June 26, 2013
Kosher food is on the roll
In a way, Michele Grant’s unfortunate Hollywood ending — she experienced an injury on a movie set while serving as an assistant director — turned into a beautiful beginning for the Los Angeles kosher community.
While she had been passionate about cooking since her childhood, when she learned the art from her grandmothers — one who taught her to bake rugelach, cakes and cookies and the other who first showed her how to debone a chicken — it wasn’t until after the injury that she took on cooking professionally. Grant served as a private chef for people in the entertainment industry, particularly those with special diets, and picked up other cooking gigs on the side.
Today, she is the owner and founder of The Kosher Palate, which serves up kosher sandwiches, soups, desserts and side dishes at farmers markets across the city every week. The mobile food station opened last fall and makes appearances at the Sunset Strip, Mar Vista and La Cienega farmers markets, doling out pareve food cooked on the spot.
A truck that has both pareve and fleishig items launched in April. Grant said it has stopped in Santa Clarita, Burbank, West Los Angeles, Pico-Robertson and many places in between. There are plans to expand to places like Long Beach and the South Bay as well, she said.
The next stage will be turning the truck into a hybrid of a gourmet food truck with made-to-order cuisine and a mobile epicurean shop carrying a line of prepared food items and specialty kosher products, according to Grant.
The menu includes shakshuka, an African and Middle Eastern stew with tomatoes, red peppers, onion and turkey meatballs that she serves in a mamaliga (polenta) bowl; tomato bisque and butternut squash soup; roasted beluga lentil salad; lemongrass almond pudding; a baked tempeh sandwich; and tuna Nicoise. The food is sourced from the farmers themselves, and is all-natural.
“We’re using extraordinary ingredients,” Grant said. “It’s from local farmers who love what they do and know their products.”
“When something has just come from the ground or the tree, it’s at its height in nutritional value and flavor,” she said. “It’s reflected in the food we make.”
Earlier in her culinary career, Grant, 46, learned the ins and outs of the mobile food business as a partner in the popular Grilled Cheese Truck and doing cooking demonstrations at the Hollywood Farmers Market. Then she decided to combine her interest in cooking with her reverence for kosher standards. (A secular Jew, Grant grew up attending an Orthodox school and learned about kashrut, or Jewish dietary laws.)
“It was always so curious to me that I never saw a lot of the frum community at the farmers markets,” she said. “At the farmers markets, you go to buy your fruits and vegetables. It’s social, and you get a nosh along the way. There was never anything for [observant people] to nosh on. We solve that problem.”
Certified by the Rabbinical Council of California (RCC), the Kosher Palate, which is run by Grant and three full-time workers, follows strict standards of kashrut. For example, the booth cannot be located next to another booth that is also cooking food because of possible cross-contamination with treif vapor.
Michele Grant. Photo by Martin Cohen Photography
Cindy Szerlip, chief financial officer of the Kosher Palate, also is Jewish and interested in the sustainable, artisan food movement. When she had kids and started going to the local Jewish center, she found the kosher food everywhere to be disappointing.
“It was unimaginative, and it was the same food over and over again,” she said. “I ate food at gourmet restaurants that could absolutely be prepared in a kosher style without losing quality or excitement.”
Szerlip said that it’s important for everyone, Jewish or not, to understand the level of quality involved in kosher food.
“It’s clear, and more regulated than foods you get on the street or in supermarkets. It’s highly inspected, and there are rigorous standards,” she said. “The time has come, considering the food problems in our system. It’s another level of security and quality that most people should really have in their lives.”
Since Kosher Palate kicked off with a latke party last fall at the Mar Vista Farmers Market, manager Diana Rodgers said it has struck a chord with patrons.
“People assume it’s just kosher food and not their food, but when they taste it, they change their mind. It’s an offering for everyone. It’s a learning curve for people. They’re very happy when they taste it,” Rodgers said.
Grant said that the experience of running a kosher food booth has, so far, been a positive one, even if it’s not always easy.
“I love being able to get back to my own roots in terms of food,” she said. “To be able to cook the food of my history and to celebrate my own culture through food is amazing. I can honor my grandmothers because I feel them with me in the kitchen every day.”