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Wanted: Waiters with experience, for a change

December 18, 2007. Haaretz: Michal Palti
Agnes Lantos passes by the table, sees a diner eating beef stew and points out in heavily accented Hebrew that the choice is wrong; she suggests the goulash soup instead. She's right. The dish is switched and the goulash soup turns out to be excellent, reason enough to patronize this place.

Lantos is one of the star chefs at Makom Balev, a restaurant located in a garden amid the fields and orchards of Ra'anana (just before the dirt road leading to Givat Chen), whose owner, Haim Shastel, wants to revolutionize the Israeli employment situation for older people: In early January, a one-month training course opens for waiters who will work there, all of them aged 50-60.

"They are available and dedicated workers, some of them in early retirement and some of them looking for work and seeking to integrate into the labor market," he says. Shastel, 50, doesn't understand why an industrious person his age has to make do with temporary jobs and earn only the minimum wage. In the same month that the CEO of Elisra, Yitzhak Gat, declared he prefers workers with black and not white hair, Shastel's venture stands out.

Lantos, 60, emigrated with her family from Hungary to Israel eight years ago. In Hungary, she worked as a secretary. Hebrew is a little difficult for her, but cooking is something she excels at, boasting skills she acquired through years of experience in the kitchen. She comes to work every day at 4 A.M. and is responsible for baking the bread and organizing the cheeses and salads. Afterward, she has time to cook a dish or two before she turns over the kitchen.

The next team of cooks serves under the management of chef Kobi Katz, a graduate of the Cordon Bleu School in France, who is responsible, together with Shastel, for preparing the menu.

The maitre d' at the restaurant, who greets customers at the entrance and seats them, is Leah Ilan, 62. "I have a 15-year-old grandson," she laughs, "but there are days when I work a double shift: I come in the morning, go home to rest for an hour and come back in the afternoon. Mostly, I really enjoy it, otherwise I wouldn't be doing it."

Ilan has been working there since she was 56, before which she was a public relations consultant. "It's not easy work, mainly because you have to work with people and be very patient, but I enjoy it."

When she became ill with cancer several years ago, she was absent from work for months, but her job was held for her return. She recovered and came back to the job.

"The fact that I had a goal certainly helped me recover," she says, "and the atmosphere here also helped me."

Makom Balev opened eight years ago, almost by chance. Shastel, the owner, was a gardener and landscape designer, and owned a large gardening company.

"I designed gardens all over the country," he says. "Eight years ago, the intifada broke out, there were no workers, the Thai workers who helped me were not allowed to work and I had a hard time maintaining the business. A client asked me to transform an orchard into a garden, precisely on this spot, and I embarked on the project. Around the path, I planted all kinds of fruit trees and bushes. When I finished, the idea came to me of turning this garden into a restaurant that serves breakfast only."

Shastel rented the place, turned part of it into a covered garden, planted a seasonal garden where vegetables are grown without insecticides and offered his own homemade breakfasts.

"It was a tremendous success," he says. "I didn't advertise at all and people came. Slowly, I expanded and today I have dozens of employees."

The garden at Makom Balev is not a typical Israeli one; there are no cypress trees or sprawling begonias, nor are there prefab carpets of grass. Rather, it is a British-style garden where the fruit trees grow wild and provide a lot of shade. The ovens for bread baking are situated at the entrance to the restaurant. Adjacent to the vegetable garden there is a shaded area that Shastel refers to as the "games" garden with a large wooden table where organic vegetable dishes and dressings are concocted. During the visit, for example, Shastel prepared a salad from eggplants roasted over a coal fire.

Shastel formulated the plan for the waiters' course for older adults a few months ago because, among other reasons, of the high turnover among the young staff working for him. "They are nice and intelligent people, but by the time they learn the job, they leave for a trip to India or for college," he said.

"If there is someone studying in Haifa or in Tel Aviv, how many days will he be able to give me? I wanted to invest in the people and teach them the whole restaurant business: Wines, serving, cooking in the kitchen so they would know a dish's ingredients, desserts and also service awareness and how to use the restaurant's computer systems," he says. The students will also gain experience working in the vegetable garden.

Shastel did not advertise the planned course. He just appeared on Channel 10's "Kol Boker" program and related the idea; already, the next morning, he was swamped with dozens of inquiries.

"The course is intended for 20 people and 60 people have registered," he says. "I can offer them a part-time job, work a few days a week, everything is flexible. Even the salary is well above the minimum wage."

At present, Makom Balev is working on finalizing the list for the course, where Leah Ilan will be one of the instructors. "It's not just waiting on tables," Shastel clarifies. "It's also not just legwork as one might think, because there's someone who helps to clear and serve. It's more about the restaurant business and hospitality. I invest in the course graduates and want them to stay with me for a few years."

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