Branja
Branja Courtesy of Branja

Culinary Rebel with a Cause: Chef Tom Aviv's Journey from MasterChef Israel to Branja Miami

From TV Fame to Culinary Flame: Chef Aviv's Gastronomic Adventure from Israel's Kitchens to Miami's Hotspot Branja
Chef Tom Aviv
Chef Tom AvivRUTH KIM, BRANJA
Q

CS: You had quite the journey from MasterChef Israel to becoming a culinary pioneer: What unexpected challenges did you face transitioning from reality TV star to a restaurateur, and how did they shape your culinary philosophy?

A

CTA: Wow! This is a great question. This is the first time I've been asked about my transition from reality TV to becoming a restaurateur, and it's a fascinating journey to share. It isn’t like most people think. The shift was a complete surprise; nothing on TV prepares you for the real challenges of running a restaurant. In Israel, transitioning from MasterChef to restaurant ownership is rare, and I was one of the few to make that leap. Starting my restaurant was a learning curve—everything from menu planning to managing food costs and training staff was new to me. I often questioned whether my approaches were professional or just innovative due to my lack of formal training. Every day brought new challenges but also, surprisingly, a lot of joy. It's a journey of constant learning and adapting, which I'm grateful for.

Fish Melange, Labneh Tahini, Mango Amba
Fish Melange, Labneh Tahini, Mango AmbaCourtesy of Banja Miami
Q

CS: You're the founder and chef of three restaurants, Coco Bambino, Casablanca's Milk & Honey and Branja: Each concept seems distinct. What drives your desire for culinary exploration and how do you ensure each restaurant retains your unique "Tom Aviv" touch?

A

CTA: Exploring what defines Israeli cuisine fuels my creativity. Despite popular beliefs, traditional dishes like falafel and shakshuka originate from other cultures, reflecting Israel's diverse influences. Israel, a young melting pot, has crafted a unique culinary identity over time, one that's still evolving. In Miami, I aim to introduce a "new Israeli cuisine," reflective of contemporary Tel Aviv's culinary scene, pushing boundaries beyond traditional expectations. Each restaurant concept challenges me to redefine Israeli cuisine for my audience, blending innovation with tradition in a “kitchen in process” that continues to unfold.

Branja
BranjaRUTH KIM
Q

I understand that "Branja" translates to "circle of friends." How does this concept translate into the restaurant's atmosphere, menu, and overall dining experience?

A

CTA: Absolutely, 100% accurate. The concept of Branja indeed revolves around the idea of a gathering – a clique, a circle of acquaintances that could span any aspect of life, be it culinary enthusiasts or simply friends. The notion of being a melting pot is central to our ethos here in the U.S., and it's something we embrace wholeheartedly. Recognizing that our clientele would be diverse, especially as we venture outside traditional comfort zones both geographically and culinarily, we aimed to create a space where everyone feels part of our 'branch.'

Interestingly, 'Branja' is a play on an Israeli slang term for a group of friends, derived from the English word 'branch,' like from a tree. We've also encountered humorous moments with our Miami crowd, particularly the Latin community, who might initially misinterpret the name, leading to engaging conversations and explanations about its significance.

Choosing 'Branja' was a deliberate choice. It symbolizes our invitation to everyone to join our circle. Whether you arrive in your finest attire or casual flip-flops, whether you come to savor our dishes or simply enjoy drinks and the vibe, you're welcome. Our establishment is designed to be inclusive, catering to a wide audience – Israelis, Americans, Latinos, women, children, families, and singles alike. It's a place that prides itself on being eclectic without trying to be all things to all people. Instead, our focus is on inclusivity and diversity, ensuring everyone can find something in our menu and ambiance that resonates with them. Once you step into Branja, you're part of our extended family, whether you like it or not. And that, to me, is something truly special.

Branja Dinner Spread
Branja Dinner SpreadCourtesy of Branja
Q

CS: You've mentioned Miami's melting pot of cultures inspiring you. Can you elaborate on specific Miami influences that have made their way onto the Branja atmosphere?

A

CTA: When I approached the creation of the menu for Branja, it was crucial for me to first respect the city I was entering, especially given Miami's rich melting pot culture. My process of menu creation always starts with my Israeli cuisine as the anchor. This is evident in the spices, fragrances, presentation styles, and ingredients that I use. However, I consciously blend these with local tastes and ingredients to honor and reflect the diverse community in Miami.

For example, I incorporated elements from Latin cuisine into our offerings, such as an empanada filled in an Arabic style, demonstrating a fusion between cultures right there on the plate. We also use Patagonian Yuka and attempt to 'Americanize' some dishes—not to simplify them for the audience but to draw inspiration from the local environment and make connections with the diners here.

Bringing my dishes from Israel was important, but adapting them to suit the local ingredients was equally crucial. A prime example is my fish in bread dish, which I've adapted in each country I've worked in by changing the type of fish and bread used, according to what's locally available and appreciated. This adaptation is a testament to the importance of being sensitive to the local palate while still bringing my unique culinary background into the mix.

Before officially setting up Branja's kitchen, I rented a space in Miami to start experimenting with local ingredients. This hands-on experience was vital for me to ensure that my menu was genuinely reflective of Miami's culinary scene and not just an imposition of my Israeli roots onto a new landscape. I actively sought feedback from locals, allowing their tastes and preferences to influence the menu. This iterative process has led to many changes over the year, adjusting dishes to become more approachable and resonant with our Miami clientele.

I like to think of myself as a bit of a rebel in the kitchen, preferring to do things my way. However, I admit that the feedback from our patrons significantly influences the final outcome. It's about finding the right balance between maintaining my culinary identity and adapting to fit the local tastes, whether it's adjusting the spice levels, the music volume, or even the type of music we play. Branja, in Miami, is a reflection of this balance—different from what I've created in Tel Aviv but equally special and unique, a true representation of its environment.

Q

CS: As a self-taught chef, what advice would you give aspiring cooks who might not have formal training but possess boundless passion?

A

CTA: Absolutely, My journey wasn't through traditional culinary schools but fueled by passion, grit, and a bit of rebellion. Cooking is more than just mastering recipes or techniques; it's about the love of feeding people, the art of hosting, and the joy of making others happy with a meal.

For those aspiring to become a chef, the culinary world demands understanding. It's one thing to cook passionately at home and another to endure the pace and pressure of a professional kitchen. My advice? Dive in. Experience the chaos and adrenaline of a restaurant kitchen before investing in culinary school. This could help you discover if this path is for you, as there's a huge world for passionate cooks outside of running a restaurant.

If you find your place in the heat and pressure, then you're ready to commit. Professional cooking is about consistency and perfection, even if it means making the same dish every day for years. It's a grind but fulfilling if you love making people happy through food.

My suggestion is to work in the industry first. If you truly love it, commit. Study, not just through traditional means but also through books, tutorials, and online classes. Work under chefs you admire and absorb everything. There are no shortcuts in this profession. I was fortunate to have support, but I also worked hard and learned from every mistake.

To those stepping into this world, be prepared for both the highs and the lows. If you choose this path, aim to be the best. Mediocrity has no place in a kitchen. The journey is demanding but incredibly rewarding. I would welcome you to the wonderful, crazy world of cooking.

NOT A CAESAR, Parmesan Vinaigrette, Strawberry
NOT A CAESAR, Parmesan Vinaigrette, StrawberryCourtesy of Branja
Q

CS: Shifting gears a bit towards local sourcing - it's obviously beneficial in numerous ways, but could you elaborate on your philosophy regarding adapting your recipes not just to the local culture and populace but also to the economic and business landscapes? How does that integration play out for you?

A

CTA: Absolutely, everything is interconnected. This extends deeply into the economy, starting with sourcing and supply chains. Specifically, in the realm of Israeli cuisine, which I often revert to, there's a heavy reliance on vegetables, fruits, and fresh ingredients rather than pre-processed goods. When I began, I noticed many restaurants opt for pre-cut vegetables because it's more cost-effective and simpler, typically sourcing these from abroad. However, this approach doesn't align with my culinary style. While I respect those who find it efficient, it's not suitable for the integrity of my dishes. For instance, finding the perfect tomato for my salad is crucial; if it doesn't meet my standards, it's off the menu. This pursuit of quality often led me to focus more on identifying the right suppliers than on recipe development.

The emphasis on aesthetics and size over flavor in the U.S. market is notable, leading to produce that looks appealing but lacks taste. I prefer 'ugly' vegetables; they're often more flavorful. Adhering to this philosophy made sourcing challenging, especially from an economic standpoint. Surprisingly, obtaining tomatoes from a local farm just 45 minutes away can be more complex and expensive than sourcing from a large distributor with unclear origins. This dilemma raises the question of whether to conform to the norm or strive for better quality, even if it's not the most financially prudent choice.

Despite these challenges, I remain committed to my principles, favoring local and tastier options even if it means higher costs. I've noticed a gradual improvement in the U.S. regarding appreciation for quality ingredients, but it remains a struggle. The reliance on international sourcing is significant, yet I believe in supporting local American farmers to strengthen our economy rather than others'. While I may pay more for locally sourced produce, the personal connection to the growers and the quality of the ingredients justify the expense. It's about staying true to the values of the community I'm a part of, and that's a choice I'm proud to make.

Branja Courtyard Dining Room
Branja Courtyard Dining RoomCourtesy of Branja
Q

CS: This week, you are SOBEWFF 2024, participating in the Fontainebleau Miami Beach Wine Spectacular Best of the Best event. What can you tell us about that event? What are you personally most looking forward to at SOBE this year?

A

CTA: Yes, indeed. This marks my third time participating in SOBEWFF. Last year, due to last-minute arrangements and our brand's opening activities, we hosted a smaller event. However, two years ago, I was part of the same "Best of the Best" event at Fontainebleau that I'm attending this year. Interestingly, back then, I presented a dish without having an actual restaurant. We brought our brand and concept, but our restaurant hadn't opened yet. It was a pivotal moment in the creation of our menu. One of the dishes, which still features on our menu, was introduced to the audience before we had a physical location. Attendees were intrigued about where to find us, and I had to explain we were not open yet.

Returning to Fontainebleau now, with a dish and a restaurant, feels significantly different and exciting. I thoroughly enjoyed the event last time, meeting other chefs and discussing potential collaborations, though nothing concrete emerged since we didn't have a venue for follow-ups. Now, equipped with our restaurant, I'm eager to see how this changes the experience. I anticipate it being distinctively enriching, reflecting on the journey from the initial concept to running a successful restaurant.

What excites me most is the opportunity to possibly reconnect with individuals who have dined with us, or meet chefs who have already visited. Previously, many didn't know who I was or what I specialized in; they simply enjoyed the dish. This time, representing our brand and Miami's culinary scene after a year, promises a new layer of interaction and engagement.

This event, titled "Best of the Best," truly lives up to its name, surrounding you with top-tier talent. I'm humbled and honored to be considered among such esteemed company. It's not just about personal recognition but about celebrating the collective excellence and dedication in our field.

I take every piece of feedback seriously, whether it's through accolades or daily customer reviews on platforms like Open Table. Positive reviews uplift me, while negative ones motivate me to improve. Such events offer another form of valuable feedback, placing you among the culinary giants and gauging your creations against theirs.

Ultimately, for me, the essence of being a chef transcends monetary success. It's about making people happy, offering them a memorable experience that brightens their day. Yes, the financial aspect is important, but the joy and satisfaction of our guests are paramount. Participating in events like SOBEWFF, standing shoulder to shoulder with other renowned chefs, is a testament to our commitment to excellence and passion for hospitality.

Private Dining at Upper
Private Dining at Upper Credit Upper Buena Vista
Q

CS: For our final question—I'm curious. You've achieved so much, having opened various restaurants in different regions, each with its own unique flavors and ambiance; last year, you were awarded Miami's "Best New Restaurant.” Considering everything you've done is an amalgamation of global cuisine, are there any flavors or regions you're still eager to explore? Or any future restaurant concepts you envision on the horizon?

A

CTA:  Yes, absolutely. I have two responses to that. Firstly, India holds a special place for me as one of the most fascinating cuisines in the world. During my season on MasterChef, I struggled a lot with curry—it was a continuous challenge. Eventually, I won my season with a curry dish in the finale. Since then, I haven't really delved into Indian cuisine again. I love to eat it, but I genuinely want to dive deeper into it one day, which I believe will involve traveling to India and working in local kitchens. And I will do it. When I tell people I plan to explore and work in restaurants in India, they sometimes think it's because I'm getting too old for new adventures. But I don't believe one can ever be too old to explore and learn.

Secondly, on a more basic level, I'm always working on concepts—not necessarily something specific but rather brainstorming ideas and creating opportunities. I believe in staying ready for opportunities rather than having to get ready each time. Currently, I'm exploring French cuisine, which I've always avoided, thinking it was too complicated or too heavy with butter. But I think I was actually afraid of it. Now, I'm working on combining the rich heritage of French cuisine with the vibrant, innovative spirit of Israeli cuisine, trying to merge them together. It's very interesting, and I believe French-Israeli cuisine could be a dream worth turning into reality.

Thank you Chef Aviv, for sharing a glimpse into your life and future with us. We look forward to SOBEWFF and all the future holds for you and Branja.

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