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Little Tunisia

Chef Alain Cohen brings a taste of North Africa to Los Angeles

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Cohen and his restaurant. (Photoillustration by Tablet Magazine; photos by Ellen Umansky)

Los Angeles beckons those eager for self-reinvention, and Alain Cohen was no exception.

Nearly 30 years ago, Cohen left France to enroll in L.A.’s American Film Institute. Born in Tunisia, he had lived in Paris from the age of 6, and he’d grown up working for his father’s kosher restaurant Les Ailes—everything from serving as a busboy and waiter to later bartending and managing. Now run by Cohen’s brother (their father died in 2000), Les Ailes is famous for its grilled meats, couscous, and a convivial atmosphere that attracts North African Jewish emigres. (Its location next door to the famed Folies Bergère never hurt, either.)

While Hollywood ostensibly fueled Cohen’s departure, the opportunity to place serious distance between himself and the family business was no small fringe benefit.

“I left France, I left the Jews,” the 54-year-old Cohen now says. “I left cooking Tunisian cuisine, I left everything I knew.” But the pull of his culinary roots proved surprisingly resilient. Nearly two summers ago, he opened up a café, Got Kosher? Provisions, featuring, he is the first to admit, food very much like his father served. At a time when delis are reinventing themselves and winning the spotlight for their efforts, Cohen and Got Kosher? remind us that there are other, equally delectable, Jewish gustatory traditions.

But let’s back up. When Cohen first moved to California, he found that breaking into the movie industry was harder than he had hoped. His one film was a documentary for French television called The Jews of Djerba, about a tiny island off the coast of Tunisia where Cohen’s maternal family has roots. After several years in Hollywood without steady work, and finding himself in a relationship that would ultimately produce a daughter, now 19, Cohen decided it was “time to get serious. I needed to make a living,” he says. “I thought, ‘What do I know how to do?’ Thank God, I knew food, I knew managing restaurants, I knew how to cook.”

Through the years, Cohen has held a smattering of culinary jobs—most of which were far from the kosher realm—from helping to train Disney employees in French language and cuisine in preparation for EuroDisney’s launch to managing Nancy Silverton’s popular, upscale La Brea Bakery. Gradually he found himself returning to the observances he grew up with and eventually took on work within the kosher food industry too. “Little by little,” Cohen says, “kosher was calling me back.”

About five years ago, he established the antecedant to his café—a wholesale business selling prepacked kosher sandwiches. In July, 2008, he opened the cafe. Got Kosher?, with its sign reading, “haute glatt to go,” sits on a busy stretch of Pico Boulevard in the heart of L.A.’s traditional Jewish neighborhood, a tiny take-out shop with just one table inside and a couple more on the sidewalk. But with an expansive menu including Tunisian dishes from his childhood, Got Kosher? has quickly gained attention.

The Los Angeles Times, not in the habit of featuring tiny glatt cafes, included Got Kosher? in a 2009 roundup of the city’s standout international sandwiches, calling Cohen’s merguez “splendid” and reporting that his smoked andouille “travels deep into uncharted flavor territory.”

His food lives up to its reputation. The warm merguez sandwich has a terrific kick to it, with peppery sausage redolent of fennel and accompanied by onions, parsley, and homemade harissa, resting in a challah roll. The traditional Tunisian sandwich is a revelation, somewhat like a nicoise salad but its own salty-sweet creation, a hodgepodge of tuna, egg, potato, olives, capers, and peppers. Cohen, who tends toward modesty, can’t resist waxing poetic when he talks about it. ”It’s a gestalt of tastes,” he says, his face breaking into a big smile, adding that the potato is “an island of rest in an ocean of spiciness.”

Kosher food doesn’t exactly have the best reputation, I say to Cohen, fantasizing about a world in which his Tunisian sandwich replaces the chicken and fish options on the bar and bat mitzvah circuit. Cohen sighs. He speaks of the relative scarcity of food that Jews found in Eastern Europe versus the bounty available in places like Spain and Northern Africa. “Ashkenazic cuisine reflects that,” Cohen says. “I’m not putting it down; there are some gems, and when it’s well done, it’s incredible, but they don’t have the same palate, the same range of spices as are available in Sephardic cuisine.”

It was a realization of a gap in kosher offerings that kick-started Cohen’s business. About 10 years ago, his partner in life and business, Evelyn Baran, realized that sausages were all the gustatory rage.“Why don’t you make kosher sausages?’” she asked him. He got to work and began tinkering in his garage, seeking counsel from his family butcher back in France, wrestling with the issue of casing—a Gordian knot of sorts, since non-kosher sausage uses a pork casing. In France, kosher and halal sausage is made from lamb intestines, but Cohen couldn’t find anyone in the States to supply these to him. When Cohen tried to import them from France, it took a month just to receive a sample, and then it was held up at customs; never mind the issue of rabbinical certification. “It was a problem,” he says. He ultimately turned to beef collagen for the casing. You can buy the result of his effort, Neshama Sausages, at Whole Foods and Fairway today.

But for all of Cohen’s focus on meat (Sundays he offers barbecue), it’s a Jewish staple, baked with a twist, that draws many customers. Inspired by the pretzel roll at La Brea Bakery, Cohen introduced a pretzel challah last year and saw sales skyrocket. He had to add a nightshift of bakers to meet the demand. Bathed in a baking soda solution, the dough is lighter than more traditional challahs and turns a beautiful dark color with a light pretzel flavor after being baked. Cohen now offers several varieties of challah, including one with chocolate chunks and another with green olives.

Yet as proud as he is of his other creations, Cohen constantly returns to Tunisian cuisine. “I left everything I knew, and now where am I?” he says. “I am here, cooking kosher Tunisian food, selling sandwiches, just like my father.” And then, as if he still can’t quite believe it himself, he adds, “I’m the perfect personification of the grass is always greener. I wanted something else, and then I realized, here I am standing, with grass, here under my feet.”

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This looks very interesting, but Tony Judt instructs us that any kind of nostalgic longing for our Jewish culinary past is empty kitsch, and obscures our lack of political engagement:

“What, then, should we remember? Great-grandma’s latkes back in Pilvistock? I doubt it: shorn of setting and symbols, they are nothing but apple cakes.”

Tony Judt
From The New York Review of Books.

Sorry Ellen, but writing about Jewish food is just not acceptable, according to Tony.

A.S. says:

fw, nothing Jewish is acceptable to Tony Judt.

Evelyn Baran says:

Don’t know this Tony fellow, but I think he’s mixing apples and oranges. Food and feeding our families are at the heart of community and family. Family and community are the fundamental building blocks of a healthy, functioning society. Hungry people become angry, despondent people. A different piece of the puzzle is political consciousness and action. We are rooted in the ground (read: family/food/culinary roots) and aspire upwards for greater good. I think Mr. Judt is way off base and, apparently, never ate any great food at his grandmother’s home when he was a kid.

fw says:

Agree strongly with both comments, but I may have latkes over my eyes.

fw says:

By the way, Evelyn, I think you get at a central point. The denatured Judaism that Judt advocates, ruthlessly purged of all of its cultural richness, is an abandonment of tradition altogether. It forsakes the only vehicle we have for transmitting ethics from generation to generation. Just because ethical principles have universal applicability that transcends religion and culture doesn’t mean that we can stop inculcating those principles through religion and culture.

Earl Ganz says:

To FW,

What does Tony Judt, whoever he is, have to do with anything in this article about
food? Somebody is grinding an ax but they’re doing it so badly, I’m not sujre what
they’re talkng about.

EG

fw says:

Okay, Earl. Here goes. The Judt essay mentioned was linked to and discussed within the last week here on Tablet. Judt himself is a distinguished historian of 20th century Europe, who has a popular sideline in advocating for the dismantling of the state of Israel, as presently constituted as a country with an ethnic and religious orientation. He also says a lot of nasty things about Judaism and Jews, endorsing, by way of example, Shlomo Sands recent book that the concept of a Jewish people is a fiction. Shlomo Sands has no academic background in Jewish history, and his thesis is irrefutably contradicted by contemporary genetic findings, supporting the continuity of our lineage, but Judt still gives his book a positive blurb, endorsing his conclusions, while knowing full well that they aren’t based on sound scholarship.

As it happens, Judt takes issue with all of contemporary Jewish culture, at least as its manifested in the United States, and pointedly does make reference to culinary traditions, as an object of his derision. We are, in his view, mindlessly adhering to practices that have no significant intrinsic meaning, and avoiding a confrontation with the fact that Israel is, in his view, a criminal state, to which we offer idolatrous support, and that we justify, without warrant, by citing the Holocaust.

My point in bringing up Judt’s essay was that this piece on Jewish cooking is precisely what he denounces as a kind of charade. In fact, most of the content of Tablet Magazine falls within the parameters of his condemnation. He suggests that Judaism really ought to have faded out of existence in the nineteenth century, with our assimilation into Europe, and that we are practicing and celebrating a kind of dead religion and culture. And that doing so is reprehensible because blinds us to the sin of Israel, for which we are responsible, and that recognizing and redressing that sin is our only moral obligation as Jews.

So all this wonderful stuff on Tablet, about cooking, literature, religion, and so on, is just meaningless nostalgia, that we should throw out. My first remark was an ironic comment on that fact.

lamicofritz says:

This is a very mouthwatering article; not only because it offers a change from matzoh-balls and herring nostalgia, because served with this food comes another nostalgia, one smelling of mediterranian spices, the sea etc. You don’t have to dismiss the tradition of feeding your family this or any other way as empty kitsch, but every now and then it isn’t the worst to reflect on your nostalgia’s illusionary and self-deceiving ingredients. By this I don’t mean kashrut, but the context you ascribe to food as for instance memory of loved-ones. I will never forget pastry and chicken dishes or stuffed peppers like I was served by my maternal grandmother – of blessed memory- from Croatia. The dishes served by my other grandma were objectively not worse – she lives in Germany- but the simple closeness to Bakica, having been to the mediterranian with her will always make even the most terrible stuffed peppers taste of Dubrovnik…

Earl Ganz says:

FW

I went back and read the article again and there is definitely no mention of Tony Judt
who according to you is a terrible fellow. It’s a wonderful article about good and unique
Kosher- Tunisian food, and a lesson that Mr. Cohen has learned about life. But you make
the article a platform to attack this Mr. Judt so that by the time we finish reading you we
have totally forgotten the food. Why don’t you write an article yourself and include your
gripes against Mr. Judt instead of trying to piggy back them on someone else’s article.
I guess it offends my sense of logic and fairness.

EG

fw says:

Earl, you’re right; I should write my own article. But I actually do think the piece I cited is entirely relevant to this article. And with respect to Mr. Judt, if you doubt what I have to say, then you should educate yourself about him.

Sometimes a pretzel challah is just a pretzel challah. And Alain’s is marvelous. So say the creators of the International Order of Challah Makers.

Dorothy Wachsstock says:

My mouth is watering for the food at our grandmother’s table whatever they were called. Tony sounds like an athiest who wants to rid us of our culture that we have brought to this great country. Never heard of him and not interested in his versions of what the food of the Jews mean to him. Names aren’t important but the taste and the memories will never be eliminated.

We pass them on to our children and may they enjoy the food and our culter as much as we do.

All I can remember are the smells of the food that has no name that we can remember when we walked into Bubby’s home. May she rest in peace.
Nothing Tony can make can replace that.

Simply a smiling visitor here to share the love (:, btw outstanding design. “Justice is always violent to the party offending, for every man is innocent in his own eyes.” by Daniel Defoe.

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Little Tunisia

Chef Alain Cohen brings a taste of North Africa to Los Angeles

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