Ashkenazi cuisine goes artisanal and upscale — just don’t look for a heksher.
The humble gefilte fish — the perfunctory seder meal starter long mocked for its blandness — is finally getting some respect.
At Kutsher’s Tribeca it’s made from wild halibut and garnished with micro arugula, while at the Gefilteria it’s crafted from sustainably-raised fish and topped with a freshly prepared horseradish.
With artisanal, chef-reworked twists on everything from borscht to kasha varnishkes, popping up on menus — and even in a modern-day “pushcart” — around New York, Ashkenazi fare is undergoing a renaissance of sorts.
But, like the Jewish-style delis that, a few generations ago, turned dietary laws upside down by serving up a corned beef-and-Swiss cheese combo with the nice Jewish name “Reuben,” much of the Nouveau Jewish Cuisine is off limits to kosher-observant Members of the Tribe.
It’s an irony of modern-day life that while each year the Kosherfest trade show displays hekshered versions of ever-more goyische items — from beef jerky to Jamaican jerk — some of the most interesting Ashkenazi Jewish fare these days is decidedly treif.
Which is not to say that the Gefilteria, a modern-day pushcart launched last month with an event at a Brooklyn cafe, wouldn’t like its borscht, sauerkraut and, of course, fish, to be kosher. But kosher certification is economically unviable for this small business, which will sell its fare at weekly local food fairs and also do some delivery.
Jeffrey Yoskowitz, one of Gefilteria’s founders, said that all of the ingredients that go into its food are kosher, but that its products will remain un-hekshered. Yoskowitz and his partners — Liz Alpern and Jackie Lilinshtein — (Full disclosure: This reporter worked with Alpern at the Jewish Student Press Service in 2009) learned that obtaining kosher certification from the Orthodox Union, America’s largest kosher certification body, requires an eight-step process involving multiple inspections of production facilities, plus paying for ongoing inspections.
While certification costs vary based on a company’s size, products, location and several other factors, the marginal costs of a heksher get bigger the smaller companies are. This makes obtaining certification difficult for small, startup businesses. Yoskowitz said that the Gefilteria’s production costs would quadruple if it had a heksher. High prices, he added, would betray the Gefilteria’s business model, which its owners based on the old-world concept of a pushcart: to provide classic, high-quality Ashkenazic food at an affordable price.
“The way the kosher food industry works, there’s no room for a pushcart,” Yoskowitz said. “We don’t want to be making enough gefilte to feed half of New York. It would cost more money than we’d ever want to charge people. Half of our customers are young Brooklyn 20-somethings.”
Out of respect for the particularly stringent kosher laws of Passover, for which the Gefilteria is offering a special lineup of foods, all of its products will come from the kitchen of an Orthodox synagogue in the East Village of Manhattan — but will remain uncertified.
Kutsher’s Tribeca’s owner never considered seeking kosher certification. The new restaurant’s menu includes goat cheese, alongside traditional fleischig fare like chicken matzah ball soup (with carrots from the local greenmarket).
Unlike his ancestors, who owned the legendary Kutsher’s Catskills resort, owner Zach Kutsher has no problem mixing milk and meat.
“Kosher restaurants are limited by being kosher,” Kutsher said. “I don’t think they’re nearly as creative as we are. I wanted to be accessible to all. Kosher is antithetical to all of that.”
At Kutsher’s the gefilte is topped with a parsley vinaigrette, and the kasha varnishkes are made with quinoa. Subdued lights, not dried salami, hang from the restaurant’s ceiling. All of this, said Kutsher, is to show that East European food can transcend the shtetls and tenements.
“I don’t think anyone had the quality of a chef giving Ashkenazic food this kind of deference in the past,” he said. “You had delis and restaurants, but none of them were a night out.”
Mile End Deli, a Brooklyn re-creation of Montreal’s Jewish delis, is similarly innovative and similarly unkosher — after all, one of founder Noah Bernamoff’s favorite dishes is bacon, eggs and cheese atop rye bread. Mile End, Bernamoff says, is the only deli in New York to smoke its own meat from scratch — a process he spent two years teaching himself.
Kutsher and Bernamoff both appreciate the sense of community that they feel is imbued in Jewish food. They both say that Ashkenazic dishes connect them with their ancestors, and Bernamoff recalls eating at his grandmother’s table on Friday night, “so we could get together as a family,” as one of his most enduring Jewish experiences.
Both men’s Jewish identity is secular, and both men feel that Jewish food should be secular as well. Keeping kosher would limit their options and distract from the mission they share, which, as Bernamoff said, is to “make food that people find delicious.” And though his restaurant excludes pork and shellfish from its menu, Kutsher said that he is “selling a sense of cultural identity and tradition totally devoid of religion.”
“This is a personal pursuit, and we’re motivated to cook these things because the ingredients are really great, or [because of] the challenge of thinking about traditional Jewish food in a modern way,” Bernamoff said. “We’re not trying to serve a certain dish because of how the Jewish food movement reacts.”
While kosher restaurants, featuring a range of cuisines, often open in order to serve a niche clientele, Mile End and Kutsher’s Tribeca hope to do the opposite: to bring a niche ethnic cuisine to the widest possible audience. Both men count many Jews among their patrons, but say that a variety of New Yorkers have come as well.
“I have people here who have never had gefilte fish before,” Kutsher said. “I have young secular Jews who would never go to a kosher restaurant, but this reminds them of their grandmother. I’m going for the dining public. I’m not targeting Jews.”
Despite the millennia-long connection between Jewish food and keeping kosher, Bernamoff said that he did not think about kashrut when opening Mile End. He may be connecting to the old world through his cooking, but his goal is to provide patrons with a new culinary experience.
“Does my serving bacon show people that Jewish food doesn’t have to have a religious connection?” he asked. “Maybe. But that’s not why I serve bacon.”
Associate Editor Julie Wiener contributed to this article.
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