November 12, 2018

Passing the kosher-for-Passover test

On March 31, a Tuesday, it looked like a hurricane had swept through Shiloh’s Steakhouse, an abnormal scene for the otherwise-pristine, kosher fine-dining establishment on Pico Boulevard. Chairs were pushed to the side and tables were scattered,  as plastic bins filled with silverware, plates and cooking utensils stood isolated and clearly out of place. It was 3 p.m., and the restaurant’s staff was still waiting for the appointed Kehilla Kosher mashgiach to arrive and inspect the restaurant. “I don’t know where he is,” owner Geoffrey Ghanem muttered in a thick French accent, pacing from the front of the house to the back of the kitchen, making sure all necessary preparations were underway.

Luigi Lemorrocco, an Italian-American New Yorker (who’s been around Jews all his life), has been executive chef at Shiloh’s for the past 2 1/2 years, and this is his third official kosher-for-Passover restaurant cleaning. Come Passover season, he’s quickly catching on, learning what to expect with the rules and regulations of the chametz-free holiday.

Shiloh’s is one of the few kosher restaurants that remain open in Los Angeles for the season, although its profit for doing so is marginal. During Passover, the restaurant is fast-paced and high-energy, serving around 500 to 600 people a day. “It’s very expensive,” said the chef, who dodged questions of exact numbers. Why do it then? 

“It’s really not about the money,” he said.

“We do it for the community. Part of it, we want people to come to Shiloh’s,” Lemorrocco continued. Not to mention, Shiloh’s employees get a steady stream of work instead of the other option, being unemployed for two weeks. “The thing is, it’s a blessing to be open. Why is it a blessing to be open?” asked Lemorrocco, in typical talmudic fashion. “HaShem. It’s a blessing to serve people on the holiday,” he said.

Rabbi Daniel Elkouby, kashrut administrator of Kehilla Kosher, said there are three key points to having a kosher-for-Passover kitchen: kosher-for-Passover ingredients, kosher-for-Passover equipment and maintaining the status of a kosher-for-Passover kitchen (under the watch of an appointed mashgiach). Kehilla Kosher is an agency that supervises — and ensures for the observant clients of the restaurant — that all three are strictly upheld.

According to Kehilla standards, the restaurant must be completely sterilized and spotless. There should be no trace of chametz, because even one single outlying crumb will contaminate the cleanliness of the establishment, and therefore, according to Kehilla, make it unkosher. 

So, by the time the inspector arrived, two hours later than expected — and, mind you, the inspector was just the first step of many in the restaurant’s process of kosher certification for Passover — the atmosphere was tense. As he rushed through the back doors of the establishment, his work began immediately. After all, this was just one stop of many (around 60) for the inspector during this Passover season, and there was no time to waste. 

First thing, the inspector drifted to the large pots on the stovetop. Right from the get-go, he found an issue with a large metal cauldron that had a crack in its surface — a hairline crack that, like a fault line, started from the pot’s brim and traveled downward a couple of inches. The crack had to be sterilized. The rest of the pot could be boiled to cleanliness, but the crack — because the waterline leveled just below — could not. “Torch it,” he offered as a solution — a resolution that he turned to often. Is there grime on the stove? “Torch it,” he said. Soot in the oven? “Torch it!”

The inspector marched through the kitchen and restaurant, a trail of employees — including Ghanem and Lemorrocco, following in his wake. No millimeter of surface went unexamined as the Kehilla inspector assessed knobs on stoves, handles on doors and dust in vents. 

“See those vents?” Lemorrocco had pointed out to a reporter a day before the inspector came. “Those are the toughest.” Earlier that week, on Monday and Tuesday nights, a cleaning crew of about 10 people had labored from midnight to 6 a.m. to clean the restaurant, floor to ceiling. Apparently the crew, which the restaurant had used for the past couple of years, lagged during its shifts, because the inspector was finding too many issues.

“We can’t have that technical term called shmutz,” said the lighthearted but stern inspector after asking somebody to hand him a razor. On his knees and with half his body inside the oven, the inspector went to town, scraping its bottom with a razor blade. “This won’t do,” he said in response to the black soot on his blade. (It’s really a miracle that anyone passes these inspections.) “I want it to shine like the Chrysler Building,” he said, after instructing the staff to scrub the ovens more.

Cardboard boxes where fruits and vegetables were stored in the refrigerator also posed an issue. “Somebody’s hand could have touched bread and then the box,” speculated the inspector. By the end of the fridge inspection, boxes filled with grape tomatoes and squash were left sitting on the countertops, waiting to be repackaged. “How about plastic bags?” asked Lemorrocco, who, by year three, has become a Passover professional. The inspector nodded and said, “That works.”

“I have to move on to my next stop,” the inspector said after 45 minutes of ruthless, but necessary, inspection. For the umpteenth time during his visit to Shiloh’s, his phone rang — another message, another call, another kitchen. “Thank you for unlimited texts and calls, Verizon,” he said, giving a shout-out to his cellphone provider before being whisked away into the fading street, the sun slowly dipping, casting shade on Pico-Robertson and all those still-to-be-inspected kitchens. 

Off to the next site he went, promising he’d be back (or perhaps it would be another inspector) to give the green light on the inspection, which Shiloh’s had not yet attained. And so, as promised, at about 6 p.m., he returned with another rabbi (whose job was to officially sterilize the kitchen), and then the official kasher-ization (aka torching) of the kitchen began — and didn’t finish until 1 a.m.

The next morning, Shiloh’s felt different. It looked like it had undergone a chemical peel and a mini-facelift. The white leather booths gleamed. A soft breeze tickled through, and the room seemed lighter and airier. 

So this is what kosher-for-Passover looks like. 

Lemorrocco, exhausted after a series of late nights, of waiting to get Kehilla Kosher’s OK, and finally obtaining it at 1 that morning, promised with adrenalized foresight: “It’s not over. It’s just the beginning.”