For the Times of Israel, posted January 14 2017 By Jenni Frazer
LONDON — It’s a fair bet that most people have never heard of the chicken of the woods fungus. Yet, with this almost unknown vegetable, the kitchens at The Gate restaurants in London could, if pushed, recreate the authentic taste of bubbe’s chicken soup — and it would be hard to tell the difference.
The Gate is a story of love and persistence, of the blind ambition of two Iraqi-Indian Jewish brothers who knew absolutely nothing about running a restaurant and who now preside over a mini-empire of three, said by many to be the best vegetarian restaurants in London.
Michael and Adrian Daniel are two of seven children — six boys and a girl — of Indian-Iraqi Jews who ended up in London by accident.
“My father had gone to Israel in 1950 [from India] as part of the aliya movement. And then his mother went to London in 1956 with her two youngest children,” says Michael.
Six weeks after their arrival in Britain, tragedy struck when one of the siblings was drowned in a racist attack in east London.
“At that point everyone left where they were and came to be with my grandmother. And my father was the one who stayed, he was a good son,” Michael says.
Three years later Michael’s mother, who had known their father in India, arrived in London and the couple married.
As a child, Michael’s education was not a success. He attended two Jewish schools but says he left barely able to read, write, or do arithmetic.
“I was a lost soul,” he says, and though he worked with his electrician father “almost as soon as I was able to hold a screwdriver in my hand,” he spent his late teens and early 20s kicking about between London and Israel, trying to figure out what to do with his life.
The one constant in the Daniel brothers’ life was the food. “There were always these amazing smells or dishes which we would get and we didn’t know what they were. My grandmother was an astonishing cook, and so is my mother. But we weren’t allowed in the kitchen. In fact, my grandmother thought it was rather shocking to have men in the kitchen, for her it was anathema,” says Michael.
What he did figure out, says Michael, was just how labour-intensive the food preparation was.
“My mother would call me on a Wednesday and say, are you coming for dinner on Friday night? I need to go shopping,” Michael says. “And I would say, come on, it’s only Wednesday.” But so many of the Iraqi-Jewish signature dishes with manifold steps of chopping and stuffing required early preparation to ensure everything was ready for Shabbat.
By the time he was 19, Michael — several of whose siblings followed suit — had become a vegetarian. And at 22, he left yeshiva in Jerusalem to hang out in the desert with the Bedouin, wondering what to do next.
For two weeks at a time, Michael recalled, “I’d live on some ancient hillside earning my money picking olives, then go down to the desert and spend time with some Bedouin in the Sinai. I did a bit of snorkeling, but most of my down time was spent hanging out by the campfire, listening to the Bedouin stories of the past.”
He came back to London briefly to work with his father, but planned on going back to the desert.
But one day in 1989 there was a fateful phone call from Adrian, one of his older brothers. “He said, I’ve found a restaurant in Hammersmith, come and have a look”.
A highly dubious Michael went to the west London neighbourhood to see a closed-down cafe, the Angel Gate, on the second floor of the area’s Rudolf Steiner community centre.
“I’d just come out of a yeshiva and found myself in a Christian centre,” he says. “But they are alternative Christians, so you can’t even identify them in a cultural sense. They were [at first] very odd and strange and reserved.”
The Rudolf Steiner authorities were in discussion with a number of existing restaurants to take over their cafe, but instead gave a one-year lease to the Daniel brothers to run it.
“We were just the two of us,” says Michael. “The place is around the corner from a lot of music industry offices and from the Hammersmith Apollo [one of the capital’s biggest concert venues]. So we would get up in the morning, go to the markets, cook, and then serve some food at lunchtime, very cheap.”
‘We were just the two of us, so we would get up, go to the markets, cook, and serve some food at lunchtime, very cheap’
Both the brothers did everything: cooking, waiting at tables, front of house greeting, leafleting outside the Hammersmith Apollo.
By degrees they reached an accommodation with the Rudolf Steiner people, who at first refused to allow the restaurant to open on Sundays and forbade the brothers from walking around “Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings between 10 and 11, while services were going on downstairs.”
Right from the start it was a vegetarian venture and soon became locally popular and successful. Rudolf Steiner extended the lease and in 1991, somewhat to their astonishment, the restaurant won an award from Time Out magazine for best vegetarian meal.
“We were just a couple of borderline hippies, cooking a bit of food, having fun, staying up late with our friends… and I remember driving back from the awards thinking, oh, no, people are going to find out about us now,” Michael says.
It was time, perhaps, to get serious.
Michael emphasises that neither of the brothers knew anything about restaurants. “We’d go, perhaps once a year, to a vegetarian restaurant after Passover, that was our big treat. So we knew nothing about eating out or what a restaurant experience should be like. We just made it up as we went along”.
But The Gate became — almost despite itself — hugely successful. In 2011 the Rudolf Steiner authorities forced a refurbishment on the restaurant and the Hammersmith branch was temporarily closed. In the interim Michael opened a new outpost in central London’s fashionable Angel Islington area, and in December 2016 the third Gate opened in the Marble Arch/Mayfair area. The newest branch is in the heart of the capital — and around the corner from an Orthodox and a Reform synagogue. It is no surprise to see be-kippah-ed diners in The Gate.
En route the brothers published two well-received vegetarian cookbooks, one of which is on restaurant food and the other a more domestic kitchen-friendly way of recreating some of The Gate’s best-loved recipes.
For Jewish diners — even those who are not Sephardi — many of the dishes have a familiar ring. There is, of course, hummus and shakshuka, and British twists on kibbeh, and then items such as grilled halloumi with Indian spices, or schnitzel, but with eggplant rather than chicken.
The Gate, maintain the Daniel siblings, is a good restaurant which happens to be vegetarian. Michael believes the “Arabic hospitality gene” which runs through his family’s lifestyle is part of its success.
It is avowedly a family affair. Michael’s wife, Alice Bajrach, is an architect who has designed the look of all three restaurants. But though the food reflects the brothers’ upbringing, they have been unsuccessful in persuading their mother to divulge the details of any of her recipes.
“She’s worried that if she tells us, then we won’t want to come and eat it at her house,” jokes Michael.
If Michael has a mission, it is to persuade even meat eaters of the possibilities of vegan and vegetarian food — “and to do good things.” To that end, the restaurant supports Ambitious About Autism (AAA), and has so far raised about £15,000 ($18,350) to help the charity.
Michael says he was drawn, because of his own difficulties with education, to helping special needs kids. The Gate has produced a wonderfully sympathetic guide for autistic people who eat out, taking into account every hurdle they might come across, from undue noise in the restaurant to explaining how the table is laid and what people can expect from the waiter.
Yossi Edri, the Israeli chef who is The Gate’s head of food, tells about a chocolate project he has worked on with the AAA kids, helping them make chocolate truffles for Christmas presents.
“They sold out in 45 minutes,” he says, proudly.
And it is Edri who talks about the chicken of the woods mushrooms. “I can make chicken soup from this and you won’t know the difference,” he boasts.
This is a man who can do 100 things with eggplant, perhaps disguising it as chicken liver pate so well that exasperated vegetarian diners are almost sure they are really eating poultry.
And, just occasionally, Michael will nip back into the kitchen in one of his restaurants. “This is how you make it,” he’ll tell his team. “This is how it should taste.”
It’s vegetarian food for the 21st century, but showing its roots in every sense.