Moshe Safdie, famed designer of L.A.’s Skirball Cultural Center, displays his creativity in the kitchen, too

FishBranzino Baked in Foil. Photos by Dan Kacvinski. Food preparation and styling by Judy Zeidler

I first met architect Moshe Safdie about 30 years ago, at the base of a barren hill in West Los Angeles, where he envisioned the setting for the Skirball Cultural Center, now the nation’s largest Jewish cultural institution. 

It was at that time I discovered that he loves to cook. We talked for hours about his cooking techniques and recipes and the plans he had for the kitchen facilities at the Skirball.

When I contacted Safdie recently, he was on a whirlwind trip to Istanbul, where he has an exciting new project. (Past projects include the 2005 rebuilding of the Holocaust History Museum at Yad Vashem and the Alrov Mamilla Avenue shopping center in Jerusalem.)

The Haifa native, whose family later moved to Montreal, reminisced, “When the girls were growing up, we all cooked together. Now, of course, [my wife] Michal and I still enjoy cooking every day. Unless eating at friends’ homes, we rarely eat out. Michal does the primary cooking at home and is the master of the complex dishes and baking.”

Safdie confessed that he is the primary cook on the grill for meat and fish and sous chef for the rest of the meal.

“I make a superb whole salmon, charcoal grilled, which we often just serve with lemon, a little olive oil and no other sauce. We have now improved on this — it is all about the timing,” he said. “And as the fish cooks on the charcoals, we add some smoked wood, usually juniper, for the last five minutes, so the fish is infused with a smoked flavor. Extraordinary!” 

Another favorite fish dish Safdie enjoys preparing is branzino, or European seabass, wrapped in aluminum foil with herbs and olive oil, then roasted in the oven.

“This sounds simple, but the fish takes on an extraordinarily tasty flavor,” he explained. “Again, it is all about timing.”

In 1985, Safdie and his wife, along with their two daughters, bought a 250-year-old house in Cambridge, Mass., where he headed the urban design program at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. At that time, Moshe designed the interior of the house, with special attention to the kitchen. But this year, they totally rebuilt part of the house, with an improved kitchen. Safdie said the remodeled plan was based on many years of cooking in the original small space.

His interest in cooking and dining influences the wonderful settings in all of his projects, especially the new Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark., which we visited a couple of months ago. The restaurant there is breathtaking: You enter through a large archway with windows open to the outdoors and a view of the museum ponds.

It is the most refreshing restaurant space I have ever had the experience of dining in. The same is true with Zeidler’s Café at the Skirball (co-founded by my husband and me), where you can dine inside or outdoors on the open patio.

The Skirball just completed the final phase of a 30-year master plan, and its opening will be celebrated at an Oct. 19 dedication gala. The addition by Safdie includes classrooms, conference spaces, gardens and a grand hall capable of accommodating 1,200 guests. In conjunction with this celebration, a new exhibition, “Global Citizen: The Architecture of Moshe Safdie,” a survey of his work and philosophy, will open at the museum on Oct. 22.

Hopefully we will spend some private time with Safdie while he is in Los Angeles. We plan to invite him for a homemade Italian meal — and maybe even cook together. 


SYRIAN STUFFED ZUCCHINI

Safdie grew up on this Syrian specialty, made with lamb. The meat also can be beef.

∗ 4 medium zucchini, trimmed and halved lengthwise
∗ 1 pound ground lamb or beef
∗ 1 tomato, coarsely chopped
∗ 1/4 cup uncooked long grain white rice, rinsed
∗ 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
∗ 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
∗ 3/4 teaspoon ground cumin
∗ 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
∗ Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
∗ 1 pound dried apricots

Preheat the oven to 375 F.

Using a melon baller or a small spoon, hollow out the center of the zucchini, taking care not to puncture the skin.

In a large bowl, combine the lamb, tomato, uncooked rice, parsley, allspice, cumin, oil, salt and pepper. Divide the filling among the 8 prepared zucchini shells, patting the meat down firmly. Line the bottom of a large baking dish (it should hold all the zucchini) with the dried apricots. Set the stuffed zucchini on top, cover with foil, and transfer the dish to the oven.

Bake for 40 minutes or until the rice is cooked through and the zucchini shells are tender. If the dish seems dry during cooking, add a little boiling water to the baking dish. Serve at once.

Makes 4 servings.


BRANZINO BAKED IN FOIL

Lemon Sauce (recipe follows)

∗ 2 large branzino (European sea bass), 2 pounds each
∗ 1 lemon, thinly sliced
∗ 4 sprigs fresh parsley
∗ 2 garlic cloves, peeled
∗ 2 sprigs fresh rosemary
∗ 1/4 cup olive oil
∗ Salt and freshly ground
∗ black pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

Prepare the Lemon Sauce; set aside.

Clean the branzino and stuff the inside with lemon slices, parsley, garlic and rosemary, then drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Wrap each branzino in aluminum foil. Place on a baking sheet and bake in preheated oven for 30 minutes. To serve, spoon Lemon Sauce on top of fish.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.


LEMON SAUCE

∗ 1 clove garlic, minced
∗ 1/4 cup minced fresh parsley
∗ Juice of 1 lemon
∗ 4 tablespoons olive oil
∗ Salt and pepper to taste

In a bowl, mix the garlic, parsley and lemon juice. Drizzle in the olive oil, mixing well. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Makes about 3/4 cup.


Judy Zeidler is a food consultant and author of “Italy Cooks” (Mostarda Press, 2011). Her Web site is JudyZeidler.com.