If anyone is poised to become the first-ever Palestinian celebrity chef, it might be 37-year-old Johnny Goric. He got serious about cooking at the age of 16, for the excitement, Goric says, and the adventure.
"Cooking is real action," Goric said. "There's a lot of fire happening around, there's a lot of energy, lots of pans and pots, knives, working. Late nights, going out for a drink, outside caterings, weddings, parties, dinners.
"Girls?" I asked.
"Girls. A waitress, actually, my wife was a waitress with me, so I got to meet her through working in the hotels and the kitchens," Goric said.
Goric went to culinary school in Lyon, France. He returned to Jerusalem. And by his early 20s, he was already landing prestigious cooking gigs. Chef Johnny – as he's known – has prepared food for top diplomats, royalty and presidents. He's won awards for his international fusion cuisine. But he still gets excited about the culinary traditions he was brought up with.
"We have good local products, that according to my experience, I can twist them around and create a new cuisine," he said. "I'm actually presenting a Palestinian cuisine in a new way."
Goric a commanding figure in the kitchen: tall, shaved head, a bright green chef's jacket and a tattoo running down his forearm.
It says "Lord Jesus Christ" in Aramaic – the language he grew up speaking at home as an Assyrian Christian. He put on a demonstration for me at the hotel in Jerusalem where he works.
"We're gonna present actually two dishes for you as a starter, hummus and we're gonna present eggplant cooked in the ancient way, which is called betinjan il-raheb, eggplant monk style, as a priest."
The style of fire-roasted eggplant is named after those priests – still seen in Jerusalem today – who wear long, flowing black robes. Goric chops up the roasted eggplant, makes two piles of it on a plate, and then covers them with two simple salad mixes.
Next up, hummus. Which might be the most common dish in the Midlle East. But Goric has his own variation.
Goric: "What I actually did here is I deep fried also some chick peas along with capers."
Bell: "Ah, deep fried capers."
Goric: "Deep fried capers that I'm going to decorate my hummus with."
Bell: "That's something new."
Goric: "That is something new."
And for the main course, Goric does grilled lamb and beef kabobs with cinnamon sticks as skewers. He serves them with a slice of homemade flat bread and a basic ratatouille.
"We grew up on, I mean, if you read Arabic, my status on Facebook today actually was saying, 'damn the new junk food, because it made us forget our grandmothers' and our mothers' good taste of food,'" Goric said.
Goric steers clear of politics in casual conversation. But being from Jerusalem, it's next to impossible to stay away from politics completely. So, Goric has embraced the ideology of peaceful coexistence. He belongs to an organization called 'Chefs for Peace,' which counts Palestinians, Israelis, Jews, Muslims and Christians as its members.
"We should live together, one point, that's it," he said. "Living always in the fear of being killed or to fight is something we are actually losing life itself … or we can do it the other way around."
Goric says Palestinians deserve their rights, same as Israelis. But beyond that straightforward political statement, Chef Johnny seems much more interested in talking about what ¹s next for him as a would-be celebrity chef.
Goric hopes to publish a cook book, to keep winning awards, and, one day, to open his own restaurant. There is a Palestinian culinary scene that's beginning to emerge, he said. And he'd like to help it get more international attention.
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