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Jewish Journal

Anything but Ordinary

by Judy Bart Kancigor

August 29, 2002 | 8:00 pm

Jeffrey Nathan

Jeffrey Nathan

"Adventures in Jewish Cooking" by Jeffrey Nathan (Clarkson Potter, $32.50).

When it comes to kosher fine dining, chef Jeffrey Nathan of New York's Abigael's restaurants wrote the book. Now, just in time for Rosh Hashana, he's written "Adventures in Jewish Cooking," a collection of innovative recipes that redefine kosher as a world-class cuisine.

"I want our customers to think of Abigael's not as a kosher restaurant, but as a great restaurant that happens to be kosher," says the vivacious chef whose PBS television show "New Jewish Cuisine" garnered a James Beard nomination.

And indeed they do. Jewish and non-Jewish diners alike, like Donald Trump and former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, return for the adventuresome menu, outstanding service and elegant ambiance.

With "Adventures in Jewish Cooking," Nathan brings his imaginative, updated kosher cooking to the home chef with dishes such as Porcini-Crusted Striped Bass and Port Wine Syrup, Chicken and Veal Pate and Rack of Veal with Wild Mushroom Farfel Dressing.

"Kosher diners are more sophisticated today," he says. "A lot of people are more comfortable with the same things for Shabbat and the holidays, but when they go out to a restaurant, they don't want Shabbat roasted chicken."

While the recipes reflect Nathan's imaginative use of fresh ingredients and exotic influences from his travels -- Thai and Vietnamese are favorites -- he gives more than a nod to his ancestral roots. And rather than being restricted by the kosher laws, he soars to the challenge of updating and recreating traditional dishes.

"It's not all about innovation," he writes. "I can derive just as much satisfaction from taking a recipe from my heritage and making it the best it can be," like Classic Chicken Soup with Matzah Balls, Sweet Noodle and Fruit Kugel, and Superb Sabbath Cholent.

Nathan grew up in a predominantly Italian neighborhood in Queens, N.Y., and loved to watch his mom cook. "Instead of watching television, I was always potchkeeing around in the kitchen," he recalls.

As a dishwasher in an Italian restaurant, he discovered a passion for cooking by watching the chefs. "They were so fast and just looked like they were having fun, but I didn't really think of it as a career. All I knew was Julia Child on television."

In the Navy, Nathan became personal chef to the captain and officers, even cooking for Menachim Begin and Anwar Sadat. "Not only did I get to travel around the world, but when we'd pull into ports, I was given money to go out and search for ingredients and could then come back and experiment."

After the service, he attended the prestigious Culinary Institute of America under the GI Bill. "You can't beat that. Travel the world, learn a trade, then go to school, all on Uncle Sam. That was one of the smarter things I ever did."

Nathan worked at a number of New York restaurants, including Luchow's and New Deal, where he distinguished himself with unusual preparations of wild game and exotic meats, creating his now-legendary Venison Chili, which later, as the only kosher entry, took first place in the James Beard National Chili Cook-Off.

"It was a blind tasting, and we were up against a lot of upscale Manhattan restaurants. When the kosher one won, no one could believe it!"

After 20 years of cooking non-kosher, he opened Abigael's with partner Harvey Reizenman. "Abigael's was my beshert [destiny]," he writes. "I realized that I had come home, both spiritually and professionally."

"Adventures in Jewish Cooking" showcases that same passion for the new and respect for the old. "I believe in modernization of everything," he says, "but then again, there's tradition."

Nathan's holiday menus will inspire you to create new traditions of your own: Banana Sufganiyot Pudding for Chanukah, Savory Hamantaschen With Vegetable-Cheese Stuffing for Purim, and I can't wait for Pesach to try Matzah Napoleon With White Chocolate Mousse.

For Rosh Hashana, he's selected Roast Duck with Apple-Golden Raisin Sauce. "I think I may be the world's No. 1 duck fan," says Nathan, who divulges Abigael's double-cooking technique that guarantees a crispy skin without sacrificing moistness.

"It's very important to have sweet for the New Year," he reminds us. "I usually keep desserts pareve, but for a dairy meal I'll make Honey-Ginger Zabaglione Cream. It's harder to spell than to make it!"

And how will Nathan celebrate the New Year? "I always make taiglach at home with the kids [Chad, 13, and Jaclyn, 10]," who appear in "Adventures in Jewish Cooking" clad in chef's coats, helping their dad prepare Chocolate Mousse Flowerpots.

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