January 16, 2019

Kosher WHAT?

Last week, we launched our newest blog at jewishjournal.com. 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.