“Food is the new rock star,” comments Jesse Blonder, director and co-founder of the Center for Kosher Culinary Arts in Brooklyn. “Cuisine and cooking and culinary arts have experienced a renaissance over the past 10 to 15 years, especially within the last five.” And this innovation, modernization and emphasis on asceticism have finally begun to trickle down into the kosher food industry.
It’s a chicken and egg issue as to which came first: this newfound food awareness, reality shows like “Top Chef” and magazines like “Gourmet,” or the rise of the locavores, organic eaters and self-described foodies. What’s certain is that after observing the progress of their secular counterparts, observant Jews are tired of hearing the word “kosher” used as an excuse for sub-par cuisine.
And when a market worth $12.5 billion demands modernization, the food industry listens. Mainstream manufacturers including Coca-Cola, Frito-Lay, Kraft and General Mills have each released a selection of their products as certified kosher. One hundred and twenty-five thousand kosher products now grace the shelves of US supermarkets. According to an analysis of kosher eating conducted for Kosher Fest, the industry grew at a rate of 10 percent from 2008 to 2010, with more than 20 percent of Americans regularly or occasionally purchasing kosher products specifically for their kosherness.
Back in 1955, Chef Jose DeMereilles began to notice a growing faction of Jews who had not kept kosher in their childhood, but had since decided to become more religious. The creator of Les Halles—of Anthony Bourdain fame—hypothesized that these consumers, having enjoyed the quality and variety of the non-kosher food industry for so long, would be dissatisfied with the meat-and-potatoes fare more typical of kosher establishments of the day.
DeMereilles decided that if he could found a restaurant with the quality and service of Les Halles that happened to serve glatt kosher food, it would be wildly successful. “It could be a place where people who don’t keep kosher could go and enjoy the food as much as going to a non-kosher restaurant,” he told Jspace.
Not being Jewish himself, DeMereilles hired a rabbi as an advisor and set about learning how to cook kosher food. “It was like learning how to walk again,” he confessed. Ingredients that he had previous relied upon heavily, like butter, became troublesome. “As a chef, butter is basic. Every sauce you cook has butter. If you want to cook a little piece of fish, you use a dollop of butter. This was the biggest challenge: to learn how to cook without butter.”
But the cooking techniques were the same, and DeMereilles found his non-kosher background allowed him to approach the restrictions of kashrut as a creative challenge rather than a limitation. Now the owner of kosher New York establishments Le Marais and Clubhouse Café, DeMereilles is still shocked by the incredible success of his idea. “What we’ve accomplished with Le Marais is to open a French brasserie that happens to be kosher. All the menus, ambiance, the way that we do business, is the same way you do it at Les Halles and Pastis.”
“To this day, there is no excuse to cook bad kosher food,” DeMereilles argued. “If you have the will, you can have a very good kosher restaurant.”
After becoming religious later in life, Yochanan Lambiase founded the Jerusalem Culinary Institute in 2003 on this very principle. “Food has become much more kosher friendly than it’s ever been,” he commented. As the first culinary school in the world devoted to the study of kosher cooking, JCI’s mission is to explore the possibilities of kosher—as distinct from culturally Jewish—food. “I believe that kosher food can be on par with the top non-kosher Michelin-style foods,” Lambiase said.
To educate American professional chefs to work in the field, Jesse Blonder founded the only full-time, fully dedicated Kosher cooking school in the United States in October 2008. The Center for Kosher Culinary Arts currently offers professional-level training in culinary arts and pastry arts, as well as recreational classes for hobbyists and foodies.
Photo Credit: Esprit Events
All of the instructors at Blonder’s school have experience cooking outside of the kosher community, and he, himself, has never kept kosher. “I think it’s to our advantage, because it brings a fresh perspective,” Blonder explained to Jspace. “People who have been exposed to the wider culinary universe, who have seen things and cooked things that previously didn’t exist within the kosher community, bring that angle into the kosher community.”
“There’s nothing that that we don’t do because we think it can’t be done kosher. The only things that we don’t do are things that we are explicitly prohibited from doing,” qualified Blonder. While a milk-based sauce like béchamel will never truly be the same when made with a non-dairy substitute, the cream typically used to thicken the sauce for creamed spinach can be replaced with imitation MimicCreme or chicken stock for a tasty kosher version of the dish.
The same cooking techniques and textbooks, including Sarah Labensky’s “On Cooking” and the Culinary Institute of America’s “The Professional Chef,” are used at CKCA, so the school can provide a similar education to what would be found at Johnson & Wales or the French Culinary Institute.
“We very much want to enable our students to cook at the same level of professionalism as anyone else,” Blonder said. “And there’s no reason why they can’t because a pot is a pot and hot water is hot water.”
Culinary student Alison Barnett doesn’t quite agree. After considering attending a kosher culinary school to pursue her dream of being a personal chef or instructor, Barnett settled on the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City. As an Orthodox Jew concerned with Halacha, her choice may seem a curious one. But Barnett wanted to learn everything about cooking, including the less than kosher aspects.
“If they are going to give me scallops, I want to feel it, I want to smell it, I want to touch it, I want to learn how to cook it, because who knows what cool culinary thing I will be able to come up with in the future?” Barnett explained.
Before matriculating, she consulted her rabbi, who cautioned her against cooking dairy and meat together, and told her that she could taste the food she made, but not consume it. The first time she tried a bite of a dish she was preparing, Barnett was so scared of accidentally swallowing that she couldn’t breathe. That spelled an end to the taste testing.
Instead, Barnett grilled classmates on the taste, texture, spiciness and doneness of the dishes. “I have developed a sixth sense since I started culinary school: my sense of estimation,” Barnett joked. She has become adept at estimating seasoning and cooking lengths without actually eating anything. “The first time I under-salted the chicken because I am so used to [kosher] salted chicken,” Barnett laughed.
Now a graduate of the ICE, Barnett works part time at the Solo Restaurant in New York City while holding down a job at the non-profit Orthodox Union. “I feel like there is a lot of technique that I would not have gained from a kosher culinary school that I gained from this [experience],” Barnett reflected. “My eyes are open.”
Though much of his family works in the kosher food industry, Daniel Gelb also chose to attend a non-kosher culinary institute. After a decade of cooking on-and-off for kosher catering companies, Gelb finally heeded his boss’ advice and entered the Culinary Institute of America. “It’s difficult. I obviously don’t taste any of the food there and I can only eat the fruits and vegetables and my frozen kosher meals,” Gelb allowed.
For his final practical, Gelb told the chef that, because of his strict adherence to the laws of kashrut, he couldn’t taste his own food to test for proper seasoning. When he asked if another student could sample his dish, the chef responded, “Don’t worry about it. I’ll taste it for you before you bring it up, and I’ll tell you whether or not it needs more [salt or pepper].”
Despite the challenges—and the tempting foods being concocted—Gelb found the education superior to one he could have received at a kosher institution. Not only does the CIA have more students, and consequently more funding, Gelb argues, “They have cooking techniques that you wouldn’t find in a kosher school because you don’t cook with those types of food.” Like Barnett, Gelb was attracted by the possibility of adapting non-kosher technique to kosher cooking.
What Jewish culinary students who attend non-kosher culinary schools may lack are ready connections in the kosher culinary world. Jesse Blonder calls his Brooklyn school “the central spoke of a wheel which represents the kosher food service community.” But he isn’t stingy with his contacts, offering to place any culinary student looking to better the field of kosher cooking.
“In their own ways people are looking for more diversity. They’re looking for more choice; they’re looking for higher level of sophistication, better service,” Blonder reflected. “I think 50 years ago or 20 years ago, you took what you could get and you didn’t expect much else because it wasn’t a priority. But now the community has come to the point where they say, ‘Look, everyone else has this and its time for us to have this too.’”
“Food is part of our world in a way it never used to be,” Espirit Events co-founder Ellen Vaknine agreed. “Even if nobody steps into their little New York kitchen, we’ve all turned into foodies.” She and her husband Eli have endeavored to shake up the New York kosher catering scene, which in their opinion had become rather apathetic over the past 15 years.
Frequently asked to augment non-kosher caterer’s offerings at mixed events, Espirit must keep up with the forward progress of the culinary world at large. “Nobody’s happy just going out and taking a standard menu. There’s a real interest in seasonality, in organic, locally grown,” Vaknine said. To accommodate both the adventurous and the classic, Espirit has crafted offerings just as innovative as their non-kosher competition, causing the Senior Account Manager at non-kosher caterer Olivier Cheng to remark, "Esprit Events has re-written the book of kosher catering."
“One of the most frustrating things is when restaurants or caterers use ‘keeping kosher’ as an excuse for why food has to be subpar. How dare you? You need to take what you have and make the absolute best out of it,” Vaknine admonished.
The chorus of voices calling out for a fresh take on kosher cuisine is rising, and a growing cast of dedicated students, professionals and educators are emerging to meet the demand. The future of kosher food is limited not by its kosherness, but by the imaginations of the chefs in working the kitchen. Jewish or non, these professionals may just be the ones to revolutionize the kosher industry.