November 28, 2002
Chef Jeffrey Nathan puts a new spin on Chanukah cuisine with his latest work.
"Adventures of Jewish Cooking" by Jeffrey Nathan (Clarkson/Potter Publishers, $32.50)
When Jeffrey Nathan auditioned for his first job cooking for the captain of a Navy destroyer somewhere in the middle of the Pacific and substituted vanilla for Worchester sauce in the meatloaf, little did he know his destiny was a 375-seat upscale kosher restaurant in Manhattan's garment district named Abigael's.
Twenty-five years, one James Beard nomination for Best National Cooking Series for the PBS show, "New Jewish Cuisine," and a critically acclaimed new book, "Adventures of Jewish Cooking," later, Nathan is still a bit overwhelmed.
It's a blustery Friday in October as we approach Abigael's and find the solicitous chef waiting by the door. He's just returned from Los Angeles, filming his cooking show at the Jewish Television Network, with a brief stop at Kosherfest in Meadowlands, N.J., and a few television appearances in Florida.
Nathan is under strict mandate from his wife and his partners to relax. As he talks about ideas for Chanukah, his eyes dart around the room. Is the Thai-Crusted Chicken at table eight succulent enough? Is the Bison Chili too spicy?
"I can't help it, I'm excited," says Nathan, sipping a cup of hot coffee, then chasing it with cold water. We're seated at a corner table of the crowded restaurant, where the burly, immaculately dressed executive chef is co-owner and chief worrier. Nathan is as animated as he is on television.
"It was great! I felt like the kosher Emeril," Nathan enthuses about the reception he got at Kosherfest for his book. When you redefine a cooking style that hasn't always been billed as haute cuisine, you're bound to turn a few heads.
"There's no such thing as strictly Jewish food. Since the Inquisition, Jews have migrated all over the world. They took their traditions with them; they also ate the food indigenous to the area. If we were in Palermo right now, we'd follow Jewish law, but we'd be eating fresh mozzarella, vine-ripened tomatoes and robust olive oil -- but probably not with latkes," he says with a laugh.
He plays down the difficulties of the myriad dietary rules and restrictions taken from the Torah, including the necessity for a full time mashgiach (a certified kosher supervisor) in the kitchen.
"I know how hard it is," said executive chef Don Pintabona, of Tribeca Grill in Manhattan. "I went to Israel during the Peace Accord with Chefs for Peace. I had to cook a sauce the kosher way -- it took me a day and a night. The mashgiach almost threw me out of the kitchen. Jeff makes it look so easy. He's the type of chef, if you look at a plate of his food, you see his personality. It's classic cuisine; it's also comfort food."
Nathan's most comforting dish just might be latkes. Not only will he serve all manner of the potato pancake with a variety of toppings at Abigael's during Chanukah, he has fried and flipped the transcendent Jewish treat at The James Beard Foundation's Latke Lovers Cook-off and Chanukah dinner for the last several years.
So latkes are partially responsible for Nathan's success? "I'm not proud," he jokes. "You smell a latke, you'll buy anything. Who could say no to something that tastes that good?"
Nathan relaxes a minute as he muses about Chanukahs past, then shifts into high gear and brainstorms accessories for the holiday's shining star -- a compote of seasonal fruit and a Latin chimichurri sauce of tangy herbs and spices. "The spiciness of the chimichurri is the perfect foil for latkes," he said. "Then you add the opposite flavor of sweetness from the compote. Sweet, savory and untraditional."
"I keep the latkes simple. Everybody thinks they have to throw in everything but the kitchen sink. I use a combination of Russets for strength, Yukon Golds for richness and sweetness. And a few ingredients to bring out the flavor, not disguise it. A perfect latke is light, crispy, cooked all the way through, and above all, delicious."
He laughs good-naturedly. "I love what I do. And the best part, it's brought me back to my roots. Even when I achieved notoriety as a wild-game chef or when I was invited to cook at The James Beard House, I was the same shlepper as everyone else. Now I've achieved everything a chef dreams of. There's got to be a reason for this."
He pauses, taking it all in. "You don't think it has just a tiny bit to do with God"?