American immigrants spice up Tel Aviv’s food scene with family-run cooking studio
Sisters Aliya Fastman and Shaendl Davis teach Israeli and other cuisines via English-language workshops and courses in their Florentine studio
Growing up in Berkeley, Calif., sisters Aliya Fastman and Shaendl Davis would set up a makeshift restaurant for their parents, present them with menus, take their orders and serve them meals that they had cooked together.
Now that the duo is all grown up and living in central Israel, they’re doing much the same, except this time the two are teaching others how to do it in a cooking studio they run together under the name Citrus and Salt.
While Davis, 32, attended Jerusalem’s Culinary Institute and developed her career in the kitchen at various restaurants, including Bucci’s in California and Cafe Xoho in Tel Aviv, she describes Fastman — three years her senior — as the one who is a “natural-born cook.”
“I grew up in the Bay Area, which is quite the culinary scene, international really,” Fastman told Jewish Insider in a recent interview. “So I grew up having Pakistani food, or Chinese food or Taiwanese. And it was just normal to me that there were so many flavors available.”
Fastman’s familiarity in the kitchen began at an early age. “My parents are rabbis and they would teach bar mitzvah students after school. So we would be home and we would need something to eat, so I would cook for my sister and I,” Fastman said. Her grandmother would make “classic Ashkenazi dishes,” such as matzo ball soup, kreplach and brisket. Intrigued, Fastman began experimenting with recipes.
“It comes very easily to her, she’s very creative — it’s just always been her thing,” Davis said of her sister. “So she started cooking very young and then kind of got me involved. And then now with the workshops, it was kind of a similar thing. It was something that she had started…and then eventually got me involved as well.”
The venture started as a side project for Fastman, who studied political science and up until recently was working in public relations. In 2016, she began teaching Israeli cooking in English during the evenings and weekends, mostly for tourists, out of her kitchen in Givatayim — inspired by her own love for learning the food of other cultures. “When I travel, I love to learn the cuisine of the locals,” she told JI. “And the more local it is, the better — like the floor of a woman’s house in India, people who do it because they love it, not just because it’s a day job.”
As the business evolved, growing from a couple of classes a month to four or five a week and attracting big companies such as Wix and Monday for employee fun days, as well as diplomats from the British embassy, it expanded to include other cuisines as well.
Fastman decided to “go all in” a year and a half ago — with a push of encouragement from her sister — after seeing that business was thriving, despite almost throwing in the towel due to the COVID pandemic when they turned to online classes. “But people kept writing, so we kept teaching,” Fastman said. The duo expanded their target audience to locals as well, having learned from the pandemic that they couldn’t rely solely on tourism.
The sisters rented a neglected space in Tel Aviv’s funky Florentine neighborhood and put in flooring, water, gas and colorful fresh paint to transform it into a bright and cheerful cooking studio, decorated with plants and wall hangings. They opened their doors a year ago and in the first months ran an average of four classes a month — demand fluctuates according to the season — and last month they reached their peak, holding 10 classes per week.
At a recent workshop one Friday afternoon, the group consisted of a brother and sister visiting from Germany, an oleh from Azerbaijan, a group of American olim and a native Israeli — including two couples — and another American woman who was on vacation in Israel.
Fastman was running the workshop that day — she and Davis split the duties 50/50 — and created a laid-back, fun and social atmosphere with her lighthearted approach and friendly chit-chat.
A jug of red iced tea awaited participants coming in from the hot and humid streets of Tel Aviv, and Fastman initiated a round of introductions before she led the group in preparing the dishes together, guiding the students in how to cut the perfect carrot matchsticks and advising on where one could buy the best curry paste (though she could also teach them how to make their own).
The menu that day was meatless, as per a request by a returning student who sought to reduce her husband’s meat consumption. The class cooked up Thai Tom Yum soup, mushroom pesto wraps, japchae (a Korean noodle dish) and vegan Buddha bowls.
At the end of the workshop, participants enjoyed the meal they had prepared together over a bottle of wine.
Yannick Schulze, who was visiting Israel from the Stuttgart area in Germany, joined the workshop with his sister, who often seeks out cooking classes while traveling. “We love to learn different cooking styles all over the world,” Schulze told JI. “I loved it because it was a small and friendly group and Aliya explained all the steps in a way that was easy to repeat. So far I have made the caramelized carrots and the tasty red coleslaw at home,” he noted, once back home in Germany.
Kat, an American now living in Jerusalem, remarked that Fastman “took the stress and perfectionism out of cooking and made it really easy and fun.” She took the class, she said, to get more comfortable in the kitchen.
Citrus and Salt offers both individual three-hour workshops and seven-week courses aimed at boosting participants’ confidence in their cooking abilities and teaching them how to make healthier meals.
“I want you to feel like you are capable and that it’s OK to make mistakes and that it can be fun. More so, it’s not just about the food in the classes, it’s really about the community building,” Fastman said.
The school draws people from all over the world. A class Fastman taught lately included students from Sudan, Argentina, Spain, France, the United States and Canada.
“When you go into a class like that, you’re spending a significant amount of time with them,” Fastman continued. “So you know, being able to facilitate conversation, people just share their backgrounds, and oftentimes people will exchange numbers or leave their little group to go talk to the other group that’s come, or invite people over like, ‘Oh, when you come to New York, come to Shabbat.’ And that’s significant because it’s just this point of connection in a very chaotic city. I think it’s special. So that’s something that we really look towards. Obviously, tourists come and it’s a tourist experience. But we really prefer to think of it as an authentic homey experience.”
Fastman dreams of building bridges further, leaning on her master’s degree in conflict resolution and mediation to run coexistence cooking classes between different populations in Israeli society. “Because when you do an activity with somebody that’s supposed to be your enemy, and you realize they also like to fry onions, it makes you a little bit warmer and softer,” she said. “And I think we’re a perfect place to do that. And I have the education for it. So that’s kind of on our future road map.”