November 2, 2006
It’s Pat—South African queen of kosher cuisine
Smoked duck with papaya salsa. Wild mushroom turnovers. Chicken roulade with sun-dried tomatoes and spinach. Sushi. Hungry yet? Good.
You keep kosher? Not a problem.
These are just a few of the elegantly presented gourmet dishes created by Pat Fine, of Pat's Restaurant and Pat's Catering. In the nearly three decades since Fine started serving up her dishes in the Southland, the kosher dining landscape has changed dramatically. As David Kamp chronicles in his book, "The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation," Americans of all stripes have been tutored in fine dining by a string of successful chefs, food critics, cookbook writers and restaurateurs over the last 30 years. This phenomenon has raised the bar for kosher cooking as well, creating demand for chic kosher dining.
Fine has been -- and remains -- a kosher cuisine pioneer in Los Angeles. Perhaps Rabbi Meyer May, executive director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and frequent Pat's customer, sums it up best: "She's the queen of kosher catering, absolutely top of the line."
Raised in Johannesburg, South Africa, Fine was one of four daughters. Her mother had very little interest in cooking, so Fine and her sisters were given free reign in the kitchen. Her father, a man who loved to eat, proved an enthusiastic recipient of his daughters' culinary adventures.
Although had she expressed a desire to become a professional cook, Fine is convinced that her mother "would have freaked." Cooking was thought of as "such an ordinary job, one that simply wasn't OK for nice Jewish girls," Fine said. As a concession to her parents, Fine went on to university to train and work as a pharmacist.
"I was misguided," she said. "Someone should have said to me 'Why don't you go to chefs school?' I would have loved to go to Cordon Bleu or somewhere like that. But I didn't, and I regret that."
Continuing to live and work in Johannesburg, Fine met her husband, Errol. They married in 1970 and soon started their own family. While Fine's parents were traditional Jews -- they lit candles on Friday nights and celebrated the holidays -- her in-laws were more observant.
"They kept kosher, so of course when I married I began to [keep kosher] as well," Fine said.
As massive riots broke out in Soweto near Johannesburg in 1976, the Fines left South Africa with their three sons to start anew in California.
"I had never left the country until we emigrated; I didn't even have a passport," Fine said.
The Fines settled in Los Angeles, where Errol was the financial controller for a chain of men's clothing stores. Pat was busy at home with their children, but still loved learning about food and creating new recipes, so she spent a lot of time "reading and experimenting on my own."
Over time, more and more of Fine's friends asked her to prepare food for celebrations and events.
"I was cooking out of my house. I was doing everything myself -- the shopping, cooking, delivery, serving. It became too much," she said.
Since large trucks were prohibited from frequenting her residential neighborhood, Fine would sometimes send deliveries to her children's school and then transport items with her own car.
Fine expanded her catering with the purchase of a deli on Pico Boulevard in 1982, which she named Elite Cuisine. She soon opened a second Elite Cuisine deli on Beverly Boulevard near Hancock Park. (Although Fine has since sold both delis, the new owner of the Hancock Park location has kept the name.)
As Fine remembers, "When we started out, there were just places like Nosh and Rye. There was nothing else -- just some falafel places, kosher hot dogs, deli food. I would tell people that we've got pasta salad and they'd say 'macaroni salad?' because that was all they knew."
When she sold the last of her delis about 15 years ago, Fine consolidated her business, opened the fleishig (meat) Pat's Restaurant on Pico Boulevard near Doheny Drive and expanded the catering operations. Around the same time, Fine said, she offered her accountant husband a job.
With Errol Fine running the business side -- from managing 50 employees to handling details for events as far away as in San Francisco -- Pat Fine is free to spend her time focused on food.
"He has a lot of charisma, so he meets with people. I prefer to be in the kitchen," she said.
"It's a very good partnership," she added.
As kosher cooking has become increasingly sophisticated and customer's palettes have become more refined, Fine said she endeavors to stay ahead of the curve. Inspired by her customers' knowledge and by other creative chefs, Fine said, "Whatever they're doing out there, say at Spago's, we're doing, but kosher."
Despite her ongoing love for fine food, one shouldn't expect an invitation for a home-cooked meal at the Fine residence any time soon. At the end of the workday, her home kitchen is the last place Pat Fine wants to be.
She warned, "If you ask me to make coffee at home it's a big deal -- you're on your own. The most you'll get in my house is a bagel and cottage cheese."