August 22, 2013
Michael Israel Wins ‘Chopped!’—Now Where’s Our Restaurant??
If L.A. has such great kosher chefs, why don’t we have at least one great kosher restaurant?
This month, two L.A. kosher chefs competed on separate episodes of the popular Food Network show, “Chopped!” -- and both won. So our chefs can win national cooking competitions, but our city can’t sustain a great local kosher fine dining place?
Katsuji Tanabe, the chef/owner of Mexikosher on Pico Blvd. and Michael Israel, the chef/owner of the M.O.E. Better Deli food truck and blogger at Kosher Bacon, each took home the $5,000 prize in tough competitions.
Mexikosher features Tanabe’s bright, original takes on traditional Mexican food—but it is essentially a take-out place, not a restaurant. And Israel, who together with his wife Emily run a non-kosher pop-up called Fress, devotes his day time hours to his rolling food truck—again, excellent, but not exactly fine dining.
LA’s best kosher restaurant is Tierra Sur, which is a good hour or more north in Oxnard. It’s worth the drive— but it’s not exactly convenient. (Side note: the last time I was there, Pat Sajak was sitting at the next table dining with a beautiful woman. Pat Sajak. Go figure.)
As for LA, there are some nice fancier places—Pats, Shilos- and many good simpler kosher restaurants and take-out joints. I’d put Ta’eem Grill’s schwarma and matbucha up against any in New York, or Tel Aviv. But a chef-driven, fresh, local and inventive restaurant that truly reflects all the exciting things happening in kosher food and wine? Evidently the world’s 3rd largest Jewish community can’t sustain it.
It’s not because we don’t have the cooking talent. Both Tanabe and Israel have solid chef creds. Tanabe worked in high-end starred restaurants, and Israel trained in Europe, New York and the Culinary Institute of America. And winning “Chopped!” is not chopped liver. There are four contestants. Each must make an appetizer, main course and dessert using a mix of ingredients that they see just seconds before the cooking begins. In Israel’s case, the contestants had to make an appetizer course using blood sausage, smoked pork, ginger snaps and Savoy cabbage. They can draw from a well-stocked pantry, but they only have 20 minutes to a half hour to cook. It’s challenging, nerve-wracking and slightly gross.
Israel, who writes the Kosher Bacon blog at jewishjournal.com, stuck to his theme of modernizing Jewish food. He made a version of matzo ball soup with crushed ginger snaps standing in for matzo meal. It looked like a Mad magazine version of iles flotantes, but it won points for originality.
In the next round the mystery box revealed halibut, orange flavored drink, pepperoni risotto and Chinese celery. Israel made a beautifully presented seared halibut topped with a salad of fresh apple and celery. That, he said, was to represent the food of Passover.
For dessert he took guanabana nectar, white chocolate chips, pecans and chipotle chilis and made a white chocolate kugel.
“You’re really keeping with the Jewish thing, aren’t you,” said a judge.
It worked for him: Israel won. He said he would use the prize money to take his wife Emily on a trip to Israel—sticking to the Jewish thing to the end.
I wrote about Tanabe’s equally impressive victory here. Both men were cool under pressure, showed some sass, and both were intensely competitive. Just the qualities you need to open a fine dining kosher restaurant in LA.
So, who’s going to back them?