Chicken Soup With Stars
L.A.’s top chefs come together—and cook kosher—to honor Project Chicken Soup founder Mollie Pier
This Sunday, a dream team of Los Angeles’ top chefs will come together for a benefit. One is known for his signature short-rib-and-grilled-cheese sandwich. One established a summer ritual at her restaurant: featuring a different lobster dish each Monday night. Another was Michael Jackson’s private chef and now runs an environmentally minded eatery on L.A.’s Westside where a fig-and-prosciutto flatbread pizza draws accolades.
But these culinary experts will not be bringing many of their respective favorite dishes to Sunday’s event. The chefs—all of whom are Jewish—will be teaming up to make a brunch honoring Molly Pier, the 92-year-old co-founder of Project Chicken Soup, an organization that prepares kosher meals for people with AIDS. And for the occasion, being held at Temple Beth Am in South Carthay under the supervision of Rabbi Yonatan Benzaquen, these chefs will do something they don’t usually do: They’re cooking kosher.
A kosher catering company will provide desserts and a few basics for the fish-and-dairy fundraiser. But the main dishes will be conceived and crafted by six of L.A.’s leading chefs: Evan Kleiman, Akasha Richmond, Eric Greenspan, Alex Reznik, Susan Feniger, and Suzanne Tracht.
Tracht, who offers the aforementioned lobster menus at her restaurant Jar near West Hollywood, isn’t a newcomer to kosher food; she grew up in a kosher household and continues to cater to “a lot of people who prefer kosher-style.” There’s no risk of using treyf ingredients on Sunday, when all the dishes will be prepared on site at Temple Beth Am—“there’s no temptation in that kitchen,” said Tracht.
While many of these chefs see each other at splashy charity food festivals that cram the calendars of L.A. foodies, this cause is one that speaks to every participant and resonates deeply. “In the business I’m in, we take care of people that need to eat,” Tracht noted, and in that respect, Project Chicken Soup is the ideal organization to bring such culinary experts together, and Pier is the perfect person to honor.
Pier has a long history in Los Angeles. After growing up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and in Brooklyn, she married and then relocated with her husband in the early 1950s to California, where she worked as an administrator in L.A. public elementary schools and raised three sons. When one of them, Nathaniel—a graduate of Albert Einstein College of Medicine who treated patients suffering from AIDS when doing so was still rare among his peers—himself succumbed to the disease in 1989, Pier was inspired to action as a way to channel her grief.
Pier regularly pitched in at potluck luncheons held in the AIDS ward of a San Fernando Valley hospital. At some point, her friend Rabbi Janet Marder of congregation Beth Chayim Chadashim, who organized those events, told Pier about Nechama, her synagogue’s grassroots HIV/AIDS support network. Food hadn’t been on Nechama’s agenda, so in 1989, Pier joined with others in this circle of Jewish activists to add what they thought was an essential component of caring for the sick: bringing kosher meals to people who really needed them.
“After Nathaniel’s death, my dedication increased even more than it had been previously, and I vowed to myself to keep it alive in his memory,” Pier explained. The food-delivery service was independently incorporated as Los Angeles Jewish AIDS Services/Project Chicken Soup in the early 1990s, while still affiliated with Jewish Family Service; in 2011, it became known simply as Project Chicken Soup. Today, with the participation of over 1,500 volunteers, the organization delivers packages containing 10 kosher meals twice a month to 125 people across Los Angeles.
A gleaming commercial kitchen that the organization leases in Culver City hums with activity as a volunteer corps cooks, assembles, and then fans out to deliver food to people living with AIDS—and, since 2011, other serious illnesses. Menus are heavy on lean proteins, fresh vegetables, whole grains, and other nutritious and minimally processed items, all prepared under the eye of a mashgiach.
According to Executive Director Cathryn Friedman, the organization’s only paid staffer, clients “self-select” by letting her know when their health improves enough so that they can take care of their food needs on their own. Friedman then moves onto an ever-growing wait list. Although the majority of program participants don’t demand kosher meals—approximately one-third are Jewish, but many of them, like Pier, don’t keep kosher—sticking to this tradition has become an essential part of what Project Chicken Soup does, in part as an outgrowth of its beginnings in a synagogue and then a kosher kitchen managed by Jewish Family Services on Fairfax Avenue.
Pier has been accustomed to feeding large groups ever since she started working her way through a couple of cookbooks in the late 1940s soon after getting married. “I didn’t know who Lily Wallace was, but I read the recipes, and it seemed simple enough,” Pier explained to me as I interviewed her in the Project Chicken Soup kitchen. Marriage and children provided the impetus to learn her way around a kitchen, which came fairly naturally, despite having a mother who was a lousy cook. It also helped that her husband took an interest in reading about food. So, between family, neighbors, and an extensive circle of friends, Pier never lacked for an eager audience, and now the beloved recipes she developed over the years are converted to an even larger scale. Chicken soup inspired by Pier’s recipe, for instance, is a highlight of every package the organization delivers. Pier’s years with Project Chicken Soup have bolstered her sense of confidence in the kitchen: “We’ve had chefs volunteer,” she said with pride, “and even some of them have asked for my recipes.”
But the organization does more than deliver food. Pier personally calls each client in advance of the scheduled delivery to make sure someone will be present to receive the package. Being her socially intuitive self, she understands the other benefits of being charged with this task. Sometimes a client “needs a little TLC,” she said. “I supply that also.”
Pier’s volunteer activism has been extensive, including involvement in her local synagogue, the USC Andrus Gerontology Center, and a range of anti-homophobia advocacy groups. (She likes to say, “God led me to PFLAG.”) She also became known as the “cookie lady” for the homemade baked treats she regularly brought to the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles, which will perform at the awards brunch. But it’s Project Chicken Soup that remains closest to her heart after 23 years. “Doing this,” she said, “is really what has sustained me.”
Pier’s two surviving sons will be among the celebrants coming to town for the fundraising event, the first of its kind. Also in attendance will be Nathaniel’s partner, Michael Hannaway, who lives in New York City and remains close with Pier. “As far as I’m concerned, he’s my fourth son,” she said. “He still calls me every weekend.” In all, approximately 200 guests are expected.
The chefs assembled for Sunday’s benefit come from a wide range of backgrounds. Kleiman operated the casual Italian trattoria Angeli Caffe for 27 years, for instance, while Feniger is affiliated with the Mexican-themed Border Grill restaurants and Hollywood’s eclectic Street. Richmond gets raves for the fig-and-prosciutto flatbread pizza at her eco-chic Culver City restaurant Akasha, while Paris-trained Greenspan is about to open Greenspan’s Grilled Cheese, where his short-rib-and-grilled-cheese sandwich will figure prominently.
Despite the chefs’ diverse tastes, the brunch menu came together with relative ease, and every dish carries the distinctive stamp of its author. A meal featuring pickled herring and smoked whitefish (Reznick), parsley frittata with breadcrumbs (Kleiman), chilled Asian noodles with deviled egg and sriracha sauce (Feniger), kale Caesar salad with olive oil croutons and parmesan (Richmond), potato and apple kugel with garlic horseradish crust (Greenspan), and roasted vegetables with fresh herbs (Tracht) defies many expectations of what a kosher brunch can and should be and reflects the benefits of joining culinary forces.
“In the past there’s been a competitive nature,” said Reznik. “But now we love collaborating and coming up with ideas and expressing and sharing our work together.” Of all the chefs, he is arguably the most comfortable working within the laws of kashrut since he previously helmed the kitchen of a now-closed upscale contemporary kosher restaurant called La Seine in Beverly Hills. “Anything I can do to support the Jewish community,” Reznik added. Greenspan agreed: “To be associated with such a great list of talented chefs, it’s a great opportunity.”
And all seem in agreement that honoring Pier with a soulful Jewish meal felt just right: “What Mollie has done is take the past tradition of breaking bread around the table and expand the table to include those who are isolated and in need. It’s a beautiful thing,” Kleiman noted.
As for Pier, she still seems inspired by the son she tragically lost. “I can’t dwell on my losses. Because there’s no emotion in the world that’s more devastating than the loss of a child,” Pier said. “But I was determined when I saw that I’m still living that I’m going to make the most of it.”
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