There is kosher and then there is kosher. I have known this truth for years, but last month I learned how much trust enters the axiom when cooking in a private home.
For the past four years, I have been one of the chairs of a joint fundraiser for DC Central Kitchen and Martha’s Table, two institutions that fight hunger and poverty in our nation’s capital. Each January, two chefs from across the country are paired up to cook for 20 people in a private home for each event; there are now 20 such dinners in Washington. Most of the food is donated, and all of the profits go straight to the two organizations. This year, for the first time, two couples who observe kashrut in their homes volunteered to host dinners.
As the person who decides who cooks where, keeping in mind that chefs often like challenges, I selected chefs who had never cooked a kosher meal before. When I telephoned Joe Palma of Eric Ripert’s Westend Bistro and Kaz Okochi of Kaz Sushi Bistro, both located in Washington, D.C., and asked them to cook kosher dinners, each one paused at first. But both of them soon accepted.
Like all good chefs, they accepted my challenge because they were curious. For them it was like being confronted with bizarre ingredients on a Top Chef challenge—which may explain their choice of partners in their respective kitchens. Although I explained the bare basics of kashrut before they accepted, I added that they should really talk to their hosts, as everyone has different rules for their own homes. Since we would not be hiring a mashgiach to make sure the food was kosher and cooked in a kosher manner, it was up to the chefs to follow the laws of kashrut as prescribed in each home.
Okochi, an excellent sushi chef, took his task very seriously and learned which fish were and were not kosher. J.A. Henckels, one of our sponsors, offered him two new sushi knives for the dinner. He also bought new cutting boards, bowls, and sieves to prep the fish at his restaurant. The hosts, Steve Rabinowitz and Laurie Moskowitz, told Okochi that his rice cooker, only used for rice, was fine to use in their home. Rabinowitz, a public-relations specialist, told Okochi that it was easy to make a kosher meal. “All you need to know is what fish and meat you can and cannot use, that you can’t mix milk and meat, information you can get online,” he said. “And then you need to know the rules of the house.”
Okochi, who was very worried that he would do something wrong, looked at the list of acceptable fish carefully, and then staked out his two dishes. He was cooking with Spike Mendelsohn, a former Top Chef contestant whose father is Jewish and who operates a kosher food truck for the Sixth & I Synagogue in downtown D.C. The two agreed that Mendelsohn would make the main dish and dessert: a French roast with a coconut-milk-and-sweet-potato puree and a red-wine demi glace, and a chocolate mousse with olive oil for dessert. Jeff Morgan, hearing about the fundraiser from another chef, donated his Napa Valley kosher Covenant wines to accompany the dinner.
For Okochi, it was easy to figure out the kosher rules and find kosher products. But, when a guest informed him a week before the Jan. 22 dinner that she was allergic to all soy products, Okochi called me in a panic. As a Japanese chef, he was planning to use soy sauce and miso paste in his two dishes. “I was originally going to use salmon with soy sauce for everyone,” he explained. “Then I switched to a crudo-type dish of Tai snapper carpaccio with Asian greens, so as not to do two soy preparations.” For his second course, Okochi was planning an off-the-charts-delicious miso-marinated Chilean sea bass, so for the one guest with the soy allergy, he grilled the fish with a Mexican rub. “I knew that Chilean sea bass was really big and I didn’t want to buy a whole one, but thankfully [the hosts] let me buy a cut of it from a seafood market.”
“If you are hard-core observant, you would buy your fish in a kosher market or buy the whole fish and butcher it yourself,” said Moskowitz, a veteran political organizer. “For us it was OK, we buy cuts of fish.”
In the end, despite their nerves, the chefs tried to abide by their hosts’ specific rules of kashrut and created a successful meal.
“They were both very gracious about everything,” said Moskowitz. “Not knowing which bowl to use, you can’t just grab a spatula. It’s difficult, it’s nerve-wracking.”
For Joe Palma, making his first kosher meal at Roger and Cheri Friedman’s home in Bethesda, Md., was similarly unnerving. “You look at what you do and move back because you are out of your comfort zone,” he said. “It’s nice to be shaken out of your comfort zone every now and then.”
Palma teamed up with another former Top Chef contestant, Jennifer Carroll of Philadelphia. For their dinner, the Friedmans let the chefs do some of the prep in the Ritz-Carlton kitchen before they came. There, Palma showed me how he prepared Grow and Behold’s kosher, pasture-raised, Black Angus French Roast, a cut of meat from the shoulder similar in taste and texture to angler steak and London broil.
“To be honest, I thought the meal would be really bad,” he said while preparing meat sauce in a pan. “But I was really pleased with it.”
For Palma, the difficulty in making a gourmet kosher dinner lay in the butter. “I like to finish off my meat sauce with it,” he said. Instead, he reduced his stock, and would have added pureed vegetables to thicken it if it hadn’t tasted right. He could have also added an arrowroot slurry, using oil to thicken it. “I was extremely impressed with the quality of the meat we tasted,” he added.
Looking for a dessert, Carroll found an olive oil cake on the Internet, first mentioned in Gourmet magazine in 2006. “I loved that cake,” said Palma, a recipe to which they added their chefs’ touch, serving it with black pepper and thyme glace, mountain huckleberry jam, and Seville orange coriander sorbet.
Even the most careful chef can make a mistake in the kitchen, especially when faced with unfamiliar rules. Okochi, who is cooking his second kosher dinner at a hotel later this month, had run the menu by the hosts and me. But none of us caught the ankimo pate wrapped in pickled daikon radish, served as one of the passed hors d’oeuvres: Ankimo, we all learned after the meal, is made from monkfish, which like catfish, wolfish, and dogfish, has no scales and is therefore not kosher. Nobody caught it until it was too late.
“I just have to pay attention a little more,” he said. “It was mental pressure. Usually when I cook, I just have to be careful not to burn myself, but it made me nervous not to make mistakes.”
Joan Nathan is Tablet Magazine’s food columnist and the author of 10 cookbooks including King Solomon’s Table: a Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World.