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A Very Queer Shabbat Dinner

Food writer Jake Cohen cooks with soul at his monthly Friday night gatherings

Leah Koenig
February 11, 2019
Photo: Rachel Vanni
Photo: Rachel Vanni
Photo: Rachel Vanni
Photo: Rachel Vanni

On a recent Friday morning, Jake Cohen could be found chopping rainbow carrots, watermelon radishes, orange cauliflower, and a pile of other heirloom vegetables to serve as crudités alongside bowls of sweet potato hummus. A 16-quart (read: enormous) stock pot brimming with Persian bean and noodle stew called ash e reshteh rested in the fridge. Also prepped and chilling: many pounds of brisket, sweet noodle kugel, the elaborate makings of several cheese boards, and a sheet pan of his signature sumac and sea salt-spiked brownies.

If it seems like a shocking amount of food, it was—Cohen was hosting 80 people that evening for a queer Shabbat dinner sponsored by the nonprofit OneTable. But for Cohen, a food writer (he currently works as the editorial and test kitchen director at Instagram’s feedfeed) and self-proclaimed “nice Jewish boy,” epic meals are a daily part of life.

Cohen is a lifelong New Yorker (he was raised in Queens and currently lives in Manhattan) and, at 25, a member of the Food Network generation—kids who grew up with televised food personalities as their rock stars. “I would come home from school and binge watch Ina and Giada before starting my homework,” he said. In high school he honed his budding kitchen skills by throwing dinner parties for friends. And when it came time for college admissions, he applied to just one school: the Culinary Institute of America. Fortunately, it all worked out.

Since then, Cohen has racked up accolades in the culinary and editorial fields that rival those of people twice his age. He spent time working at Daniel Boulud’s Michelin-starred restaurant Daniel and at ABC Kitchen before realizing that “life in a restaurant kitchen was not the right fit.” So he transitioned to food media, building up a bustling freelance career as a writer and recipe developer while holding a series of editorial positions at Saveur, Tasting Table, Time Out New York, and, most recently, feedfeed.

He is also a beast on Instagram. His Technicolor food photography, flawless pasta twirling abilities, Jewish-dad-level skill for puns (a recent photo of baharat-spiced potato wedges was captioned “roast valuable player,” while a brisket pic got “braise the roof”), and by-the-minute chronicling of his personal food experiences on Instagram’s stories entertains more than 60,000 followers.

His magic lies in an ability to bridge the gap between the endless thirst for visual glamour required in the virtual food world, and the oil-sizzling, knuckle-scraping, physical passion of actually cooking. He also possess an indefatigable work ethic—anyone who has ever accused millennials of being lazy or entitled has clearly never met Cohen.

Guests at one of Cohen’s dinners (Photo: Jake Cohen)
Guests at one of Cohen’s dinners (Photo: Jake Cohen)

The OneTable queer Shabbat dinners, which Cohen hosts about once a month, are a more recent development. While food has long been core to his identity, he said he grew up a predominantly secular “High Holiday Jew.” His husband, Alex Shapiro, meanwhile, whose family is part Iraqi-Jewish by way of Iran, had nearly no connection to his faith until a recent trip to Israel with Birthright sparked his curiosity. Still, neither one had anything close to a regular Shabbat practice.

A year ago on New Year’s the couple (who were then engaged) acknowledged that they were feeling isolated by New York’s constant hustle and resolved to root themselves more deeply in their communities. “Basically we wanted to make more gay friends and join a temple,” Cohen said. Shortly thereafter, Cohen learned about OneTable, a nonprofit that supports people in their 20s and 30s in hosting communal Shabbat dinners. Drawn to the opportunity to fuse food and faith, Cohen signed up to host a dinner tailored for the LGBTQ community (though open to anyone) and hasn’t looked back.

“The dinners started out small, but have grown into this intentional queer space that was exactly what Alex and I had been missing,” Cohen said. He is free to cook with abandon and soul—very different from the precision required to develop a recipe for a magazine or website. And he and Shapiro both have developed professional contacts as well as meaningful personal friendships. Their hospitality has also made space for others to do the same. One repeat guest, Evan Ross Katz, who is 29, said the dinners have been nothing short of revelatory: “Gayness is such a huge part of who I am, but I had never before considered that my Jewishness could inform any of that.” Zachary Dorsen, 26, meanwhile, said he was inspired to host his own Shabbat dinner with OneTable; Cohen was among the dozen guests at that meal.

As the dinners swelled in number, they migrated across the East River from the couple’s tiny Manhattan apartment to Cohen’s mother’s more spacious digs in Long Island City, Queens. Cohen’s mother—who shares his fast-talking, open-book New Yorker realness—often becomes, as Cohen described it, “the life of the party.” Attendee Chloe Bower, 25, agreed. “[Jake and his mom] have an incredibly open and honest relationship that is amazing to witness. I love how they bring that same energy to the group.”

Food also helped forge bonds with Shapiro’s family, particularly when Cohen began to show an interest in learning more about Persian and Iraqi cuisine. After attending his first Sephardic Seder, and being enthralled by the unfamiliar foods and rituals, he asked his future mother-in-law, Robina Shapiro, if she would teach him. From her and Shapiro’s aunt he learned to make dishes like ghormeh sabzi (an herb-packed stew scented with dried limes), the walnut and pomegranate chicken dish fesenjan, and Iraqi kubbeh soup, and practiced his tahdig (Persian crispy rice) technique.

Cohen said these shared experiences in the kitchen “brought me closer into the family than I ever could have hoped for.” One day, he arrived home to find a huge box from Amazon waiting for him sent by Shapiro’s mother. Inside was a rice cooker and a copy of Food of Life: Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking and Ceremonies by celebrated cookbook author Najmieh Batmanglij. He was in.

Cohen, it goes without saying, has big dreams for the future. He wants to crush at his new feedfeed job, of course, but also has ambitions of writing cookbooks and eventually starring in his own cooking show. Meanwhile there are rugelach to roll, cheese boards to assemble and, fortunately for those lucky enough to attend, Shabbat dinners to host.