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Mardi Gras With a Side of Kosher Beignets

Meet Gabe Greenberg, the New Orleans rabbi who gives Café du Monde its kosher certification

Andrew Paul
February 08, 2016
Getty Images
Waitresses prepare beignets covered with powdered sugar at Café du Monde, August 9, 2006. Getty Images
Getty Images
Waitresses prepare beignets covered with powdered sugar at Café du Monde, August 9, 2006. Getty Images

In the weeks leading up to Mardi Gras are hectic at Café du Monde, a landmark bistro located in New Orleans’ French Quarter. Open 24 hours a day, the restaurant seems to be in a constant state of frenzy as servers slip through a maze of tables to shoo stray pigeons, control crowds, bus tables, and, of course, serve the establishment’s coffee and world-renowned powdered sugar-coated beignets.

Amid the chaos is Gabe Greenberg, a rabbi at the Congregation Beth Israel, a modern Orthodox temple, in Metairie, Louisiana, who conducts kosher inspections at Café du Monde. In addition to helping run the suburban shul, Greenberg often lends his services to the Louisiana Kashrut Commision (LKC), inspecting various kitchens at restaurants in New Orleans to ensure they adhere to kashrut law. Although his check-ins at Café du Monde are not officially sanctioned by the LKC, Greenberg provides the establishment with an independent certificate of approval in line with the standards he oversees at other kosher restaurants.

“I get an email every couple weeks from out-of-towners asking for kosher recommendations,” he said, as we weaved past waitresses balancing manhole-sized trays stacked with signature beignets. “Café du Monde is a real draw for them.”

The process of kashrut inspection has remained largely unchanged since 2008 when Greenberg’s predecessor, Rabbi Uri Topolosky, who now heads a congregation in Maryland, began kosher certifying certain staple attractions in hopes of drawing back more Jews to the city who left after Hurricane Katrina; among them was Café du Monde. He believed that kosher certifying the bistro would be a simple way to invigorate the local Jewish population by “enabling them to feel more deeply connected to the proud culture of our city,” Topolosky wrote via email.

A few weeks before Mardi Gras, Greenberg agreed to take me through his inspection process at the restaurant, which will soon become even more slammed than usual as the Mardi Gras party officially begins Tuesday. The staff eyed us suspiciously as we cut towards the back of the restaurant, past the deep line for the restrooms, and into the kitchen. “Inspection,” he said amiably, pointing to the yarmulke atop his head.

The only food served at Café du Monde is the beignet—a doughy, deep-fried pastry that’s coated in powdered sugar—and there is no meat to inspect. As a result, the kosher inspection process for Greenberg is typically an easy in and out. Together we checked the stacks of flour, sugar crates, cooking oil, and milk jugs. We confirmed all were sanctioned kosher ingredients. “This is the same milk my family uses,” Greenberg said, lifting up an empty carton. We then made our way through the cramped kitchen, making sure the cooking areas were both hygienic and in keeping with kosher standards.

Greenberg, like Rabbi Topolosky before him, is not paid for the inspections. Occasionally he’s tossed a plate of beignets, but this continuing project is more for the burgeoning Jewish community than the Café du Monde franchise.

After he concluded that everything was up to code, Greenberg pointed to the certification framed by the front register on our way out.

“Does anyone ask for this?” he asked a cashier, who was busy ringing up tickets.

He replied, affirmatively: “Last night.”

Andrew Paul‘s work is recently featured in VQR, Oxford American, VICE, and The A.V. Club. He lives in New Orleans.