Chef Ben Spiegel connects his Nordic repertoire to the Ashkenazi classics of his youth.
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.”
37 Canal Street, New York, NY 10002
The Jewish Week feels comments create a valuable conversation and wants to feature your thoughts on our website. To make everyone feel welcome, we won't publish comments that are profane, irrelevant, promotional or make personal attacks.