In the Kitchen With Brooklyn’s Kosher Revolutionary

Itta Werdiger Roth Is Changing the Taste of Kosher Food

Out of the Box: Each of Itta Werdiger Roth’s projects breaks the norm of kosher food. Her cooking is talented self-taught chef and her personal touches like a spray-painted mural at her new restaurant Mason & Mug are creative and unexpected.
Devra Ferst
Out of the Box: Each of Itta Werdiger Roth’s projects breaks the norm of kosher food. Her cooking is talented self-taught chef and her personal touches like a spray-painted mural at her new restaurant Mason & Mug are creative and unexpected.

By Leah Koenig

Published December 04, 2013, issue of November 29, 2013.
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Over the course of 21 events — sit-down dinners and cocktail parties, always featuring live music — The Hester built up a dedicated following of Jewish and non-Jewish diners, and garnered high-profile press. About half of the attendees were kosher keepers who reveled in the fact that the meals offered access to unusual flavors and high-quality ingredients that are hard to find in the kosher world.

Werdiger Roth crafted her menus while browsing the produce section of Brooklyn’s Park Slope Food Coop. “Sometimes I would snap a bunch of photos of the seasonal fruits and vegetables on my phone, then go home and mix and match them into dishes,” she said. One summer spread included a watermelon rosemary granita cocktail, lentils topped with heirloom eggplant and a soft-boiled egg, and a whole lemon-and thyme-stuffed fish served along with patty pan squash filled with sheep’s milk feta, capers and figs. Dessert that night was a scoop of basil ice cream served with macerated plums and crumbled halvah. These unusual flavor pairings work because, despite having no formal culinary training, Werdiger Roth is a “bloody good” chef herself. And dedicated, too. The week I attended, the menu featured a plate of Israeli-made cheeses that are not sold in the United States; she had toted them back in her luggage.

Over time, The Hester grew from a wild experiment — she was inviting total strangers into her home, after all — into a glimpse of what kosher restaurant food could and should look and taste like. Meanwhile, Werdiger Roth began to crave a better sense of boundaries between work and home. “We would literally move every piece of furniture in the living room to set up for The Hester,” she said. It was time to advance to the next level.

Then Chack, a fellow Brooklynite, floated his idea for a brick-and-mortar kosher small plates restaurant. Chack had been the food and beverage director of the 92nd Street Y’s Tribeca location until it closed this past summer. He got turned on to Werdiger Roth’s innovative cooking style while attending an event at The Hester. Chack told Werdiger Roth that he envisioned an intimate restaurant that sold globally inspired street food along with craft beer, wine and cocktails. Like a handful of other kosher restaurants that have emerged in the past few years (Pardes, for one), he wanted it to be explicitly kosher while appealing to the neighborhood’s broader community. He had experience in the world of hospitality, and he thought Werdiger Roth might be the perfect person to head up the kitchen. She agreed.

After raising nearly $25,000 of crowd-sourced funding through the website Indiegogo, and spending countless late nights working, Mason & Mug is prepared to open. Transforming the space from its previous incarnation as a non-kosher eatery was a sizable effort. As Chack put it, “There are so many aspects of opening a restaurant you would never think about.”

One of those, was finding the right person to certify the restaurant’s kosher status. As kosher-keeping Jews who want Mason & Mug to be accessible to friends and family, Werdiger Roth and Chack knew that certification is paramount. But they also knew that many organizations mandate more than the food, prohibiting restaurants from making certain decor decisions or from playing secular music. After several false starts, they found Rabbi Avrohom Marmorstein, who is both well respected by the Orthodox community, and was willing to accommodate their artistic vision.

Meanwhile, things continue to move along at warp speed. Chack’s wife gave birth to their first child in October. And Werdiger Roth is pregnant with her third. Under such circumstances, some people might throw in the towel, but Werdiger Roth is determined to bring her dreams — as a mom, a chef and a pioneer of artisanal kosher cooking — to fruition. “Being a working mother is the hardest thing in the world,” she said. “But if you want to do it, you just have to dive in.”

Leah Koenig, the Forward’s monthly food columnist, is a writer and cookbook author. Her new book, “Modern Jewish Cooking,” will be published in 2015. Contact her at ingredients@forward.com


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