Kosher WHAT?

Last week, we launched our newest blog at It’s called “Kosher Bacon.”

Just about everyone who hears the name is offended by it. They assume we’re being cheeky just for the sake of provocation. After all, would we call a funeral blog “Shivah Me Timbers”? Would we call a dating blog “Plenty o’ Shiksas”?

No—but in this case there’s a perfectly good explanation.

A few months ago, I met a chef named Michael Israel for coffee in Culver City. He chose the place—The Conservatory for Coffee, Tea & Cocoa, a small cafe across from Sony Studios where the centerpiece is a huffing, puffing coffee roaster and the family behind the counter manages to turn out one perfect cup after another with exacting standards and zero attitude.

Michael struck me as the same sort of person. In 2005, he graduated from the Culinary Institute of America. He went on to work in restaurants throughout Italy, then at Thomas Keller’s three-Michelin-star Per Se in New York City—considered by many the best restaurant in the country.

“It was the best food education I could ever get,” Michael told me. “The standards were so high, and the focus on detail was incredible.”

After several years, Michael, eager to work for himself, decided to move on. He ended up in Los Angeles, where he started a kosher food truck business, M.O. Eggrolls. In many ways, it was a return to his roots. In his native Montreal, evidently, eggrolls, stuffed with a variety of fillings and fried, are the rage.  

The truck has been a success. Not only is he offering a convenient fried food—“convenience” and “fried” are practically food groups in America—but Michael’s craftsmanship and high standards ensure that the quality of the eggrolls is far above fast food.

The kosher food truck was Michael’s first step in his journey to reconcile his love of food and cooking with his deepening Jewish observance. Step two has been the blog—that’s what he came to discuss at The Conservatory.

“I’ve struggled,” Michael said, “with these two parts of me.”

There’s the part of him that really cares about great food, about curing his own meat, about sourcing the best-quality ingredients—the part of him that wants to cook and eat and try everything great. The part that knows just what a strip of bacon can do for a coq au vin. And then there’s the part of him that honors his tradition.  

In many ways, Michael is the poster child for the next generation of Jewish foodie. For him, kosher is necessary, but it’s not sufficient:  Food has to be excellent; it has to make at least a nod toward ethics and sustainability; it has to strive for Per Se, not a temple sisterhood buffet.

Michael is a young father, hardworking and soft-spoken—he doesn’t come across as a snob or an evangelist. And he is not alone. Last week, I attended a Southern barbecue dinner hosted by Pico-Robertson’s Kosher Supper Club. I expected to find a room of elderly Jews complaining about the mediocre food (“And such small portions!”), but instead I found 20- and 30-somethings listening to Best Coast, enjoying excellent kosher versions of grits and shrimp (sea bass) and greens and ham hocks (home-smoked turkey) prepared by chefs Katsuji Tanabe and Daly Thompson. (Tanabe is the Japanese-Mexican owner of MexiKosher on Pico Boulevard. Thompson owns Memphis Bar-BQ Catering and used to own a restaurant called The Pig next to the Yeshiva Rav Isacsohn on La Brea Avenue. It closed.) Like Michael, they are dissatisfied with much of what passes as “gourmet” kosher—they want to show, if only through their dining group—that it could be better.

Michael’s “Kosher Bacon” blog shares that goal.

“I just want people to know they can cook ‘Jewishly’  and celebrate Judaism,” he said. “You don’t have to choose between a good meal and a kosher one.”

In other words, you can find a way to infuse kosher food with the same power, the same umami, the same indispensible, ineluctable attraction … as bacon.

The way Michael plans to do this is by reviewing the more than 300 recipes in Gil Marks’ definitive book, “Encyclopedia of Jewish Food.”

“My goal,” Michael wrote in his initial entry, “is to cook every recipe in Gil Marks’ brilliant book, with a new approach and an undying respect for everyone who has contributed to Jewish cuisine.

“Discovering ‘Encyclopedia of Jewish Food’ has changed my life as a cook. I have always wanted to explore classic Jewish cuisine and find ways to contribute to its modernization. I am a firm believer that any craftsman, whether carpenter or chef, must understand the classics before trying to create something different. Gil Marks codified historic Jewish recipes. With the help of this text, I am able to study classic Jewish cuisine and begin creating new recipes.”

Lucky us, we get to eat it.

Find Michael Israel’s recipe for Agraz Pico de Gallo here, and follow me on Twitter @foodaism.

Heart of Syria

In the constant argument that is Middle East politics it is very rare to achieve anything like universal agreement, but no one can begrudge what Hazem Chehabi did.

He quit. 

Since Chehabi resigned last week as honorary consul general of Syria in Southern California, he has received hundreds of e-mails and phone calls.

All positive.

For 18 years, Chehabi, an oncological radiologist in Newport Beach, has volunteered to act as Syria’s consul general here. His office handled travel documents and birth, marriage and death certificates for the thousands of expatriate Syrians living in the Western states.

When the Arab Spring started to rain down on the regime of Bashar Assad, activists in Orange County began to call on Chehabi to resign. They lodged complaints with the University of California, Irvine, whose UC Irvine Foundation board of trustees Chehabi chairs.

Chehabi, on principle, refused to step down. He believed he was serving the community he cared about — not the Assad regime — providing help that people needed to get on with their lives.

Then came Houla. On May 25, government-backed militiamen attacked the Syrian village and killed 108 people, of whom 49 were children. The victims were shot at close range, beaten or stabbed. Assad has denied his regime’s involvement, but no one, least of all the honorary consul general to Southern California, believes him.

I’ve known Hazem Chehabi for years. He is a soft-spoken, private man, not given to dramatics or bluster. As the situation in Syria deteriorated, he wrestled with — agonized over — how to continue to serve the local Syrian community without appearing to support the Assad regime. 

One of Chehabi’s major concerns, which he kept out of the public debate, was for his extended family and friends in Syria; he was deeply worried about what might happen to them if he stepped down.

But after Houla, there was no more doubt.

“I never thought of myself as a Syrian official,” he told me by phone on Monday. “There was always a distinction in my mind. I was a physician first, volunteering to perform a service for my fellow Syrians. But it got to the point that if there were any hint that what I did had anything to do with this regime, I couldn’t perform these duties.”

Chehabi doesn’t believe for a second Assad’s denial of involvement or responsibility for what happened in Houla.

“Everything I’ve heard suggests these people had ties to the government,” he said. “The government will say otherwise, and I expect them to say otherwise. There’s a pattern to terrorize the civilian population. It’s nothing less than ethnic cleansing.”

Chehabi’s father knew Bashar Assad’s father, Hafez, and Chehabi himself has known the son for years; they’ve met on several occasions. The last time Chehabi was in Syria, at the start of the protests and crackdown there, he tried to meet with Bashir Assad, but, for the first time, his request was denied.

“At the time he took power, we had high hopes,” Chehabi said of Assad. “He was young, Western-educated, open-minded. I am very disappointed by how things turned out.”

I asked Chehabi if he still wasn’t concerned about how his resigning in protest would endanger his friends and family in Syria.

“I’ve thought about this for a long time,” he said. “I decided these people are not going to be any more precious to me than the average citizen who is suffering day in and day out. I had to do what I felt was moral. I’m concerned about my family, of course, but I’m also concerned about the average citizen suffering at the hands of this killing machine.”

When I asked whether Chehabi has heard a reaction to his resignation from his family in Syria, he was circumspect. “I have to be careful,” he said. “I’ve heard indirectly. The response was overwhelmingly positive.”

Now, Chehabi’s foremost concern is for Syria’s future.

He remains opposed to military intervention.

“It will make things worse,” he said. “It will lead to more bloodshed and flat-out civil war.”

Writing in this month’s Foreign Policy, the analyst Anne-Marie Slaughter suggests the United States take the lead in creating “No Kill Zones” where Syrian citizens can live free of government shelling and attacks and even opposition violence. U.S. and other troops would enforce these NKZs with armed drones and aircraft. 

“I would like to think there’s a way to create these without weapons,” Chehabi said. “I’d like to think we can appeal to the conscience of the regime that at stake is the future of the country. If this continues, the Syria we know will cease to exist,  and what will emerge are mini states along sectarian lines.”

Chehabi now tells people requesting official documents to turn to the Syrian embassy in Washington, D.C., or the consulate in Detroit — a major inconvenience. 

“It’s too bad,” he said. “The country is bigger than the regime; it’s bigger than the government. You should be able to criticize the leader without being seen as criticizing the country.”

That freedom, of course, is what much of the struggle of the Arab Spring is about. And in Syria, it is far from over.

After Houla, President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued yet more rote, ineffective condemnations.

Some people wonder what took Chehabi so long to act. I don’t. I wonder what’s taking our leaders so long.

Follow Rob Eshman on Twitter at @Foodaism.

A new leaf

It was Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal who finally convinced me to buy the Nissan Leaf.

Almost a year ago, I heard about the car — an all-electric production vehicle that would deliver 100 miles per charge, had all the room of a Prius and cost, after $16,000 in government rebates and subsidies, less than a cheap Kia. I immediately logged on to the Nissan Web site and plunked down a $99 deposit.

Many technical delays and a tsunami later, the Nissan Leaf hit the market. But by then I was wary. When I made my reservation, the hyper-friendly Nissan e-mails assured me I’d receive a free, government-subsidized 220-volt charging station in my driveway. The date came to pick up the car, but due to an incredible corporate/government muck-up, I had no simple way to charge it.

That only increased my fear of being an early adopter. The first mass-produced electric car, the General Motors EV1, released with great enthusiasm in the mid-1990s, faced an ending so sudden and final, they made a movie about it. A few years ago, not long after I bought a VW Passat TDI to drive on biodiesel, California essentially outlawed its sale. I worried that in my personal quest to drive oil-free, I’d again come to a dead end.

So I was about to go back to gas … until I saw the prince. There he was on CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS,” the grandson of the founding king of modern Saudi Arabia, saying that he wanted oil prices to come down from more than $100 a barrel to $70 or $80.

“We don’t want the West to go and find alternatives,” bin Talal said, “because, clearly, the higher the price of oil goes, the more they have incentives to go and find alternatives.”

And that would be terrible. A viable set of alternatives to oil would deprive oppressive Middle East regimes of their single most important source of power. It would shrink the wallets of those who fund terror and who spread the most extreme forms of Islam. It would deprive many of Israel’s enemies of their geopolitical influence. It would help save us from the doom of climate change. Why would any sane Saudi prince want that?

Here’s what I did, and I realize this is somewhat of a family paper. I looked at that smug, but very honest, man on TV, and I said, out loud, “Screw you.”

I called Nissan and arranged delivery of my Leaf. The guy at the dealership told me I now owned the 1,200th one in America. I gulped.

It’s been two weeks now, and I can tell you the car, as a car, is great. Electric power comes on all at once — think of flipping a light switch — so the Leaf accelerates like a rocket. It handles swiftly, in absolute silence.

It’s roomy inside, with far better space and visibility than a Prius. The center console is 22nd century — I can turn the car on, check and charge its battery, control its cooling and heating all via an iPhone app.

The gulp part is that while I was ready for the Leaf, the Leaf isn’t quite ready for Los Angeles, or vice versa.

One problem is that the car, which is advertised as getting 100 miles per charge, gets significantly less when you turn on the air conditioning.

I thought to ask about the AC after I signed the leasing documents.

“Yeah,” the salesman said. “Um, you might want to just roll the windows down.”

When I chose not to drive through sweltering heat with freeway exhaust in my face, the little readout that counts down my miles-to-go from 100 drops precipitously. The dealer told me AC uses 30 percent more power. I’m seeing it’s more like 50. Practically, that means last Sunday I couldn’t drive my car from Venice to the Brandeis-Bardin Campus, out in Simi Valley, for an appointment. It’s only 65 miles roundtrip, but with AC, I’d use up all 100. I could do it, I explained to my wife, but I’d need a really long extension cord.

That brings me to the second, and biggest, problem. Those promised home charging stations, subsidized by the federal government and the DWP, have yet to materialize. As near as I can determine, the company with the federal contract to install the Blink charger — and receive $1,800 from the feds — got in a tussle with our own Department of Water and Power after L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announced the DWP would give customers $2,000 toward the cost of a home charger and vastly reduced rates.

It seems the contractor, ECOtality, and the subcontractors all wanted to make sure that government largess ended up in their pockets, not in the consumer’s. An electrician I consulted with predicted jacked-up installation costs — all on the taxpayers’ dime. Meanwhile, until all the deals could be worked out, we early adopters would just have to plug our cars into a wall socket.

The Leaf, I should add, takes a half hour to charge at 440 volts, seven hours at 220 volts, and 22 hours at 110 volts. (The dealer proudly pointed out that my model comes with a 440-volt charging port. “Where can I find a 440 charger?” I asked, all excited. “I think in Germany,” he said.)

After two weeks, I still don’t have a convenient way to charge my quick-to-deplete car at home.

Or anywhere else, for that matter. There are just a handful of public chargers scattered around Southern California. The majority seem to be located in Santa Monica, and downtown, in the parking lot of the DWP.

Neither the once-eager dealer nor the contractors are returning my calls or e-mails. But I called the DWP to find out why sticking it to the Saudis is still so frustrating. Raymond Harper, the EV Project coordinator, assured me his agency is not at fault.

“The mayor’s objective is to make L.A. the electric car capital of the world,” Harper said. “That can’t happen unless the DWP is cooperating with whatever technology is available.”

Kudos to our mayor for being all pro-green, I said to Harper, but maybe all these charging issues could have been dealt with before Angelenos started buying electric cars. If a year ago I knew Nissan was coming out with the Leaf, didn’t the government? If you want to encourage your citizens to go green, it helps not to slap around the first people on the bandwagon.

There is no path to freedom, security and economic and environmental well-being in America, the Middle East and Israel that doesn’t include eliminating our dependence on fossil fuels. Period. Each one of us can choose to be a part of the solution. If I have to drive a swell car while dealing with bureaucratic headaches, well, that’s a small price to wipe that grin off Prince bin Talal’s face.

Meanwhile, I spotted just one other Leaf in Los Angeles over the past week. It was driving beside me on the freeway — with its windows down.

Rob Eshman is the Editor-in-Chief of The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles. Follow Rob Eshman’s Leaf adventures at or @foodaism.

The Joan Nathan book party

The first time I ever spoke to Joan Nathan, it was by telephone, and I wrote out for myself what I wanted to say to her: “Hello, Ms. Nathan, this is Rob Eshman with The Jewish Journal in Los Angeles, and I want to speak with you about your new cookbook. I think you should know that ‘Jewish Holiday Kitchen’ is my Bible.”

I don’t normally do that — I don’t usually write my phone introductions down like a telemarketer’s script. But after Joan’s publicist agreed to the interview, I got nervous. For years I’d pored over her cookbooks. When people said I made good matzah balls, latkes, cholent or challah, they were crediting Joan. My grandmother and mom made some of these dishes, and theirs were delicious, but I didn’t know the recipes. Joan did. She researched them, she tested them, she drew out the stories behind them, and she wrote the best ones down. I used them over and over. I didn’t feed my family and friends. Joan Nathan did.

Again, you have to understand: In our home, my wife, the rabbi, has shelves of holy books, volumes of Jewish texts, a Talmud set handed down to her from her father. I have seven shelves of cookbooks. If you ask me where I keep my Richard Olney, or my Marcella Hazan, or my Nathan, I will find it for you. Then one day, about 10 years ago, I found myself talking with her.

Joan Nathan, bigger than life before I called her, turned out to be warm, and friendly, and interested, and then, eventually, part of my life.

She was due out to Los Angeles on a book tour. I picked her up at the Bel Age Hotel and took her to Uzbekistan, a now-defunct restaurant on Sunset and La Brea that was owned by Jews.

Story continues after the video.

“Manti!” Joan exclaimed when her eyes ran over the menu.

Manti are dumplings. Joan quickly explained how manti and kreplach share peasant roots; they’re the wontons of the steppes. The waiter asked if we wanted vodka. It was lunchtime, on a Wednesday.

“This food really needs vodka,” Joan said. That was a great lunch.

We’ve eaten many more meals together. Joan lives in Washington, D.C., where her husband, Allan Gerson, specializes in international law (he is the one who sued Libya over the Lockerbie bombing — and won). But her work for The New York Times food section, as well as her own books, have often brought her West, and when she’s come I’ve always spent more time than I ever let on figuring out the best places to take her: a tour through Elat Market in Pico-Robertson, City Spa’s cafe for its Russian/Persian food and Koreatown.

Once we drove an hour north to the Herzog kosher winery in Oxnard, where we ate at Tierra Sur, one of the world’s best kosher restaurants. Chef Todd Aarons (who now blogs at saw Joan and came to our table.

“My wife always makes our challah,” he told Joan. “I just realized it’s your recipe.”

His eyes grew soft. For a second I thought he was tearing up. “Every Shabbas she makes your challah.”

Joan, who can be very unsentimental about her work, nodded understandingly.

“That’s a great recipe,” she said.

In October, Knopf published Joan’s 10th cookbook, “Quiches, Kugels and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France.” Don’t let the somewhat kitschy title fool you: This is a serious, deeply researched, but accessible work. Like all of Joan’s books, it is as much anthropology, history and journalism as it is cookbook. The more accurate, though maybe less Food Network-friendly, title would have been “French Jewish Cuisine.”

I threw a book party for Joan over Chanukah. For a woman who had given me so much, it was so the least I could do. A hard-and-fast dinner party rule is never cook anything new. But I resolved to make only recipes from the new book, things I’d never made before: Choucroute garnie with homemade sauerkraut; a fennel salad with celery, cucumber, lemon and pomegranate; Tunisian winter squash with coriander and harissa; North African brik with tuna and cilantro, and an Alsatian Chanukah fruit bread called Hutzel Wecken.

Joan came early, and we cooked together. She told me how she’d traveled through France to find Jewish recipes but along the way discovered how much French cuisine owes to centuries of Jewish migration and innovation — how it was the Jews who brought chocolate and many other New World foods to France, as well as foie gras.

The house filled up with family and friends. Joan’s invite list kept bringing surprises through the door. When Joan introduced me to Anne Willan, whose cookbooks I also revere, I think I blurted out, “You’re here?” The food writer Jonathan Gold and his wife, editor Laurie Ochoa, came in — Jonathan Gold eating my food. If the pomegranate vodka I’d made hadn’t by then taken effect, I would have been a mass of nerves — I would have had to write down what I’d always wanted to say to Jonathan.

But the fireplace was crackling, the food came out fine, we went through a lot of pomegranate vodka — and a lot of wine. They say one secret to happiness is the ability to show gratitude. It must be true, because that night I was very, very happy.

Find recipes and watch a video of Rob and Joan Nathan cooking for the book party at