On a crisp morning earlier this fall, I met chef Itta Werdiger Roth outside a small storefront in the Prospect Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. The windows were still covered with newspaper, but inside was the beginning of Mason & Mug, a new artisanal kosher restaurant she is set to open on November 25 with her business partner, Sasha Chack. Werdiger Roth led me inside for a look at the newly installed wooden bar, which is topped with smooth white subway tiles and illuminated by three oversized Chinese lanterns. The wall across from the bar is decorated with a bright, graffiti-inspired mural. The menu concept — small bites of global street food — will feature dishes like Vietnamese bánh mì, fish tacos, spicy turmeric and ginger chickpeas, and homemade pickles. Neither the space nor the menu seemed anything like most kosher restaurants. But then again, Werdiger Roth is hardly like other kosher chefs.
If you have never heard of Werdiger Roth, that is at least in part by design. In late 2011 she launched The Hester, a popular speakeasy-style kosher supper club that she ran out of her home in Brooklyn. In keeping with the hush-hush vibe of a speakeasy, she kept her own identity semi-shrouded, sending communiqués to guests under a fictional name, Kate Hester. Now she is ready to step out of Kate’s shadow.
As is the case for many food professionals, Werdiger Roth’s path to becoming a chef and restaurateur was far from straight. She grew up in Melbourne, Australia, in a Hasidic family. Her father’s family traces its lineage back to the beginning of the Lubavitch movement in the late 18th century.
Like her father, whom Werdiger Roth describes as quirky and creative (“the kind of guy who will wear a purple suit to shul and not care what anyone thinks”), she gracefully defies any conventional stereotypes of religiosity. Her dark-brown shaytl, the wig traditionally worn by married Orthodox women, is cut in a wavy bob with stylishly cropped bangs. She favors vintage clothes and red lipstick, and has a warm, easy wit and a fiery sense of humor.
Werdiger Roth’s passion for food came in earnest when she was a teenager reading a novel set in India that described vegetable curry. “I really wanted to try something that had never been cooked in my mom’s kitchen,” she said. So she set about finding the unfamiliar ingredients — curry, cumin, coriander and coconut milk — and concocting a dish that was new to her. That first bite was revelatory: It was new and it was hers. “My nose was running, it was so hot. And I loved it,” she said.
This thirst for new food adventures would follow her into adulthood. As a newlywed (she is married to the author and poet Matthue Roth), a recent college graduate and a brand-new resident of New York City, she took a job as a personal chef for a family in the Bronx. The mother of the family was an avid cook herself, who lent Werdiger Roth cookbooks and got her hooked on organic food.
During that time, Werdiger Roth gave birth to her two daughters, Yalta, now 5, and Freda Belle, now 3. She also took on new clients and spent a year working as a server and line cook at Pardes, an artisanal kosher bistro in Brooklyn. “I learned so much about menu creation and professional food presentation from him,” she said of Pardes’s chef, Moshe Wendel. “He had all of these gorgeous French purees he would keep in squeeze bottles, but could also turn out an amazingly rustic staff meal. I remember thinking, ‘This guy is bloody good.’” Overtime, she began to fantasize about branching out on her own. “I was like a balloon that had collected all of these creative ideas and just needed to be popped,” she said. “That was The Hester.”