Culinary school founder Jesse Blonder talks cholent and kosher sushi bars.
Jesse Blonder is all about making the most of what he has, especially when it comes to food. He's the managing director, co-founder, and owner of New York's Center for Kosher Culinary Arts. CKCA, now in its fifth year, will be expanding its program this fall from 38 classes to 50 to provide a more in-depth education for the program's 12 lucky chefs and bakers in training. Blonder, who has never kept kosher, shared his take on sushi at kosher restaurants and why cholent is the best dish in the entire world.
Emma Goss: Food writer and novelist Laurie Colwin wrote, “Certainly, cooking for oneself reveals man at his weirdest.” What do you eat when you’re alone?
Jesse Blonder: I’m less of a planner and more someone who enjoys cooking improvisationally, so I love cooking for just myself. All the chains are off, it’s liberating. I’m the guy that goes into the refrigerator and sees what leftovers are there, what’s in the freezer, and I just create something. Usually the best things I come up with are when I cook for myself. One thing I do is I’ll buy a whole loaf of bread and typically only use 2 slices when it’s fresh, and put it in the freezer. I’m often making sandwiches. I find unique combinations to throw into a pita. I always find a good mix of vegetables, herbs, and pickles to combine that makes something that is satisfying. I tend to skew towards comfort foods when I’m cooking for myself.
EG: How do you eat or cook differently now than you did when you were younger?
JB: I was known in my family for being a pretty big eater when I was younger, the one to order the most expensive thing on the menu. These days I’m more conscious of the quantity of what I eat. I eat less than when I was an adolescent. As the years go by, there was a list of things I wouldn’t eat, and that list gets smaller and smaller. I used to not eat smoked fish, like white fish trout, and that went out the window when I was in college. The only things I have an aversion to are tuna salad and egg salad.
EG: What principles guide your eating or cooking?
JB: As a food business owner and someone who is involved in education, whatever I buy, whether it’s meat or a loaf of bread, I make the best use of the product. Sometimes you buy more than what you need, so I freeze it. [If I buy bread] I make damn sure I use the rest of it. I’ll have toast for the next month. If it’s something like herbs, I will use what I need and the rest you can dry and hang in the window, or you can make a chimichurri, something that will last beyond the life if you kept it in its current state. That goes for meat as well. I find you have to be very conscious of what you’re spending money on and making the best use of the ingredients. I like to buy, when I can, things that are organic, that are raised sustainably. Those things are more expensive, so I try to use every last drop.
EG: Which food writer most speaks to you?
JB: Anthony Bourdain because he gets right to the chase, he cuts right to the heart of it. There’s no BS. With his show, No Reservations and his book [Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly], he talked about a side of the [food service] industry that people were not familiar with and didn’t want to hear about. I think it’s more important than ever. There are things about it that are less desirable and he wrote about it. I think he did a good job of showing this is how it really is. [His writing is] not too flowery, not too glossy, it’s reality. I like things that are realistic and practical, and he’s the kind of guy that puts that out there.
EG: Share with us a simple tip for cooking or eating that never fails you.
JB: Me and my chefs find that people don’t taste the food before they serve it. Why would you put something out on the table before you taste it yourself.? You can adjust the seasoning. Maybe you confused salt with sugar. Maybe you used a mild jalapeno. Baking’s a little different because you really have to have your proportions settled in advance. As for baking, don’t rely on volume measurements, measure by mass. If you want to be the kind of person who delivers the same result every time, measure by weight as opposed to volume. It particularly comes in handy for baking because proportion is everything.
EG: What’s a food trend that totally mystifies you?
JB: I’m Jewish but I don’t keep Kosher, believe it or not, and I never have. When I started this business five years ago, that was the beginning of my education of the kosher food business. One thing that I find interesting in food trends is sushi and how omnipresent sushi has become in kosher food service. For example, most people, if they go to an expensive kosher meat restaurant they expect there will be sushi on the menu. For someone who is not kosher, they wouldn’t expect to find a sushi bar in a steakhouse. Every kosher pizzeria has sushi as well. You would never expect to find that [at a non-kosher place]. I spent a lot of time thinking about why this has come to be. Maybe they [the kosher restaurant] feel like it gives them a competitive edge. I think people think sushi and they think sophistication. Or maybe it’s because the [sushi] rice has sugar and salt in it, and sweet and sour really hits the Jewish palate.
EG: What’s a mistake you consistently make in the kitchen or at a restaurant?
JB: I always find when I’m at a restaurant it comes down to two choices, often times I’m not entirely satisfied with the one I choose. It’s more of a reflection of oneself, a psychological phenomenon. The grass is always greener sort of thing.
EG: What’s your favorite Jewish food, and why?
JB: Cholent. It’s a very functional dish, something Jews everywhere in the world have made because if you want to eat something hot on Shabbat you make it the night before. Soup is comfort food and comfort food is something that makes people feel loved, and so cholent for me represents not only something very inherently Jewish in its tie to the practicalities of Shabbat, but it ties to family. Also, the idea of efficiency, you usually take scraps and make cholent from leftovers. You can take the most humble ingredient, potatoes, greens, fatty cuts of meat, barley, things people don’t reach for, put it together, cook it over night, and you have something really special.
EG: If your personality could be characterized by a food, which one would it be and why?
JB: I would be an Everlasting Gobstopper. Sweet, rocksolid and always there when you need me. But bite down too hard and I'll break your freakin' teeth.
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