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Little Tunisia

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

Ellen Umansky
May 06, 2010
Cohen and his restaurant.(Photoillustration by Tablet Magazine; photos by Ellen Umansky)
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.”

Ellen Umansky is a senior editor at Tablet Magazine.

Ellen Umansky is a senior editor at Tablet Magazine.

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