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Kosher Unlimited

Barbara Bensoussan

Chorizo sausage? Panna cotta after steak? In an era where consumers, even kosher ones, want to “have it all,” clever kosher chefs are dreaming up new dishes that take their inspiration from popular non-kosher delicacies.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

chefExperimentation is the name of the game in today’s culinary market, and the kosher market is no different. One of the challenges many chefs take on is finding kosher versions of treif treats.

Some of these chefs have always eaten kosher, and they’ll never know if their riffs bear any resemblance to the real McCoy. But many of them are Jews who didn’t always follow the Shulchan Aruch. They’re seeking to expand the possibilities for kosher cuisine by reproducing the flavors they once appreciated.

To get a taste — literally — of the latest improvisations of kosher chefs, Family First visited twoNew York restaurants. Come along with us as we see what’s cooking.


Expanding the Kosher Palette

When Chef Jeff Nathan first opened up Abigael’s restaurant inManhattanabout 14 years ago, it didn’t occur to people that kosher could be upscale. “People assumed I was serving corned beef on rye and coleslaw,” he says dryly.

But Abigael’s, with its subdued lighting, dove-gray décor, soft jazz in the background, and impeccably courteous waiters, is no mom-and-pop corner deli. And Jeff Nathan, striding with a commanding air through its kitchen and capacious dining rooms, is no short-order cook.

The transition to kosher wasn’t easy for him. Trained in the CIA (Culinary Institute of America), a chef who has traveled the world sampling different cuisines, and who once owned a non-kosher Italian restaurant, Jeff was used to having the world at his fingertips in the kitchen. He sees himself as an artist creating masterpieces, with food as the medium. “When I switched to kosher, it was challenging at first,” he says. “It was as if I was a painter, but while my palette had formerly held 50 colors, now it only held six. It wasn’t as vibrant.”

Since those bland beginnings, the kosher food market has blossomed. With events like Kosher Fest introducing hundreds of new products every year, Nathan admits that his palette has now acquired more than a few new hues. “Now I have maybe 15 or 16 colors,” he acknowledges. “Today I have ingredients like wasabi, rice vinegar, nori.”

He formed a close relationship with Rabbi Daniel Senter of Kof-K, the agency which provides hashgachah for the restaurant, and now has an advocate when he identifies a product he’d like to use which has no hechsher, but shouldn’t pose a problem. He gives Rabbi Senter a call to see if it isn’t possible to negotiate hashgachah with the company.

Looking around the large basement kitchen of Abigael’s, with its stainless steel counters and racks overflowing with industrial-sized pots and baking trays, it seems that Chef Nathan has plenty of choice in his culinary arsenal. A shelf at one prep station holds containers of tarragon, garam masala, hickory seasoning, Himalayan pink salt. “I have 17 different salts in my kitchen,” he declares. “I have everything from black lava salt, which has an earthy flavor, to fleur de sel, a specialty salt which can only be raked up at certain times of the year. The Himalayan salt is a finishing salt; I use it on ceviche [cured fish].”

As we watch, the chef puts together several dishes to show us, throwing orders to his sous-chefs with the authority of a five — star general. Under construction are three entrées: salmon cakes, pulled brisket of beef in slider buns on top of a puree of sweet potatoes, and a sliced chicken-chorizo roll in a red enchilada sauce. Each of these dishes mimics a popular non-kosher dish: the salmon cakes are reminiscent of crab cakes, the pulled beef is prepared like pulled non-kosher meat, and the chorizo is a kosher version of Mexican chorizo sausage.

“You can’t create an exact imitation of something non-kosher,” Chef Nathan maintains. “That’s like trying to make an apple taste like a pear. An apple is an apple, a pear is a pear — in the same way, beef or lamb will never taste like pork. But as part of my chef’s creativity, I’ll draw inspiration from a non-kosher type of food preparation and recreate it with kosher ingredients.” He’ll adopt the same procedure and the same seasonings, but substitute kosher ingredients. The end result then possesses a distinct flavor of its own.


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