Just one floor beneath the legendary Polo Lounge atthe Beverly Hills Hotel, there’s a large room that, for much of theweek, remains locked. The chef has the key. So does the cateringmanager. But if they ever want to so much as crack open the door,they can’t do so alone. First, they need the rabbi.
Inside is a kosher kitchen. Not your bubbe’s cozy efficiency, buta $500,000 state-of-the-art salle de cuisine, stocked with whiteLimoges china and Christophe silver. If it seems strange that afive-star luxury hotel, best known for catering to movie stars andmoguls, would invest keeping kosher, consider this: It’s not alone.
Kosher kitchens are springing up in the city’s best hotels, fromBeverly Hills to Woodland Hills. “This is absolutely, clearly thetrend,” said Rabbi Binyomin Lisbon, a hotel kashrut supervisor forKehilla Kosher of Los Angeles.
For years, the Century Plaza Hotel and the Beverly Hilton seemedto have a lock on kosher events. While those hotels still have thefacilities to handle the largest events, at least 15 four-starestablishments have begun to compete for a piece of what Lisbon saysis a steadily growing business. The Bel Age, Loews Santa Monica, theFour Seasons, the Warner Center Marriott and the Beverly Hills Hotelhave all recently added or built kosher kitchens. Other top-flighthotels, such as the Ritz Carlton Marina del Rey, the Sheraton Gatewayand Sheraton Grande, the Bonaventure, the Airport Marriott, theAirport Marina, the Beverly Prescott, the Hyatt Regency Irvine andthe Renaissance compete for the kosher trade by kashering theirregular kitchen on an event-by-event basis or using a dedicatedkosher kitchen. The Regent Beverly Wilshire is in the midst ofbuilding its own kosher kitchen.
Such growth takes off from the intersection of two trends. In thefiercely competitive world of high-class inns, hoteliers are ever onthe lookout for ways to bring in cash beyond just filling rooms. Andkosher food, long mired in the image of sweet wine and leaden kugels,has slowly been recast as both healthful and gourmet. The bottom lineof both developments is that kosher is good for the bottom line.”It’s been a big money maker,” said Dianne Greenberg-Dilena, directorof catering at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Three kosher jobs perweekend, serving up to 600 people per event, are becoming the norm atthe hotel. At the Loews, kosher catering jobs have tripled over thepast year. And the Four Seasons added a kosher kitchen last year tomeet increasing demand.
After an initial investment in facilities, hotels incur littleincreased overhead from going kosher. The mashgiach’s fee, around$750, is tacked on to a client’s bill, and the higher cost of somekosher food products, such as meat, is also passed client-ward. Akosher dinner will cost, on average, about $3 to $6 more per plate.The average per-guest kosher event charge begins at around $75 andcan climb to double that, depending on food and bar tabs.
The promise of such profit has made the business “hugelycompetitive,” said Debra Rosenberg, the Loews’ director of catering.”People always shop and compare.” Since prices are fairly standard,the playing field has shifted toward service, location and, mostimportantly, food.
The average kosher clients these days, Lisbon said, are notnecessarily Orthodox, but “middle-of-the-road” Jews who have come tounderstand that abiding by tradition requires no sacrifice inquality.
From their perspective, hoteliers have come to realize thatkeeping kosher in-house allows them to reach a whole new clientelewithout lowering hotel food standards.
At the Loews, Rosenberg is buzzing over the imminent arrival ofChef Alain Giraud. Formerly at Citrus, the much-lauded Giraud willtake over all food operations at the hotel, including koshercatering.
At the Beverly Hills Hotel, Chef Andreas Nieto offers dishes suchas seared ahi tuna on endive with aioli sauce and chicken and pignolinut strudel with a light roasted-garlic sauce. Even at the pre-GiraudLoews, you’ll find a richly glazed slab of barbecue salmon servedwith garden ratatouille — it’s a long way from gefilte fish.
The Loews’ Rosenberg, who will be teaching a class on kashrut forfood professionals this winter at UCLA Extension, said the trendtoward cooking with olive oil, stocks and reductions perfectlycomplements kosher cuisine.
Even so, not all chefs can abide by kashrut’s strict separation ofmilk and meat. When Lisbon informed a classically trained French-bornchef at one of the city’s finest hotels without kosher facilitiesthat, in order to win a particularly lucrative event contract, he’dhave to cook without cream or butter, the chef announced, “It’simpossible,” and turned down the job.
But most chefs Lisbon meets with are already fairly familiar withkosher requirements. As one of about six rabbis in town whospecialize in certifying the kashrut of hotels, Lisbon maintains astaff of 24 full- and part-time mashgiachs, or kosher supervisors.When he began his business 10 years ago, he employed two.
Before an event, Lisbon will meet with the hotel’s chef,purchasing director and catering manager to go over the foodpurchases — chefs may only use suppliers that Lisbon approves — andthe event schedule. “I tell them, ‘Just cook like you do in the mainkitchen, but use kosher products,'” said the affable Lisbon.
One sticking point, however, is scheduling. Since food for kosherevents cannot be prepared on the Sabbath, a Sunday-afternoon weddingwill require food preparation on Thursday and Friday and a pressuredproduction schedule on Sunday morning. Careful planning is crucial: Achef who failed to order enough thick-cut veal chops on Friday maynot be able to scare up enough kosher ones on Sunday, and running tothe corner store– if it isn’t kosher– is out of the question.
The locked kosher kitchens can only be opened and used with amashgiach present at all times. When the kitchen is not in use, saidthe Warner Center Marriott’s catering sales manager, Laura Ellis,”it’s not even looked at.”
Once inside, the mashgiach makes sure that the chefs andassistants follow kosher requirements, such as soaking and saltingsome vegetables to kill any possible insects. He — the Orthodoxsupervisors are always men– also checks for the kosher certificationof every foodstuff brought into the kitchen. If there’s a question,he can reach Lisbon via pager for a quick judgment.
The kosher supervisors’ fee, said Lisbon, goes to compensate theon-site mashgiach for his time.
Business among mashgiachs has been booming too. Most of the hotelsretain at least two to avoid scheduling conflicts, choosing fromamong Lisbon, Rabbi Yehuda Buxbaum, Rabbi Philip Schroit, and RabbiNissim Davidi of the Rabbinical Council of California. Most OrthodoxJews recognize the validity of all these rabbis. Some, however,refuse to eat in a hotel at all, said Lisbon. “They believe nothingcan compare to the standards of their own home.” Others call ahead tocheck which rabbi is in charge, and many will visit the kitchenduring the food preparation. For that reason, Lisbon maintains an”open kitchen policy” for the guests at all events he supervises.
The whole operation, repeated at numerous hotels around town manytimes each month, “goes without a glitch,” said the Marriott’s Ellis.Running an enclave of stringent Jewish dietary law within thesemodern-day pleasure palaces has become no more exotic than heating asauna. And Lisbon expects the trend toward the kashering of upscalehotels to continue. He has already fielded calls from hotels aroundthe Southland and in Las Vegas and Reno interested in adding kosherkitchens. “It’s a big investment,” he tells them, “and a helluva lotof work. But it can pay off.”
Finding Spirituality in the KitchenBy Rabbi Edward Harwitz
A few years ago, I was sitting with a friend at a luncheonreception when he noticed that I had eaten only plain salad. “Youdidn’t eat the shrimp. Does that mean that you follow the Jewishdietary law?” he said. I explained that I did keep kosher and,therefore, could not eat the shrimp or any other cooked food. He wasperplexed. “Those laws of kashrut,” he asked, “why do you need tofollow them today?” As I gulped hard and anxiously attacked my saladgreens, my friend continued to develop his argument. “Aren’t theselaws antiquated? Everyone knows that the only reason anyone ever’kept kosher’ was to protect one’s health,” he said. He suggestedthat technological advances in food processing and preparation madekashrut irrelevant. “As the threat of disease caused by foodsprohibited by Jewish tradition has been virtually eliminated, give meone good reason to keep kosher today!”
It is true that some have interpreted the laws of kashrut to bebased on the theory that diseases could be contracted from certainanimals. However, if my friend were correct that the only “goodreason” to observe the Jewish dietary laws centered merely uponhealth concerns, sufficient arguments for the abolition of kashrutcould be brought merely from the “Zone Diet” and the “Pritikin HealthPlan.” Rather, in order to know why Jews take the trouble ofschlepping to the kosher butcher, of storing two sets of everypossible dish and utensil, and of organizing their kitchens withgreat attention and care, it is important to consider the greatermeaning that can be derived from practicing the laws of kashrut.
In “The Guide for the Perplexed,” the 12th-century scholar,Maimonides, notes a number of social, cultural and ethical argumentsfor keeping kosher. He holds that kashrut directs us away fromslovenly behavior, prevents us from unintentionally engaging indisreputable religious practices, and reminds us to maintain concernfor other living creatures in the world. In particular, Maimonidessuggests that the method developed in Jewish law for slaughteringanimals “enjoins that the death of the animal should be the easiest”and should avoid unnecessary cruelty. Essentially, Maimonides arguesthat kashrut helps us to become more sensitive, intelligent peoplewith a stronger moral center.
Despite the powerful nature of Maimonides’ ethical arguments, tofollow and advocate for the laws of kashrut based solely on anintellectual perspective fails to fully comprehend his understandingof Jewish tradition or to fully consider the most important dimensionof the kashrut system. Maimonides does not seek to suggest thereasons for kashrut; rather, he seeks to identify the greater meaningthat can be derived from its observance.
Like generations of Jews that preceded and succeeded him,Maimonides begins his analysis of the Jewish dietary laws with afundamental assumption: We observe kashrut for the primary reasonthat it is a commandment of God. A Talmudic sage teaches that one whofulfills a mitzvah (a deed reflecting a commandment of God) receivesa “greater reward” than one who fulfilled the same deed as anexpression of individual free will. In a later commentary on thistext, we learn that the “greater reward” to be derived fromfulfilling a commandment is no less than building a relationship withGod and entering God’s realm. From this perspective, we acceptkashrut for the same reason that we accept the obligation forobserving the Shabbat, visiting the sick, engaging in daily prayer ordoing acts of tzedakah — to bring God’s presence into our lives.
Today, I would respond to my friend’s challenge in the followingway: The primary reason the Torah ordained and our Rabbis developedthe system of kashrut was to imbue the seemingly mundane act ofnourishing our bodies with a sense of God’s wisdom, power and love.Through kashrut, we transform our process of shopping for food,preparing meals, organizing utensils and arranging householdappliances into profoundly Jewish activities. In turn, we strengthenour Jewish identity and increase our spirituality as we allow God’swill to direct our decisions regarding eating. Although the nature ofone’s relationship with God is very personal, kashrut can serve as aprofound methodology for building this relationship and enhancing ourreligious lives.
As I completed that luncheon discussion with my friend, I was notyet able to completely articulate the reason for my bypassing theshrimp and accepting the laws of kashrut. However, as the years havepassed and I have studied our tradition and identified with theprofound religious nature of the kashrut observance, I have neverregretted the decision to order the salad as my main course.
Rabbi Edward Harwitz is the assistant dean of the ZieglerSchool of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism.