At Kosher Chefs’ Cook-Off, Forget Foie Gras


kosher-chef-contestMichael Grynbaum of the NY Times reports: Culinary school had its frustrations for Seth Warshaw, the executive chef and owner of Etc. Steakhouse, a kosher restaurant in Teaneck, N.J. He had enrolled in a prestigious cooking school in Manhattan, but it quickly became clear that his religious restrictions rendered many hallmarks of fine French cooking – like rich creams and luscious crustaceans – off-limits.

“I sat there with my container of water, drinking while everybody ate,” Mr. Warshaw recalled, sounding a bit pained.

“I didn’t eat foie gras. I wanted to. I wanted to take it home and take a bath in it.”

Mr. Warshaw, an observant Jew, had been asked to ruminate on this topic because he found himself in an unusual role on Sunday: a judge for the taping of an all-kosher cooking competition called “The Next Great Kosher Chef.” It was held at a commercial kitchen in Long Island City, Queens.

The event was being sponsored by the Center for Kosher Culinary Arts, a three-year-old organization in Midwood, Brooklyn, that offers instruction to kosher chefs seeking the secrets to fine dining, minus the tref, or nonkosher. Its founders claim the school is the only all-kosher culinary academy outside of Israel.

“They can come, they can taste, they can eat,” Elka Pinson, the school’s owner, said of her students. At secular institutes, she said, “you pay $45,000 and can’t taste a thing!”

To promote its curriculum and the broader art of fine kosher cooking, the school solicited competitors to take part in an all-day kosher cook-off. The grand prize: a scholarship for a 152-hour training course, which Ms. Pinson said costs $5,000.

Professional chefs could not compete. Batsheva Goldstein, 32, a contestant from Brooklyn, cooks constantly at home and dreams of hosting a show on the Food Network, but she works as a nurse.

“It’s a job I can get a paycheck for,” she said, laughing.

As a hired film crew recorded the proceedings – the organizers are hoping to interest producers in the tape – the contestants went about a series of vaguely sadistic tasks. Step One: beat a dozen eggs to a puffy meringue, create a carrot julienne with a mandoline slicer, squeeze a few words in pastry buttercream and scale a fish, all in 15 minutes.

This came after a written exam in which the contestants were asked to weigh in on the New York City trans-fat ban and identify the kosher animal from the following: camel, giraffe, zebra and hare. (Answer: giraffe.)

While the contestants battled it out in the kitchen, many spectators expressed pleasure that the word cuisine was firmly established with the word kosher.

“This is a desperately needed thing within the kosher world,” said Zechariah Mehler, a restaurant critic who specializes in kosher dining.

“There was a time when the kosher wine was extra-heavy Concord Malaga,” he said. “Now we’ll run into each other at a food and wine expo in a few months, and there will be 800 brands.”

Elan Kornblum, one of the judges, publishes an annual international directory of high-end kosher restaurants in cities like New York, Montreal and Paris. “Kosher is always five years back from the nonkosher world,” he observed.

One of the recent imports is sushi, which was also the main dish of the day’s catered lunch. “Tuna, salmon are fine,” Mr. Kornblum said. “But no shrimp or crab.”

There are also generational shifts that are helping kosher cuisine make the leap from a punch line to something desirable to foodies. “It used to be your grandmother or mother in the kitchen,” Mr. Kornblum said. “Now there’s nothing shameful for a man to make a meal for his friends.”

For the final round, each competitor prepared a chicken entree with sides of squash and other vegetables. All went heavy on the spices.

The top prize went to Jasmine Einalhori, 22, who is set to graduate next week with a degree in hotel management from New York University. A Los Angeles native with Persian and Israeli roots, Ms. Einalhori said she wanted to work in the restaurant industry but rejected the idea of a secular cooking school because she would not be allowed to taste some of the food. “It would be like torture,” she said.

With the scholarship, she said, she will be able to pursue her first formal culinary course. And she has bigger plans on the horizon. “I want to be the kosher Danny Meyer,” she said with a smile, holding her first-prize certificate.

{NY Times/}