Every time Bravo’s Top Chef begins a new season, I watch with eagerness, excitement, and like any kosher-keeping fan of the show, a twinge of jealousy. Not only because the winning dish always seems to include bacon or because all that oyster ceviche looks so tasty, but because I know that there will never be a kosher contestant on the show.
Let’s face this. The judges on the show are super objective: they don’t allow for leniencies because of little things like injuries and illness. How much would they allow for a kosher-keeper? Eventually, they would mention something about the chef being “held back” by their rules, or the challenge would be based around lamb in yogurt sauce or pork belly. And then, of course, the kosher chef would be asked to pack their knives and go.
All this connects to an ingrained feeling in us kosher-keeping foodies that our food can never truly be synonymous with “gourmet.” Anyone who has searched high and low for hekshered Gruyere or truffle oil can relate to that feeling. And yet we know that it can be good. We’ve all had delicious, hearty, homemade meals, carefully crafted, by our moms and grandmothers, with love and plenty of fat.
But it’s this very struggle between the feeling of culinary lacking and the knowledge that we are capable of food as delicious as anyone else’s, that fueled my desire to try my hand at culinary school. Among the other reasons of “it would be fun” and “I’ve always wanted to see if I could be a chef”, the prospect of having this question answered for me once and for all, weighs heavy. It’s why I chose a kosher culinary academy. As of this week, my inaugural week as a culinary student, I will finally start to see what counts as “kosher gourmet.”
There have been countless claims for why kosher catered or restaurant food seems below par when compared to its non-kosher counterparts. A lack of imagination on the chef’s part (the reason, I’ve been told, why every wedding chicken platter is garnished with a waffled potato slice and a sprig of rosemary), a need to prepare food so many hours in advance (thus the soggy noodles at Shabbat morning Kiddush), a lack of local food artisans, and the ever-present need to separate meat from dairy, which inevitably means sometimes replacing the “real thing” with a poor substitute (margarine for butter, non-dairy creamer for heavy cream, soy meat for ground beef).
Will I be able to prepare a perfectly seasoned gourmet meal with the highest quality ingredients and prove the naysayers (including my current self) wrong? (I secretly wonder, as someone who has kept kosher my whole life, whether it’s even possible for me to reach the non-kosher standard of “gourmet”). But after an intensive program at a culinary academy, I am sure to find out
I will post my adventures and findings on the Jew and the Carrot as I make my way through culinary school, and hopefully come away with a new understanding of (and definition for) the gourmet kosher kitchen.
Hopefully I won’t be told to pack my knives and go.
Aliza Donath is a culinary/art student in New York City. She currently writes for and illustrates the Jewish lifestyle blog Arbitribe, where a variation on this article and her further adventures in culinary school appear.