Family cooks up an unkosher comedy
Right in the center of Williamsburg, Brooklyn — home to the Chasidic Satmar community — is a Jewish-owned restaurant called Traif. Its chef, Jason Marcus, serves mostly pork and shellfish dishes like salt-and-pepper shrimp, cornmeal-crusted soft-shell crabs, and lobster with spicy sausage.
In the six years the restaurant has been open, it’s gained critical acclaim and accolades from customers, as well as criticism from ultra-Orthodox residents who live around it.
“Jason got terrible publicity in the Yiddish papers,” said Lew Levy, Marcus’ uncle. “But there is no such thing as bad publicity. The bigger publications sent reporters and food critics, and lo and behold, they loved his food.”
The situation inspired Levy, along with his sons Jared and Adam, to create a comical, fictional web series based on the story of the restaurant. The first three episodes of “Traif (An Unkosher Series),” were released Dec. 23 on YouTube and Traifseries.com.
Set in the Fairfax District of Los Angeles, the series centers around the chef’s escapades, along with a cast of characters including his ditzy hostess, an angry television producer and a network CEO.
Lew, Adam and Jared wrote and shot the series in L.A. because that’s where they’re based. Lew is a writer and producer, Jared is an attorney at Paramount Pictures, and Adam is a technical animator at Walt Disney Animation Studios.
“We always wanted to do something creative together as a family,” Jared said. “We put all of our combined brainpower together to figure out how we could make something work. We got a bunch of our friends together and made three episodes of our show. It was a complete family affair.”
The first three episodes are called “The Truffle Shuffle,” “The First Cut Is the Deepest” and “DaSwine Intervention.” In the pilot, “The Truffle Shuffle,” the character representing Marcus, called Jason Marco, is preparing to debut his fancy imported truffles on his cooking show, which airs on The Condiment Channel. At the same time, his guest on the show is attempting to break the world record for holding his breath the longest. Everything goes wrong when Marco realizes that his box of truffles was switched with a box containing a pair of edible panties.
The show is reminiscent of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” in that all of the characters are eccentric, it’s shot documentary style and the audience knows something will go wrong. And, like on “Curb,” the actors improvise at certain points.
“Our cast is so good that they have gone off the page many times,” Lew Levy said. “The characters are developing on their own.”
According to Lew, the shooting and editing took eight months because they were on a shoestring budget. They were also all involved in the writing process, which led to some disagreements, even about the smallest of details.
“We had a marathon phone call about our third episode, ‘DaSwine Intervention,’ ” Jared said. “Did we want to spell it like ‘DiSwine’ as in ‘Divine,’ or did we want a space between the ‘D’ and the ‘Swine,’ or did we want to call it ‘Da Swine?’ At the end, I said I couldn’t believe I just had an hourlong phone call about an opening title.”
In the episode, Chasidic protestors threaten to shut down Traif.
Adam said the family hopes to write and shoot additional episodes together. “We absolutely want to keep making more,” he said. “It’s a way to be creative and express ourselves. Jared and I usually work for someone else. Being able to work for yourself is a pretty nice feeling.”
Still, the eventual goal is to sell it to a network. “Television and movie studios don’t want to jump on something unless it’s proven [to work],” Jared said. “Seeing how people respond is the first step and hopefully we can get some virality out of it and see where it goes.”
Though some in the Jewish community may be sensitive to the show’s title and the restaurant’s food, Lew said his wish is that people can joke about it.
“I hope kosher-eating people look at this and say this is a funny concept,” he said. “The restaurant is now very well-accepted in Brooklyn. Jason has spoken with rabbis in the community and they peacefully coexist.”
When Levy family members started on “Traif (An Unkosher Series),” they set out to make something entertaining — and they hope they’ve succeeded.
“We try to push the envelope and the boundaries of what you can and can’t say,” Adam said. “We want to make people laugh and have fun.”