Kosher Cooking Goes Gourmet
By Debbie Shapiro
Sunday afternoon, I jumped into a waiting cab and drove halfway across
to the Talpiot industrial zone, where I was to meet Chef Jerusalem Yochanan Lambiase, founder of the Jerusalem Culinary Institute, the only English speaking Kosher L'Mehadrin cooking school in the world.
For Chef Lambiase, cooking is a family tradition "We're originally from southern
. My father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were all chefs at elegant hotels in Italy , so gourmet cooking has always been a natural part of my life." Italy
In 1985, Lambiase began training at the
Westminster Hotel School in his native . After three years, Lambiase trained with Paul Bocuse, a renowned French chef in England Lille, and then continued on to on to work at the Ritz and hotels. Savoy
's Schaverein Kosher Caterers invited him to cook for them, he discovered an entirely new world. "I was always peppering the mashgiach with questions. It was a real challenge to come up with new recipes while keeping to the laws of kashrus. One day, the mashgiach asked me if I was Jewish, and when I replied in the affirmative, he arranged for me to spend Shabbos with a frum family. It was my very first Shabbos." London
I couldn't help but ask what gourmet specialty the family prepared in his honor. After all, professional chefs must have high culinary standards. But the family did not go out of their way to make anything unusual. "It was a typical Shabbos, you know, gefilte fish, chicken soup, boiled chicken, chulent. It wasn't about the food. I was completely bowled over by the atmosphere. A family sitting together, totally tuned into each other, the songs, the words of Torah, it was absolutely amazing!" Before long, Lambiase was on a plane to Eretz Yisrael, where he divided his day between learning in a yeshivah and working as a hotel chef.
In 2002, Lambiase attended Kosher-Fest, an international kosher trade show held at the
Meadowlands Convention Center in Lambiase was overawed by the thousands of new kosher products on the market, as well as the enormity of the industry. "Restaurants, convenience foods, gourmet ingredients, there is so much available for the kosher consumer – you can even go on a safari and shoot rhinoceros while enjoying Glatt kosher cuisine! The kosher market is increasing by leaps and bounds. Twenty-five years ago, it was a 250 million dollar business; today, it's 165 BILLION, and who knows how big it will be in another five years. In such a rapidly growing market, I realized that there must be a real need for professionally trained kosher cooks." Secaucus, N.J.
Lambiase continues, "Today, with such a huge variety of kosher products on the market, it's possible to prepare any cuisine for the kosher gourmet – from Korean, to Italian and French or whatever. I can make sausage that tastes exactly like pepperoni, which is a totally non-kosher salami, or, using coconut milk, chicken stroganoff (a cream covered chicken dish) that tastes just like the 'real thing.'
"Some time ago, when a secular Israeli food magazine visited our school to write an article about gourmet kosher cooking, I served them a specially prepared meal of Veal Scallopini (veal with parmesan cheese and pasta) substituting brewer's yeast for the cheese, and wild mushrooms in cream sauce, substituting coconut milk for the milk. These professional food critics could not tell the difference between the kosher version and what they were used to!"
Culinary Institute Jerusalem
In 2003, Lambiase opened the Jerusalem Culinary Institute in
's now defunct Holy Land Hotel. The ten-month course, taught completely in English, attracted twenty-eight students, from North America, England, South Africa, Australia and, of course Israel. The students ranged in age from eighteen to fifty-three. Recently, the school moved to new premises on Jerusalem Yad Harutzim Street in Talpiot, just minutes away from the expansive Hadar Shopping Mall.
Under the hashgacha of Agudat Yisrael, JCI's curriculum is similar to that of any other cooking school. The students learn the proper use of a knife, how to fillet
a fish, to prepare puff-pastry, to discern a superlative wine, and so on. "Most of our students are religious, and those that aren't are familiar with the laws of kashrus, so we don't really have to lecture to them on the basics of running a kosher kitchen," explains Greta Ostrovitz, JCI's principal, former owner of the prize-winning restaurant, Chez Gita, and an excellent cook to boot. "Instead, we integrate halachah into the classroom — we teach the students all about worms in fish and checking vegetables for bugs as a hands-on activity, part of their regular curriculum."
The students are also taken on field trips to visit the various marketplaces (shuks) around the country so that they can get a feel of the local ingredients, to a winery and to a goat farm, where they make cheese and watch a natural cooking demonstration. "This is our students' year in
, so we want them to see the country, but of course we always make sure that the trip is related to the culinary arts," Ostrovitz continues. Israel
@Rainbow of Students
In the seven years of the schools existence, some three hundred students have graduated the professional seven month intensive chef course. Many have gone on to work in the kosher food industry.
Ostrovitz explains, "Almost all our students taking the intensive seven month course are in Israel for the specific purpose of studying at our school, and plan to return home at the end of the year with a professional skill -– and a recognized diploma -- that will enable them to secure a position in the food industry.
"Working in the food industry is not a traditionally accepted profession among most Jews. The quintessential Yiddishe mother dreams of 'my son the rabbi,’ or 'my son the doctor,' rather than 'my son the pastry chef.' But there is a real need for high level professional chefs, and some of our students continue on to become one. But not all our students are as talented, and some find positions working in industrial kitchens. The main thing is that are able to find jobs!"
Ostrovitz continues, "Since cooking does not require high academic skills, some of our students who have learning disabilities and were never successful in school, were successful here! We had one young man who failed everything – he never even graduated high school – yet he became a phenomenal cook. There was another young man from
whose mother sent him here in the hope that we could help him with his behavioral problems. I must admit I didn’t think it would work out – he was very disruptive for the other students. But Chef Lambiase said I should persevere, and he gradually improved. He never became a top chef, but he and his mother were very proud of what he’d achieved and he left here in a much better state than when he got here. It's wonderful to watch these young people blossom with each success!" New York
Ostrovitz shows me one of the many letters of gratitude received by the school:
Seven years ago my husband and I sat in the principal's office at a school for children with learning disabilities and heard my son's teacher say "I cannot find anything good about your son - there is nothing he can do". We both sat there totally frozen - to be traumatized and riddled with that sentence for years to come.
Today, seven years later, we sent our son off to culinary school for his final exam and heard from the staff that he got an A plus and he was receiving his graduation certificate.
When we heard about the JCI, we took a long gulp before suggesting it to him. He was petrified at the thought of having to study and do tests, but excited by the practical side of it. However, what we knew about the JCI was that they BELIEVED in their students and did everything they could to help them. And we believed that our son could do it. We believed it for him until today when he believed it for himself. It was not easy to be in an educational environment with strict rules and uniform. But he did it. He needed constant encouragement throughout and the most amazing staff at the JCI gave this to him. And what's more, all the way along they told us, "He can do it."
And they were right. He DID it! Without one educational qualification in the world. He DID it! Without finishing school He DID it! They saw - not only his soul, but also all and every good thing about him - and they worked on it and encouraged it and gave him back his dignity and knowledge that he COULD do something.
Ostrovitz recalls another challenging student – a recovering substance abuser. "He was clean from his issues, but his life was a mess. The discipline of our school, together with the satisfaction of success did wonders for him, and today he's happily employed in the kosher food industry."
Cooking is Serious Business
Actually, JCI sees cooking as very serious business. When I asked about funny mistakes, I was told that "mistakes are never funny. Accidentally using the wrong ingredient can be disastrous in a restaurant!" And the students are not only encouraged – they are required – to use their imagination to create something new. "After they've been studying here for some time, we give them an assortment of different ingredients and tell them to come up with something good! We've had some amazing surprises!"
In addition to their intensive seven month course, JCI runs an eight week program and an assortment of ninety minute workshops. At the workshops, students from ages eighteen to eighty ("there was one guy in his seventies who came to all our workshops!”) are taught anything from the art of preparing risotto (creamy Italian rice) to making mezze (a selection of small dishes served in the Middle East as dinner or lunch), gnocchi (thick, soft dumplings), Tagine (a Moroccan stew) and, for the busy housewife short on time, thirty-minute gourmet suppers.
After speaking with Lambiase and Ostrovitz in the office, Lambiase took me on a tour of the premises. The walls are lined with long shelves containing boxes of spices and other ingredients. I noticed several wooden mortars and pestles. "We always grind our own spices so that they will be fresh. It makes a real difference in the final product." In the milchig kitchen, there were two French-speaking young women taking a French pastry course with Chef Simone Zemour, owner of Café Simone in
. We laughed at my feeble attempts to say something – anything – in French, as I observed the students expertly roll out the dough and fill it with layers of grilled vegetables smothered with creamy mushroom sauce and yellow cheese. Although the aroma was heavenly, I was fleishig, and couldn't even manage a taste! Jerusalem
Just before continuing my tour, Chef Simone pointed at what appeared to be exquisite blown glass sculptures. Lambiose explained that these beautiful pieces of art were actually constructed of pulled sugar, and that they are used as centerpieces in buffets or to decorate wedding cakes.
Later on that day I spoke with pastry chef, Chef Guy Frenkel, head of JCI's Patisserie program. Chef Frenkel studied in
's prestigious Serandi and Lentore pastry schools. "I always loved to bake," he explained. "My late father was an excellent chef and as long as I can remember we were always involved with gourmet cooking and quality ingredients. After completing my studies in France France, I returned home to where I opened a French bakery shop." Florida
It takes tremendous skill to sculpt pulled sugar centerpieces, which is why Chef Frenkel saves it for the end of the course. "After the sugar is completely melted, we pour it onto a cold surface and start pulling it to make it shiny and pliable. Even though we wear gloves, fingers sometimes get burnt. People with sensitive skin can't take the heat, which is one of the reasons few people are able to work with it."
Chef Frenkel is one of those "few people." In 1994 he won first championship in the United States Sugar Art Competition held in
. "I created a full scale peacock. It was six feet tall, very detailed, and replete with a brilliantly colored tail. The pulled-sugar peacock was surrounded by pulled sugar orchids and other flora. It took me two full weeks – a hundred and twenty hours! – to complete it, and it contained some fifty kilos of sugar." Palm Beach, Florida
Chef Frenkel also enjoys chocolate sculpting. When I asked him how he manages to constantly work with such delicacies without succumbing to overeating, he responded, "My teachers in
always said never trust a skinny chef." France
A few tips from Chef Lambiase
1. Taste your food at all stages of the recipe. This will let you understand the flavors as they develop and enable you to season the food correctly.
2. Clean as your work – cook clean and you will eat clean.
3. Add a few drops of water when you are frying onions. This will soften them and bring out the sugars that will caramelize your onions more quickly.
4. Collect all your ingredients, pots, pans and utensils before you begin cooking.
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One Pot Meals
These one pot meals are especially good in the winter. I always recommend making a big pot of soup and then freezing it in individual servings or, if you'll want to heat up several servings at a time, a plastic freezer container. It is nice to come home to after a cold, raining day and pop the soup in the microwave for a hot, homemade, healthy meal. If you don't have a microwave, you can just take the container out of the freezer in the morning and it will be defrosted by the time you get home from work in the evening. It takes just minutes to heat it up in a saucepan. Add bread and salad for a complete dinner.
These recipes can easily be doubled or even tripled.
5 ounces (150 gram) lean ground beef
2 tbsp fine dry bread crumbs
1 egg – use enough egg to bind the beef and bread crumbs
1 tsp vegetable oil
1 tbsp margarine
½ cup potatoes, peeled and diced
½ cup carrots, peeled and sliced
¼ cup celery, sliced
¼ cup zucchini, diced
¼ cup onion, diced
1 small clove garlic, crushed
1 tsp dried oregano
4 whole ripe tomatoes, chopped
½ envelope beef bouillon
1/3 cup soup pasta or cooked rice
1 cup frozen spinach, thawed and drained
½ cup cooked kidney beans
1. In a large bowl, combine ground beef, bread crumbs, egg, salt and pepper. Using hands or wooden spoon, blend well. Shape mixture into tiny meatballs.
2. In a large saucepan over med high heat, heat oil, add meatballs, cook until well browned on all sides. Using slotted spoon, remove meatballs to a plate.
3. To the drippings in the sauce pot, add margarine and melt over medium high heat.
Add potatoes, carrots, celery, zucchini, onion, garlic and oregano. Cook 8-10 minutes, stirring frequently until the vegetables are crisp-tender and golden.
4. Add tomatoes with their liquid, bouillon, pasta and 1 cup water. Bring to a boil.
Reduce heat to med low, simmer, covered 10 minutes until vegetables are tender and flavors are blended.
5. Add spinach, kidney beans and meatballs, cook about 3 mines longer until heated through.
Black Bean and Chickpea Chili
1 teaspoon olive Oil
2 tbsp onion, chopped
4 tbsp green peppers, seeded and chopped
1 medium carrot, peeled and sliced into rounds
1 tsp chili powder
½ tsp ground cumin
Salt and black pepper to taste
4 whole ripe tomatoes, diced
1 ounce frozen corn
½ cup canned black beans, drained and rinsed
½ cup canned chickpeas, drained and rinsed
4 tablespoons chicken stock
1. Place the onion, green peppers and carrots into the saucepan and cook and stir for about 10 minutes, until the onion is translucent and the vegetables are tender. Stir in the chili powder, cumin and black pepper and pour in the diced tomatoes, corn, black beans, chickpeas and chicken stock. Bring the mixture to a boil.
2. Place about 1 ½ cups of the chili mixture into a food processor and puree for about 1 minute until smooth. Pour the puree back into the rest of the chili to thicken. Adjust seasonings.
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