March 25, 2009
The Making of ‘The Chosen Dish’
Prior to becoming a food writer and restaurant reviewer for The Jerusalem Post, I always thought of kosher food as limited and bland. But Israel demands competitive kosher cuisine — hotels generally adhere to kashrut laws; corporate lunch meetings must often accommodate observant clientele alongside secular counterparts who’d prefer a Tel Aviv bistro serving sautéed shrimp. This is true even though, at the same time, at the heart of Israeli culture are Jews who, no matter how much they like to think of themselves as the new Hebrews, still fondly recall their grandmother’s traditional kosher Jewish specialties.
In America, however, kosher restaurants seem stuck. The smaller size of their target clientele and the expense of sustaining kosher standards — with the high cost of meat and on-site kosher supervision — can lead to compromises in creativity. And because FFBs (the acronym for “Frum (religious) From Birth”) usually have limited basis for comparison, they don’t know how much better a steak grilled to perfection with butter really tastes. Though Jewish cooks often create culinary wonders in their own kitchens, sadly, the high standards of homemade food have yet to become the norm in the common kosher marketplace.
The explosion of food competitions, from “Iron Chef” to “Top Chef,” inspired me to wonder what a Jewish food competition might offer. This led me to conceive “The Chosen Dish,” an online kosher cooking competition produced in conjunction with jewishjournal.com. And what better way to launch a program challenging chefs and home cooks to redeem kosher foods from their unsavory stigma than by having them recreate the iconic Jewish food: matzah ball soup.
Together with The Journal’s VideoJew Jay Firestone, I visited the kitchens of two local chefs and one home cook who agreed to step up to the seder plate with their own recipes.
Mexican Japanese Katsuji Tanabe, executive chef of Shiloh’s kosher steakhouse, had no tradition to fall back on — he only recently discovered his Mexican mother’s Jewish roots; her ancestors left Spain during the Inquisition, only to assimilate later. Caterer Hilit Gilat from Israel created matzah balls inspired by her mother-in-law, served in an elaborately prepared beef and chicken consommé. Michelle Chaim adapted her mother’s recipe to create a homey herb-and-garlic-infused matzah ball soup. For the final taste test, we gathered them at the state-of-the-art kosher kitchen at the beautiful Four Seasons Hotel Westlake Village, where “The Chosen Dish” was determined by a panel of judges.
But I’d rather you watch the chefs at work rather than read about them. Check out the series on www.jewishjournal.com/thechosendish on April 1 for your Passover viewing pleasure and find out whose matzah ball soup will be “The Chosen Dish.”
Participants of The Chosen Dish were asked to abide by the Ten Commandments of The Chosen Dish. The rest was left to divine inspiration.
1. This is The Chosen Dish who has commanded you to make matzah ball soup.
2. You shall have no unkosher food before us
3. You shall not make for yourself a matzah ball from a package
4. Thou shall honor thy judges and hosts
5. Observe the Passover seder by making enough food to feed a family of six and two guests
6. Thou shall not kill your dish by overcooking it
7. Thou shall not commit adulteration of your soup
8. Thou shall not steal your mother’s recipe, only adapt it
9. Thou shall not bear false witness against your competitors’ dish
10. Thou shall not covet the other chef’s matzah ball