Some of the best events now are farm-to-table, interactive, fun and—surprise!—kosher
By Deanne Moskowitz
The staff of the Bacara Resort & Spa in Santa Barbara, Calif., watched in awe as Los Angeles-based 5 Star Kosher Catering (a division of Someone’s in the Kitchen) unloaded hors d’oeuvre trays for a glatt kosher wedding.
Among the assortment were petit lamb chops with pinot noir glaze, beef sliders with caramelized onions, tuna tartare in savory cones and vegetarian empanadas with salsa. Later came an edible flower and greens salad with tangerine vinaigrette; and a choice of bone-in grilled rib-eye with truffle sauce, herb-crusted roasted sea bass with lemon/caper sauce, or mushroom artichoke strudel.
“Wow! This can’t be kosher,” they proclaimed.
“People don’t think it can be kosher and out of this world,” observes 5 Star’s president, Joann Roth-Oseary. “The truth is that it certainly can be!”
Judy Marlow, owner of New York-based Simply Divine, a kosher catering and event planning company, agrees. Originally a designer, she cares about presentation as much as food, saying that her company is “secular in style but happens to be kosher.”
Jon Weinrott, co-owner of Peachtree Kosher (a division of Peachtree & Ward) in Philadelphia, feels that he brings a “more modern, contemporary, global” approach to the kosher world. He develops menus where dairy isn’t even needed, and it’s “easy to assimilate the recipes and flavors” of his original non-kosher division.
At Mi Chicas Kosher Catering & Events in Spring Valley, N.Y., co-owners Chany Kleinberger and Davii Mandel strive to stay abreast of what’s happening in food all over the world. Like caterers everywhere, they’re trying to satisfy an increasingly food-savvy clientele, especially the growing Millennial segment.
Among its major tenets, Jewish dietary law permits only ruminant mammals that have cloven hoofs, and fish that have fins and scales, prohibits the consumption of certain parts of permitted animals, forbids eating meat and dairy at the same meal, and dictates that all the blood be drained from meat or broiled out of it before it is eaten, restrictions that cause such unthinkable drawbacks as puff pastry made without butter, no hope of lobster rolls or baby back ribs, and even the absence of filet mignon. Yet in a testament to their dedication and resourcefulness, kosher caterers are making miracles. Taking advantage of the flood of new kosher ingredients and adhering to a lighter farm-to-table philosophy, they’re creating sophisticated, interactive, fun events that don’t taste or look kosher.
Dishing the Diaspora
These caterers say that their clients (generally all but the strictest Orthodox Jews and often non-observant Jews who favor kosher for their lifestyle events) expect the kind of cutting-edge cuisine eaten in the best restaurants, and caterers are giving it to them. Watching food TV like everyone else, the clients are looking for all the latest food trends, including the hottest ethnic cuisines.
A wedding for 300 that 5 Star catered in Santa Rosa, Calif., hit all the high notes, from tray-passed pulled barbecued brisket sliders to a chicken and waffle station. There was a Mediterranean station, including baba ganouche, hummus and spicy red eggplant salad, and mini chicken bastilla pies; a Mexican station, where a chef prepared guacamole in a large stone molcajete; not to mention extensive “Nobu quality” sushi and sashimi service.
An all-stations meat menu from Mi Chicas delighted guests with a Latin station comprising soft and crunchy tacos, Wild Bill’s beef chili and spicy guacamole; and stations offering chicken lo mein and fried rice with vegetables, both dispensed in mini Chinese takeout containers. Persian meatballs with cranberry mint chutney and Moroccan couscous are among other regular menu options.
Around the World stations starred on the children’s menu at one bat mitzvah catered by Peachtree. The lineup included nachos and empanadas; Caesar salad and various pasta selections; and build-your-own falafel sandwiches with schwarma brisket, baba ganouche and hummus. For the adults, there was a choice of French or Indian entrees: coffee-crusted bone-in rib-eye or seared striped bass with coconut garam masala nage.
Many Middle Eastern-inspired dishes are showing up on Marlow’s menus lately, including North African chicken and fish kabobs, and roasted black sea bass with fennel and preserved lemon in charmoula sauce. Tagines are sometimes served from stations as traditional stews and other times morph into plated entrées.
Probably the most popular ethnic element at kosher events now is sushi. It shows up at both meat and dairy events, since fish is pareve, meaning it is acceptable at meat or dairy meals.
Other raw fish specialties also are surfacing. Peachtree wows guests with its ceviche and tartare bar, paired with an ice sculpture displaying yellow and red gazpacho shooters. The fish might include tuna, red snapper and fluke.
Mammoth servings of brisket and potato kugel and other weighty traditional dishes have given way to lighter, healthier fare, in keeping with today’s prevailing seasonal, farm-to-table food philosophy. Miniature servings are multiplying, and smaller portions are becoming the norm.
Instead of smorgasbord, Marlow likes a lighter first course, perhaps a selection of miniatures, lending the variety that people crave. It might be several soup shots with a salad in the center of a rectangular plate, or a family-style appetizer for the table, followed by a plated entrée.
With a chef who came out of Le Bec Fin in Philadelphia, Simply Divine’s menus boast any number of elegant seafood dishes. One excellent fall selection is a pan-seared halibut with Yukon gold potato gnocchi, braised celery root, hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, and halibut and sage consommé. Also typical of the simple, stunning food Marlow champions is her favorite meat entrée: a Tuscan herbed rib-eye with a chopped herb balsamic and olive oil vinaigrette set on whipped purple potatoes with colorful baby vegetables.
In its abundance of fruits and vegetables and its showcasing of unusual ingredients, a three-course meat menu that Peachtree produced for the Jewish Museum is indicative of the changing face of kosher food. There was fluke crudo with beets and tehina, smoked lamb carpaccio with passionfruit and dates, and—especially surprising—kosher wild duck starring in a wheat berry salad with carrots and pine nuts.
Marlow and Weinrott report an increased interest in dairy (as opposed to meat) weddings, probably another nod to fresher fare. The one that Marlow catered at the Council on Foreign Relations building included such garden-rich bounty as minted pea and yellow gazpacho shots; mini mushroom pierogi; a ratatouille tart with chevre and a salad of baby heirloom tomatoes, arugula and roasted baby beet circles; and pan-seared black cod with leek fondue and ramp emulsion.
Traditional dishes still show up but in updated formats. Mini Reubens are hors d’oeuvres at some 5 Star events. Squares of potato kugel are presented in Chinese spoons at Mi Chicas, and the caterer does a takeoff on Schnitzi, a popular kosher breaded chicken sandwich chain, offering panko-crusted, grilled, pretzel-coated and other chicken tender variations with an array of sauces.
Plagued by Allergies
In addition to satisfying the rules of kosher eating, caterers are dealing with the same special dietary requests plaguing non-kosher caterers.
Gluten-free dishes studded a Simply Divine menu for 235 guests held at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Seven of 11 butlered hors d’oeuvres were gluten-free, among them lemongrass- and lime-scented organic beet and smoked Norwegian salmon tartare in Persian cucumbers, seared hamachi with sake glaze and marinated wakame, and guacamole with handmade tortilla circles and fresh tomato.
A stylish vegetarian dairy wedding dinner from Peachtree began with butlered hors d’oeuvres, including mushroom-shallot duxelles in phyllo triangles; pressed sandwiches of roasted peppers, goat cheese and basil; and potato cup with vegetable vindaloo. On the dinner buffet were vegetable tagine with chickpeas, figs, onions, kabocha squash and tomato; French lentil salad with romesco; and eggplant pilaf with pistachio and cinnamon.
Answers to Prayers
A godsend for kosher chefs, the number of kosher-certified ingredients has proliferated dramatically. According to Lubicom Marketing Consulting, which established and runs the Kosherfest trade show, 325,000 ingredient products were available in 2014, and the numbers continue to escalate.
Better-quality cheeses, especially European imports and those that are free of rennet, an animal-based component, are among the newest blessings.
Cheese was a challenge, observes Roth-Oseary, but finally even the fabulous French kosher cheeses are being imported. Fromage blanc, brie, camembert, chevre and crème fraiche all are on her list.
Marlow is happy for the “tons of flavor” that newly available kosher cheeses make possible, among them blue, dill Havarti, yogurt cheese and pepper Jack.
Weinrott was able to purchase quality kosher cheeses from a New York State dairy and incorporate them into a cheese display at a kosher wedding in May, something not previously possible.
Kosher-certified ethnic sauces, including sriracha, are making international kosher dishes taste more authentic, according to Marlow and Mandel. The latter also notes the explosion in gluten-free products making life easier at Mi Chicas, where the hot sauce flavors the spicy mayonnaise dressing for Sushi Sushi Salad, made with mock crab.
Stimulated by all they see, especially on the Internet, kosher clients, like their non-kosher counterparts, want an element of entertainment at their parties, Marlow notes. And she and other caterers are complying with fun foods and interactive formats.
One example that Marlow offers is Hot White Nights, an annual fundraiser that she caters at the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan. Beginning in the lobby and moving up to a gym that’s disguised beyond recognition, the event features lots of stations, butlered hors d’oeuvres and a big dessert. Several years ago, the theme was Marrakesh at Midnight, with a completely Moroccan menu, and last year it was Urban Alice in Wonderland, aptly featuring lots of miniatures.
Roth-Oseary says “crazy stuff” will be going on at a New Year’s Eve wedding that she is planning. The “fun” menu will include chicken and waffles and a hot dog station, offering such variety as pretzel and carrot dogs, and “chicken clucks” in biscuits with 17 different mustards.
When the daughter of a loyal client wanted to serve a whole lamb on the spit at her small beach wedding, an impossibility due to the prohibition against serving hindquarters, Roth-Oseary found an ingenious substitution. She purchased a new La Caja or Chinese Box, ordinarily used to roast a whole pig, and employed it instead to make lambs, minus the hindquarters.
Pulling off kosher events with such pizzazz isn’t easy. Among other requirements, caterers must maintain uncontaminated equipment, stock separate dairy and meat dishes and utensils, and maintain distinctive kosher kitchens or hire a mashgiach (a supervising rabbi) to kasher otherwise secular spaces (i.e., render them kosher according to Jewish dietary law). But despite such special challenges, even those who also own non-kosher companies consider the market worth the effort. They point out that Jews tend to be loyal cradle-to-grave clients, bringing business from the bris (the circumcision ceremony) to the shiva (generally a week-long period of mourning, during which friends visit with the bereaved).
Working the highly competitive Los Angeles market every day helps Roth-Oseary stay at the top of her game. Translating the trends into top-notch kosher cuisine “isn’t that hard,” she insists; it’s a matter of having the desire and creativity, and digging out the best substitute ingredients. “You just have to have the zeal and not be lazy.”
Devoted to Sushi
Rabbi Alex Shandrovksy, founder and CEO of L’Chaim Sushi, thinks of his company as a community service as much as a business−one that doesn’t solely assist Jews. The San Francisco-based company, which delivers drop-off lunches and caters events for many of the Bay Area’s top technology corporations, among them Google, feeds as many as 5,000 people monthly, but 70 to 75 percent of them are not even Jewish.
A major reason for the one-and-a-half-year-old company’s rapid rise, according to Shandrovsky, is the “amazingly high quality” of his product, particularly because his primarily 22- to 35-year-old clientele is so health-conscious. Royal Hawaiian Seafoods, which Shandrovsky notes is the preferred purveyor of such exalted names as Morimoto and The French Laundry, also supplies his fish. In addition, L’Chaim is the exclusive kosher partner of the Monterey Seafood Watch, insuring that everything that the company uses is sustainable, an important selling point.
Another reason for L’Chaim’s ecumenical appeal is its ability to “cater to distinct diets,” says Shandrovsky, who attributes the success of his business and its popularity with non-kosher diners in part to the high percentage of people afflicted with food allergies. L’Chaim’s expansive sushi menu, comprising more than 30 items, is shellfish-, gluten- and dairy-free, and satisfies Paleo and diabetic diets with poke options and so-called Paleo rolls made without rice.
Another goal of Shandrovsky, who didn’t grow up keeping kosher, is to enable the kosher community to enjoy the same rich culinary life that he enjoyed when he first immigrated to San Francisco from Russia. Consequently, L’Chaim is expanding its repertoire to include a growing list of ethnic favorites. So far, chicken teriyaki marinated in a chef-prepared sauce and miso-glazed king salmon have made the grade.
In developing his menu, Shandrovsky says he’s taking full advantage of the boom in the kosher market and the influx of new ingredients, which he attributes to “the value that non-Jews are placing on them.” For example, the recent availability of “amazing quality kosher cheeses” at the same prices as non-kosher has made possible the introduction of Caprese sandwiches and an upscale grilled cheese sandwich bar.