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Jewish Journal

The Gourmet

by Jeff Hoyt

February 19, 2004 | 7:00 pm

Guests nibbling on Grilled Hoisin-Ancho Colorado Lamb Chops, Roasted Garlic and Chicken Risotto and Caramel Sauce Crème Brûlée at Century City's five-star St. Regis Hotel & Spa might not just want to thank the chef, but also a rabbi.

Foodies may be surprised to learn that these gourmet taste treats were all made in the hotel's kosher kitchen. In fact, people planning kosher-catered events can enjoy anything from sushi, sashimi and dim sum to mushroom crusted tenderloin of beef prepared in the $1 million state-of-the-art non-dairy facility.

"Almost everything done in a regular kitchen can be done in [a] kosher kitchen," said award-winning executive chef Jesse Llapitan, who left the St. Regis in September 2003 for the Houstonian in Houston.

"Our kosher kitchen was built from scratch in a little-used area behind our small meeting rooms at a cost of $1 million," explained senior catering manager Margot Hummel. "It was newly built for the opening of the 30-story hotel in November 2000 to try to get more business. As a result, we have catered a number of bar mitzvahs, weddings and kosher functions for hundreds of people. The kosher kitchen adheres to the highest quality and strict standards of the Rabbinical Council of California."

"The facility lends itself to a high level of kosher standards from management to wait staff," said Binyomin Lisbon, the rabbi who oversees what could be the most gourmet kosher kitchen in Los Angeles. In fact, he recently led 30 food and beverage department employees in a kosher training session, the fourth one since the facility opened a little more than three years ago.

The small kitchen is located on the third floor close to the banquet kitchen, and there have been times when both prepared and served meals simultaneously. To help eliminate confusion, the kosher china plates have gold rims that distinguish them from the hotel's regular china. The kosher kitchen also uses its own utensils, stemware and silverware, which are kept under lock and key.

Outside the kitchen doors, which are padlocked and sealed by a rabbi when not in use, there is an entry/exit log to monitor every time the facility is opened. Inside are two ovens -- one for meat, and another for fish -- along with a stove, deep-fat fryer, grill, fold-down stainless steel worktables, dishwasher, a walk-in refrigerator and the reassuring letter "A" grade issued by the County of Los Angeles Department of Health Services.

"There is no freezer, because we [the kitchen gets] so much of the food fresh," Llapitan explained.

On a recent visit, there is nearly no food at all in the kitchen save olives, cranberry juice cocktail, cherries, margarine and, most appropriately, kosher salt.

"All of [the] food is sealed and wrapped when [it comes] from certified purveyors," said Llapitan, who also cooked at the hotel's signature restaurant, Encore. "During the whole event, from start to finish, we are accompanied by a rabbi, or a mashgiach, who supervises us to ensure that we come up with what the client is expecting and stay within the guidelines. We don't open it up or even bring it into the kitchen until the rabbi inspects it, and confirms that it came from a reputable source. It takes a lot more preparation to do a kosher function because of all the logistics."

Llapitan, whose most popular kosher entree is sea bass with soba noodles and baby bok choy, enjoyed planning gourmet kosher menus with clients. He truly believes he's learned a lot from cooking kosher, since the non-dairy restrictions have forced him to find substitutes to finishing off a dish with butter or a hint of cream. In fact, he makes the kosher crème brûlee from soy milk.

The chef, whose job is to oversee all four of the hotel's kitchens, admitted that certain food items cause him a lot of extra work.

"Asparagus tips are very, very difficult," he said. "You can't use them unless you peel them all the way back and wash them so many times in salt water. Some clients really want raspberries for their wedding, so we have to accommodate their needs, even though raspberries are extremely difficult to ensure that they're kosher. We had an event where we had a rabbi inspect every single raspberry inside and out -- including putting his finger inside each one -- to make sure that it was kosher. It was time-consuming, but nevertheless, we pulled it off."

The hotel is located at 2055 Avenue of the Stars, Century City. For more information, call (310) 277-6111.

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