March 13, 2013
Kosher caterer and restaurateur Alain Cohen brings family tradition to his menus, especially at his own Passover seder
It’s late afternoon and the staff at Got Kosher? Café is under the impression that the kitchen isn’t yet able to prepare brik until dinner service begins. “So, you want brik?” owner Alain Cohen asks. Dressed in all black, with a professorial air and solid build, Cohen’s question implies that brik will be in my future, despite the lunch shift’s initial claim. When Cohen sits down at the front corner table in his restaurant, a half-moon shaped, flash-fried brik arrives, with a diminutive, custom-sized portion for himself.
The beauty of the , a tuna-and-egg-filled pastry lies in the fact that it’s a meal in itself, but Cohen’s hospitality and zeal for the food of his ancestral homeland means the food keeps coming. “How about a little qimia?” he asks one of the servers. A micro-culinary tour of Tunisian cuisine unfolds, with Cohen’s interpretations of dishes such as hummus, babaganoush, olive tapenade, a sweet and tangy roasted eggplant spread, a cucumber and tomato salad, and merguez sausage covering one, and then two table surfaces.
Cohen’s life story has been an ongoing dialogue between food and religion. The most recent expression of his quest and passion has been showcasing Tunisian cuisine along with a range of kosher cooking at Got Kosher?
When it comes to describing his family’s Pesach rituals, Cohen remembers the discomfort and the subsequent reward with equal intensity and affection. “A traditional Passover at home [in Tunisia] was torture,” Cohen says, laughing. “But then when the food comes, it’s worth the wait. Because what comes is a feast of food.”
He’s not exaggerating. Hearing Cohen, who is in his mid-50s, recount a typical Tunisian Passover menu makes Hillel sandwiches, gefilte fish, matzah ball soup, brisket and macaroons sound paltry in comparison.
At Got Kosher?, which Cohen originally founded as a wholesale and catering operation before adding the storefront restaurant component in 2008, he’s out to gratify and enlighten. His own culinary conversion was a crucial part of this process.
Alain Cohen. Photo courtesy of Got Kosher?
“I looked at myself in the mirror and said, ‘I cannot sell kosher if I’m not 100 percent kosher,’ ” Cohen recalls. “I had to walk my talk. As soon as I did that, I felt some kind of peace inside, some kind of satisfaction.”
It’s at this bright, contemporary casual spot on Pico near Robertson where you can find, for example, the aforementioned brik. Brik a l’oeuf includes tuna, capers, parsley and a runny egg in a crisp, golden crepe package, and served with a side of traditional Tunisian harissa chili sauce and a lemon wedge.
A denser, sweet application of the brik in small rolled form incorporates almond paste and honey, as do many Tunisian desserts, Cohen explains. It’s among Got Kosher?’s other compact pastry offerings, such as mini lemon meringue tarts that come nested in dairy-free shells. It’s in the dessert case where Cohen’s ties to France are most immediately evident.
If anyone who closely knows his macaroons from macarons, it’s Cohen.
Much in the way independent-minded, creative types are drawn to Los Angeles, Cohen, a former filmmaker whose family immigrated to Paris from Tunisia when he was a young child, enjoys infusing his repertoire with a healthy dose of reinvention. He’s called Los Angeles home since 1981. This attitude helps explain the slices of pretzel challah — rather than default pita, which is still an option at Got Kosher? — that accompany qimia (similar to mezze or tapas) and brik, and, as per Tunisian custom, many cups of lemon verbena tea.
Cohen’s reputation at Got Kosher? has in large part been built on these deeply burnished loaves with their glossy, chewy exterior. Some come studded with hunks of Belgian dark chocolate or savory elements. The time he spent working at La Brea Bakery with local artisanal bread maven Nancy Silverton, currently associated with the Mozza micro-empire, certainly shows.
He also has a thriving side trade in Neshama sausages, which his life and business partner, Evelyn Baran, primarily runs. Folks across the country now have access to stellar kosher merguez (See related story).
The best chefs and restaurateurs are often gifted storytellers and amateur historians. Julia Child and Mario Batali don’t engage TV viewers simply because it’s educational and fun to watch the pros handle raw ingredients and then apply heat. They imbue cooking with context and experience. Charisma certainly plays a part, too. (And as is the case with the latest crop of food TV, heavy-handed showmanship and spectacle.)
For Cohen, who comes from a restaurant family, every dish he serves is part of a larger personal crusade to defy expectations surrounding the word “kosher.”
After all, Cohen’s devotion to Judaism is primarily channeled through food. “I’m not Orthodox. But I’m very kosher,” he explains. “And totally comfortable, because I realize it’s beyond me. But I look at it and I feel almost like a spiritual warrior.” This epiphany came years after he’d left France to make his mark outside the family business of food. Best laid plans and all that.
Playing with boundaries and defined structure is another aspect of the challenge, so Cohen sometimes uses an idiosyncratic, unconventional approach to his chosen mission.
About a recent prix-fixe menu he dubbed “I Can’t Believe It’s Kosher,” featuring items such as “krab” cakes with chipotle mayo dipping sauce and brisket paired with vegan mac n’ cheese, I asked Cohen if such irreverence might come off as backhandedly denigrating to kosher cooking.
“It’s not that I’m putting down kosher. On the contrary,” he insists. “I want people to know that kosher can be delicious.”
Cohen frequently uses the word “interesting” when discussing the Got Kosher? menu, which can seem a somewhat odd descriptor, given that his relationship to his own rich culinary heritage is as routine as bagels and lox is to an American Jew. Cohen’s indigenous gastronomic universe isn’t a removed, exotic fantasy, as it might be to those unfamiliar with the intense spices and flavor profiles of North African and French cooking.
He doesn’t assume his customers are familiar with tagines and shakshouka. That’s why he’s eager to make this introduction. Meanwhile, Got Kosher? also turns out plenty of familiar fare for the average diner. You want braised brisket and roast chicken? Fine. But Cohen doesn’t leave things as is, so basics usually come with zesty sauces on the side, too.
Cohen knows his clientele well, but retains his outsider status to some degree — even within the community he’s been a part of for several decades.
Tunisian food, a result of ongoing cultural hybridization, is endlessly fascinating, even to someone whose upbringing included an endless varied stream of couscous, spices, meats, vegetables and fruits. Plus the Jewish community itself in Tunisia has never been a monolith, thanks to immigration throughout the centuries from Spain, Italy, Turkey, and other intricate tribal dynamics.
Cohen uses this arrow in his quiver to prove that the constant presence of a mashgiach in the kitchen need not imply bland kosher food.
Ever since Cohen put his budding film career on hiatus to breathe new life into his family’s banquet hall business near the Champs-Élysées in the 1970s, he’s maintained an entrepreneurial verve. At this point, he had made a documentary titled “The Jews of Djerba,” about the insular community with ancient roots on the Tunisian island from which his mother’s family is descended.
Childhood memories of seeing his father’s shadowy figure come home as Alain fell asleep and then vanish again as he would awaken the next morning, helped shape Cohen’s ambition and steeled him to the realities of the restaurant business. Cohen watched closely and learned to cook, because “I wanted to impress my father. I grew up with my father absent, always working. I wanted him to notice how good I was doing what he was doing.” Boys, however, weren’t exactly expected to take an interest in matters of the kitchen.
Cohen is engaged with every logistical and conceptual aspect of Got Kosher?, and he doesn’t stick to a single script. Its lunch, dinner, catering, weekly Shabbat, prix fixe dinner and special holiday take-out menus are constantly evolving. Cohen offers a dizzying number of highly eclectic dishes, with items ranging from the aforementioned appetizers to tofu and rice coconut curry to refined European classics (think: beef bourguignon and osso buco).
It’s also somewhat a vegan haven, despite the fact that the kitchen isn’t a meat-free zone — Cohen has a particular passion for barbecue — and tends to use conventionally produced ingredients. Cohen cares about issues of sustainability and food ethics, but has to shelve these agendas. They’re simply too expensive in the context of his business.
At Passover, he takes his one-week annual vacation. That’s because Got Kosher? earnings wouldn’t merit the effort to ensure his kitchen is chametz-free and properly prepped. “Thinking about it makes me tired,” he says.
Which brings us back to the Tunisian seder, which starts with anywhere from five to 10 qimia, or more commonly known as mezze in other neighboring cultures.
It would have been enough.
But meatballs with fennel seed cooked in tomato and harissa precede a fish course, typically involving salmon or mullet known as poisson chraime. “It should be savory and sour, not sweet,” Cohen instructs. Followed by a slow-cooked liver and lamb called faad, plus akkoud of tripe, colon and other beef parts Americans are neither familiar with nor comfortable eating. After which comes a beef lung-based sausage.
M’khalta spring vegetable stew with meat is particularly seasonal and celebratory. Traditionally thick matzah rounds are used to absorb the sauce, “like soupe a l’oignon and crouton,” and the dish becomes known as m’soki. (Factory-made American sheets of matzah would not be up to this task.) Because of the Sephardic leniency about rice during Pesach, an ample amount of the grain also accompanies the stew.
To conclude the meal, Tunisian Passover typically includes “stuffed dates, a lot of marzipan-style desserts. Fresh fruits.” Orange blossom water often figures into the sweet course, too.
“Listen, you want to know what is Tunisian culture?” Cohen asks. He often frames the topic of conversation as a question before launching into a thorough explanation. “It’s a lot of food. You feed people because you want them to be satiated. That’s the goal.”
For those interested in sharing this noble purpose at home, Cohen has provided some of his beloved Tunisian recipes for Pesach.
ALAIN COHEN’S MININA (CHICKEN FRITATTA/SOUFFLÉ)
Adapted from “La Cuisine Juive Tunisienne” by Edmond Zeitoun.
Preheat oven to 400 F.
Boil chicken with 2 pinches of salt and 1 pinch of white pepper in a stockpot. While the chicken is cooking, beat the raw eggs. Peel and dice hard-boiled eggs into medium-sized chunks.
Cook the chicken for 20 to 30 minutes and then divide into 2 unequal groups: 3/4 on one side, 1/4 on the other. Lightly process the larger group in in a food processor. Shred the smaller group by hand.
Mix all the ingredients together in a metal bowl. Add another 2 pinches of salt and 1 pinch of white pepper or to taste.
Brush the sides of a loaf pan with oil and warm in the oven long enough to get the oil sizzling. Pour the contents of the bowl into the pan. Bake for 20 minutes or until the mixture is golden brown and has risen until it is near the top of the pan. Insert a knife in the center; if it comes out slightly wet and the center feels firm, remove the pan from the oven and cover with foil. Let cool for one hour.
Turn onto a large plate. If it doesn’t come out clean, use a knife to loosen the Minina from the pan. Cut into 1 inch thick slices and serve with lemon quarters.
Makes 6 servings.
Cohen’s tips: Although delicious when warm or room temperature, this recipe can be made a day ahead and kept in fridge. I like to add some lemon juice in the batter — just enough to get a hint in the background and still add some fresh lemon when serving. Always use white pepper, otherwise the little black specks will look like specks of dirt in the middle of this delicate yellow-and-white pastel canvas. Authentic Tunisians add a deveined, cooked brain and coarsely cut in the chicken-mixing stage. It gives an unparalleled smoothness to the texture, like if you were eating lean bone marrow, but it is healthy.
BOULETTES AU FENOUIL ET Á L’HARISSA (SPICY FENNEL MEATBALLS)
Mix paprika, salt and pepper in a small bowl. Mix the meat with the parsley, ground fennel seeds, whole fennels seeds; half of the paprika, salt and pepper mixture; 5 teaspoons of garlic; and 1 teaspoon of harissa in a metal bowl. Add egg and half of the oil. Mix well with your hands.
Make balls the size of small pingpong balls. Put in saucepan. Add 2 cups of water, tomato paste and the remaining garlic, harissa, oil as well as the paprika, salt and pepper mix. Cover. Bring to a boil for 10 minutes. Uncover and simmer for 30 minutes or until the sauce reduces to a gravy constancy.
Makes 4 servings.
RAW ARTICHOKE SALAD
Adapted from “La Cuisine Juive Tunisienne” by Edmond Zeitoun.
Fill a bowl with 2 cups of cold water and a teaspoon of lemon juice.
Remove leaves and leave one inch of stem. Remove the choke from above the heart and shave any irregularities off the stem. Cut the artichoke hearts in half and then in quarters.
Cut the quarters into 1/8th-inch slices and add to water to prevent darkening.
Drain the water; pat dry with paper towels. Add 1 teaspoon of salt and 2 pinches of black pepper. Add the rest of the lemon juice. Mix well.
Store in refrigerator. Serve cool.
Makes 4 servings.
Cohen’s tip: Make a day ahead and keep in fridge. The lemon and the salt will soften the artichokes and will make it even more delicious. Make sure that the salt and lemon balance one another before storing it in the fridge. Taste and taste again. It is a critical part of the success of this salad. The lemon taste must be bold but balanced by the salt. The salt must be present without overpowering the tartness of the lemon. Some people add a dollop of olive oil to balance the lemon, if needed.
M’SOKY DE PAQUES (PASSOVER SPRING STEW)
Prepare the Osbane (recipe follows).
Prepare and cut all of the vegetables — except the potatoes — into 1-inch chunks; add to a big bowl of water. Cut meat into 1-inch chunks.
Bring large stockpot with 2 quarts of water and oil to a boil. Add vegetables, garlic, parsley, mint, cinnamon bark, salt, pepper, four-spice mix and nutmeg. Add the meat to push down the vegetables. Boil uncovered for 15 minutes. Reduce heat to medium, cover and simmer for 1 1/2 hours.
Put Osbane in a pot and cover with water. Simmer, but do not cover.
Peel the potatoes and dice them in 1-inch chunks. Add potatoes to stockpot, on top of the meat. Simmer for 30 minutes.
Break the matzah into big chunks and add to the stockpot, followed by the Osbane and the broth. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes. Broth should be thick.
To serve, put the Osbane and the meat in a separate platter. Transfer the vegetables and the matzah to a soupiere (serving bowl).
Makes 8 to 10 servings.
Cohen’s tips: May be done vegetarian by omitting the meat and replacing with tempeh or seitan or tofu. Form a collective and try to import the French round matzah. Forget any other type. You have not lived a French Tunisian Passover unless you have tested these matzot. If you do, reduce the number of matzah sheets needed by half.
OSBANE (MODERN VERSION)
Wash the spinach and the parsley thoroughly after cutting the ends.
Mix the ground meat, fat, garlic, harissa, onion, oil, ground coriander, salt and pepper in a food processor. Chop thoroughly. Remove and reserve. Coarsely chop spinach, mint and parsley in the food processor.
Combine the meat mixture, the herbs and the uncooked rice in a bowl.
Test casing for holes: tie a knot at one end and fill it with water.
Using a funnel, fill the casing with the mix without stuffing it too much. The Osbane must be loose. Tie up the other end, leaving a couple of inches of empty casing. Puncture the casing with one or two needle holes in the thickest part so it does not burst when the rice swells.
Boil by itself for 45 minutes or enough for the rice and the meat to cook.
Cut in 3- to 4-inches pieces per serving.
Makes 8 servings.