dish emphasizing one ingredient using many different techniques. We work with small organic growers. My journey as a cook started at a very young age. After serving in the Israeli army, I started working at a top restaurant in Jerusalem and decided I wanted to become a professional chef. I began by getting a degree from the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in New York, worked at several trendy restaurants in New York, and in 2018 I took a leap of faith to open Opa in Tel Aviv.
What inspired you to focus on plant-forward dining and sustainability at Opa? Can you tell us about the philosophy behind this choice?
My grandfather, who owned several successful restaurants in Los Angeles, told me to open a restaurant only when I find something unique and different. While I was learning about the food industry, I discovered the terrible things that are happening in mass production and decided to try and change that. So I started cooking with fruit and vegetables and fell in love with the complexity and unique flavors they have. Then I understood that they could potentially become the stars and not a side-show.
How do you create a dining experience with vegetables and fruits as the main focus?
I believe that the plant kingdom provides one of the most complex, flavorful and satisfying experiences. We use the element of surprise to enable them to go on a personal culinary journey.
Could you share some of the sustainable practices employed at Opa?
One of the most important ideas that we focus on at Opa is the urgency of protecting the environment. Therefore, we try to minimize food waste by utilizing every part of the fruit or vegetable.
Can you describe some of the innovative culinary methods and techniques you use at Opa?
One of our favorites is a dish made from melon peels that are aged in their own juice for one year.
What are some of the most unique or unexpected ingredients you have transformed into dishes?
We discovered one of the most interesting flavors and textures at Opa by fermenting lychees for 14 days in salt. Then we confit it in smoked olive oil and carefully place it on a rosemary skewer and grill it slowly over Japanese charcoal.
Could you highlight a few signature dishes at Opa that showcase the essence of your cuisine and sustainability ethos?
Generally at Opa, the whole vegetable or fruit will be used in one dish. For instance, we are very creative with kohlrabi, from root to stem to peel. We have kohlrabi fricassee, kohlrabi carpaccio, kohlrabi leaves and kohlrabi tartlet—each one with a unique flavor and texture of its own.
You received the “One to Watch” Award by the Middle East & North Africa’s 50 Best Restaurants for 2023. What does this recognition mean to you and the team at Opa?
It’s very meaningful because we believe that we are doing something new and unique in the world. So receiving this recognition has brought us a bit closer to fulfilling our dream and quest of becoming one of the best restaurants in the world.
How has this recognition impacted the restaurant and your culinary journey?
The publicity has been great for business and has encouraged us that we are on the right path, and that all the hard work is paying off.
Can you share any lessons or experiences from the pandemic that influenced Opa’s approach to sustainability and cuisine?
Since we were forced to close suddenly, we preserved all the fresh produce we had using many different techniques. This helped us create a very unique palate of flavors which were able to share when we finally reopened.
What are your future aspirations for Opa in terms of sustainability and culinary innovation?
We hope to create a lab delving deeper into creating new flavors and textures using fruit and vegetables.
Are there any new projects or initiatives on the horizon for Opa?
We have started “Gone Wild” by Opa where we cook at small farms and other scenic venues for small to large groups. We hope to create a fine-dining establishment off premises.