01/28/14
Food & Wine Editor
Schmaltz Meets Scandinavia In New LES Restaurant

Chef Ben Spiegel connects his Nordic repertoire to the Ashkenazi classics of his youth.

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Ben Spiegel’s love of cooking began, at the age of 10, with a fried egg.

The 26-year-old chef at Skal, a tiny Nordic restaurant that opened on New York’s Lower East Side last year, grew up in a kosher household in Toronto, where his mother fed him plenty of Ashkenazi classics—both homemade and store-bought from the city’s Jewish groceries and delis—like knishes, cabbage rolls, kreplach and matzoh balls. But it was Spiegel’s father’s fried eggs that really made an impression on him.

“My father had this huge industrial stove that he bought somewhere, and it kind of dominated our kitchen,” Spiegel recalled recently. “He cooked eggs on its griddle every morning. And watching him cook, I thought, ‘Well, this is kind of exciting.’”

The foods that Spiegel grew up on may have been simple, but the dishes he’s creating now are anything but. After training at such ingredient-focused, seasonally-driven restaurants as the famed Noma in Copenhagen, Spiegel opened the Scandinavian-influenced Skal — the word means “cheers” in Icelandic, Norwegian, Swedish and Danish — last summer. Here, duck wings are served on a bed of ground mussels, draped with seaweed and accented with squid ink, while a plate of charred broccoli is flavored with fermented green garlic, fish sauce, Japanese bread crumbs, and — oh yeah — not a small amount of schmaltz.

Clearly, Spiegel no longer keeps kosher — he said he had to give that up at the age of 16 when he apprenticed in a four-star hotel kitchen in the Loire Valley in France where “four out of five” family meals featured pork — but he said that he can still trace a connection between some of the foods of his youth and the technical dishes he prepares today. 

“When I was a kid, my family used to go sailing in Georgian Bay, near Lake Huron,” Spiegel said. “It’s a freshwater bay, just full of fish, and we used to catch smelts,” he recalled. Currently, Skal’s menu features the small oily fish split, stuffed with capers and mustard, dredged in rye flour and browned, then splashed with a warm apple cider vinegar brine.

Though many of the dishes at Skal rely heavily on technique, Spiegel says that the quality of the ingredients is what’s most important to his creations. That insistence on freshness is what draws him to Nordic cuisine.

“This kind of food has a purity of flavor that’s influenced by the landscape it comes from,” he said.

Skal’s small menu features 14 dishes, of which three to four change weekly and some of whose components change daily. Winter could be rough on a restaurant that uses so many local and seasonal ingredients.

“I think it’s kind of nice, actually,” he said. “It’s easier to think about what you want to cook when you only have a few options.”

“It’s kind of like when you’re writing,” Spiegel continued. “Without a clear thesis or parameters, it’s much more difficult to be creative. No, I think winter is just as exciting as the summer.”

Click here for Ben's recipe for Charred Broccoli with Green Garlic and Breadcrumbs 

Skal
37 Canal Street, New York, NY 10002
212-777-7518
skalnyc.com

Last Update:

02/10/2014 - 21:24

Comments

The need for kosher venues to be promoted is evident.

He throws away the moral imperative
and obviously subscribes to:
"In G-d we trust, all others pay cash.''

It is wrong for the Jewish Week to give publicity to a turncoat from Kashruth. This man does not deserve our attention.

He grew up on kreplach and now he eats shratzim. Fichsa.

Sad that Speigel gave up the God-given commandment of kashrut for an apprentiship.

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