Hire-a-chef network seeks new market among observant Jews. Duck a l’orange, anyone?
In a candlelit penthouse in Brooklyn, 30 guests mill about with basil cocktails in hand. Handcrafted canapés are brought around on china trays, and the crowd samples tartare of mackerel and mushrooms stuffed with a white wine and herb mixture.
“Hors d’oeuvres for the refined palate,” comments one guest, as he dabs his mouth and reaches for another.
The occasion: a dinner to launch the new kosher division of kitchensurfing.com. The company, founded in 2012 by techie/foodie Chris Muscarella, allows individuals to a book a personal chef for any number of engagements.
“We’re bringing quality food to the people,” said Muscarella. “No more waiting, no more lines, no more middleman. You just have to show him the kitchen.”
Kosher food is the company’s next frontier. The website’s homepage now features a small orange tab that reads, “Looking for Kosher?” In order to market the idea to New York Jews, Muscarella teamed with up with kosher chef Yuda Schlass.
“I’m the kosher tsar,” said Schlass, who oversees logistics for the kosher part of the site. Schlass, who refers to himself as the “Hassid + Hipster,” ran a highly successful “sandwich lab” in his Crown Heights loft for more than two years. “I’m a natural man for the job — for me, the artisanal kosher food world is home,” he said.
Schlass grew up Lubavitch; the crowd at his event ranged from Modern Orthodox to haredi. Around the table, black hats, sheitels, and the occasional pair of sidelocks were visible. The diversity of the crowd impressed Michael Hershfield, global head of operations for kichensurfing.com.
“Jews from the five towns, Washington Heights, Williamsburg—it’s an eclectic group,” he said. “But that’s what food’s supposed to do: bring people together.”
Hershfield, who grew up in a traditional Jewish home, described the elaborate dinner as “an elevated form of Jewish food.”
“Traditional Jewish is good at being, well — traditional Jewish food,” he said. “But Jews who keep kosher are also entitled to trendy, interesting food. Jewish foodies are entitled to options.”
Responding to this demand, the Brooklyn foodie scene is quickly developing a kosher-foodie sub-scene. In recent years, several kosher boutique restaurants, including Mason & Mug and Kava Shteeble, have sprouted.
“The world of artisanal Jewish food is speaking more and more to my generation,” said Gabriel Boxer, one of the guests. Boxer, in his thirties and from Woodmere, thinks hiring a personal chef will catch on his community. “This food is something different. It’s something funky — it’s not just another deli sandwich or steak from La Marais. My generation is looking to be adventurous with food — we want food to be an experience.”
The seven-course dinner, assembled by kitchensurfing.com chefs Eric Bolyard and Ygael Tresser, included ocean trout with charred white asparagus, pistachio and salmon roe (kosher caviar), duck a’ l’orange and lamb chops with fennel and rhubarb agrodolce. The lamb chops were a crowd favorite.
Chesky Korn, a 30-year-old Vishnitz chasid from Williamsburg and “proud Jewish-foodie,” was one of the guests in attendance. “I have to go outside my community to find food like this,” he said. “If I cooked meat this rare, my mother would throw it back at me.”
When asked if this type of food service could catch on in the haredi community, Korn responded “absolutely not.” “New foods like this wouldn’t sell — it’s too different. We stick to what we know — chicken and the occasional beef on yomim tovim [holidays]. Heimishe [homey] food is what we’re used to.”
Korn, however, has tried out some gourmet cooking techniques on his family. His four children love the variety, but his wife’s not a fan. “She gets jealous,” he said. “I only get to cook on holidays.”
While Korn might be an aficionado at applying gourmet cooking techniques to kosher food, the Kitchensurfing chefs needed some initiation. Of the 15 chefs employed to join the kosher launch, eight of them are not Jewish. The other seven had rarely, if ever, worked in strictly kosher environments.
For Bolyard, cooking kosher has not cramped his style.
“Cooking kosher is definitely something different, but I’m still cooking my style of food with my unique signatures,” said Bolyard, who previously worked as a chef for the five-star Eleven Madison Park. “I think ‘kosher’ has been misconceived to mean safe and insular. It doesn’t just have to mean same-old.”
Bolyard, who did have a bar mitzvah but never kept kosher, said he appreciates the challenge. “Leaving dairy out forces me to be creative with new ingredients,” he said. For example, the sorbet he served that night had the same consistency as ice cream, thanks to a coconut-milk base, and was topped with marinated plums.
Still, there are some things that must remain different for Jewish audiences.
“Jews want bigger portions,” said Hershfield. “No matter how fancy the food, they want to leave the table feeling full. We had to make sure the chefs know this.” According to Hershfield, plate sizes have been adjusted accordingly, especially for meat entrees.
“I want to know what happened to the other half of the plate,” said one guest when the heirloom tomato with orange blossom salad course was brought out. The tomato slices had been arranged artistically on only one side of the plate.
“Food as an aesthetic experience as well as an edible one is going to take some getting used to,” said Hershfield.
Squinting at the menu, one guest carefully tried to annunciate the sixth course and failed miserably. “When you can’t pronounce the things on the menu, you know it’s going to be good,” she said, licking her fingers.
And then, turning to one of the waiters, she asked, “Is there any way you can pack that to go?”
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