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Chef cooks up a grand social experiment

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"I live in the street" says a diner named Mohammed, who is at a crowded table of four at Carmei Ha'ir (Vineyards of the City), a Jerusalem restaurant. "Yesterday I looked in the garbage for food. I heard they give food for free here."

That kind of comment could be heard at many soup kitchens in Israel, which has moved away from its welfare-state roots.

But this isn't a soup kitchen; it's a restaurant overseen by award-winning chef Moshe Basson, who once counted Israeli cabinet ministers and Jerusalem's mayor among his regular clientele. He and his partner, Rabbi Yehuda Azrad, wanted to create an eatery that caters not only to different tastes, but different classes.

For the long-term poor, Carmei Ha'ir was to be a notch above the usual charity meal, with a choice of entrees, table service, and a restaurantlike ambience. In Mr. Azrad's view, it was vital that the eatery not be run-down and depressing. "Our aim is to provide food with dignity," he says.

Mr. Basson backed that approach, but also wanted to draw in some of his old customers from his previous restaurant, Eucalyptus. His specialty is Bible-based cuisine and Middle East specialties.

Mostly, however, Basson wanted to reach the newly poor, those Israelis who came from the middle class but had lost their businesses or jobs because of the economic downturn.

The financial difficulties he had faced after years of prosperity at Eucalyptus made him feel a special kinship with such people. Eucalyptus was located on Jaffa Road, a street struck repeatedly by suicide bombers, and Basson's clientele had dropped precipitously as Israelis and tourists stayed away from downtown Jerusalem. He had to dismiss most of his staff, and eventually shut down after having the electricity cut off because he could not pay the bill. Dozens of other Jerusalem businesses have ended the same way.

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