Mishiguene’s Tomás Kalika on Cooking Jewish in Argentina

Chef Tomás Kalika couldn’t walk for a month after his wedding.

“It was total craziness. There’s nothing better than a Jewish wedding. It’s all about the never ending parade of food and the out of control party,” he explains before telling me the story of how his Grandma Olga’s teeth fell out while throwing her up in the air during the hora dance. “At Mishiguene, we wanted to recreate the same lively atmosphere as a Jewish wedding, but without the bride and groom.”

Kalika heads the kitchen at Mishiguene, a contemporary Jewish restaurant in Buenos Aires that is redefining the rules of Jewish cooking by showing diners that it goes beyond traditional renditions of matzo ball soup and deli sandwiches.

“The Jewish culinary map is immense and most people only know the basics. If you are Sephardic, you know about kippe and lachmagine, or if you are Ashkenazi, you grew up with borscht and kreplach, and nothing beyond that,” Kalika, who has a massive Jewish star tattooed on his forearm, tells me. “So at Mishiguene, we applied modern techniques to Jewish recipes from across the globe.”

The restaurant, which is referred to as cocina de inmigrantes, or immigrant cooking, puts its own spin on the recipes of the Jewish nomads who immigrated to Argentina.

“Sure, the presentation might not look familiar, but every dish has a story behind it,” Kalika assures me as he lists a few of his most sought out dishes including sous-vide gefilte fish wrapped in thinly sliced carrots with a horseradish reduction, bone-in pastrami smoked and grilled on an Argentine parrilla, the mixed Jerusalem grill with chicken liver, hearts, and sweetbreads swimming in a hummus-tahini foam, and varenikes, potato dumplings cooked in schmaltz (rendered chicken fat) and sprinkled with gribenes (chicken cracklings).

“Jews are nostalgic. Jewish food is nostalgic. Our heritage cooking is passed down from generation to generation. These are the same dishes that our mothers and grandmothers would make. A lot of people who eat at Mishiguene find flavors reminiscent of their childhood.”

For all you goyim and shiksas out there, mishiguene (pronounced “me-shu-ga-nah”) is the Yiddish word for someone who is “crazy, senseless or foolish”. Before Kalika opened Mishiguene with his partner, Javier Ickowicz, the two sat down to personify the imaginary restaurant. They asked themselves, if Mishiguene was a person, who would he be? So they created a character, Mishiguene the Rabbi, a middle aged New Yorker who lived in the Bronx and spoke in rhetorical questions.

“He’s cool guy who smokes weed, listens to Matisyahu, and adorns his body in gold chains and rings on every finger. But just like any good Jewish boy, he lives on gefilte fish, eats hummus directly from the container with a spoon, and, of course, his mother is always calling to make sure he is okay,” Kalika explains.

A descendant from Polish and Russian immigrants, Kalika grew up in the upper-middle class Belgrano neighborhood of Buenos Aires and found himself in the kitchen as a way to stay out of trouble.

“I was a bad kid. A total disaster. I did a lot of drugs and never went to school. I only listened to punk rock, played the guitar and got high.” At 16 years old, without many options left, his mother sent him to Israel to live on a kibbutz where he first got a sense of the life as a cook. “Everyone works on the kibbutz, and they made me a dishwasher in a kitchen that fed over 6,000 people. That was my first job inside a kitchen.” His mother, who knew her son wasn’t going to study, encouraged him to pursue a career in cooking. He moved to Jerusalem and decided to temporarily work in a restaurant as a way to make money.

“One day I opened the Haaretz newspaper and read the food critic Daniel Rogov’s top Israeli restaurant ranking. Eyal Shani’s restaurant, Oceans, was number one. I’m going to work there, I said to myself, and went to the restaurant for a job.”

After sitting outside the restaurant and stalking the Israeli celebrity chef’s kitchen window for a week, Kalika finally built up enough courage to enter.

“When I went inside, Shani wasn’t there, but I waited for him for eleven hours. When he finally arrived, I pleaded for a job — he denied me several times but I told him I wouldn’t leave until he gave me a position. So, he handed me a white coat, and he said, don’t fuck with me, don’t lie to me, show up on time and listen to everything I say. He sent me to wash dishes and I worked there for three more years. It gives me goosebumps every time I think of it.”

Kalika attributes Shani, the creator of Modern Israeli Cuisine, as his teacher and source of inspiration, “He is my idol.”

Kalika continued to work in high end restaurants in Jerusalem, training under some of the country’s best chefs. At 25 years old, he returned to Buenos Aires and worked as a consulting chef, and landed a TV show on El Gourmet channel called “Cocina Judia” (Jewish Cooking).

“The program was garbage. Just terrible. I’m embarrassed to watch it,” Kalika tells me. “The recipes were bad and the dishes were ugly.”

Soon after, he began working as the corporate chef for the fine dining restaurants on Princess cruise ships, which he remembers as one of the best jobs he’s ever had, “I got to travel the world, with an unlimited budget, and use the best product imaginable.”

When he returned to Buenos Aires, the young chef opened his first restaurant, The Food Factory, but it wasn’t as he had envisioned his debut as a restaurateur to be.

“It was a failure. Why The Food Factory? Why a name in English? Why is it a factory? There was no concept,” he admits with a smile.

Shortly after opening the second location of The Food Factory, and losing all of his money, Kalika closed both restaurants and swore to never cook again.

“I believe everything in life is written. If I hadn’t failed at the Food Factory, I wouldn’t have opened Mishiguene.”

Kalika never dreamed of opening up a Jewish restaurant until he met his business partner, Javier Ickowicz, owner of Nucha, a chain of popular cafés in Buenos Aires.

“I didn’t think Jewish cooking was on the same level as the world’s great cuisines. Fine dining is Alain Ducasse and Daniel Boulud, not making kreplach or pastrami,” he says.

But Ickowicz convinced him Jewish food was the way to go, and upon opening Mishiguene, with a full restaurant from day one, Kalika quickly realized that the only way to become a successful cook was to find his own identity.

“I am an Argentine. I am a Jew. I trained in Israel. Why would I make better French food than a French chef? The secret was finding myself, a strong concept, and cooking honestly.”