When a Cinco de Mayo Fiesta Goes Jewish
Kibitz Kitchen’s Asian New Year Celebration
“Pan de Muerto” challah. Latkes with mole poblano. Tongue tacos.
Can this be real Jewish food?
It is to Jeff Gabel, founder of a Boston-based supper club called Kitchen Kibitz. And based on raves for his repasts, local diners agree.
Kitchen Kibitz’s fifth — and possibly boldest — culinary experiment takes place Thursday night, with a Cinco de Mayo feast engineered by Erwin Ramos, chef and co-owner of Boston hotspot Olé Mexican Grill, which will host the dinner.
Leading off Ramos’ pan-Mexican/Hebraic themed menu is Pan de Muerto Challah with cilantro butter, pozole matzo ball soup and latkes with a plantain-based mole poblano. For the main course, diners will choose from gefilte fish a la Veracruzana or tongue tacos. Rounding out the meal is a dessert of “Jewish apple cake” with guava sauce.
Kibitz Kitchen’s founders Josh Lewin and Jeff Gabel.
Gabel, who launched Kitchen Kibitz last summer, calls his angle “modern takes” on Jewish cuisine. “This is a radical departure from your bubbe’s cooking,” proclaims the Kitchen Kibitz website.
What does “modern” mean? “I want our food to be approachable and use familiar flavors from cultures around the world. I think the more you can show how similar cuisines are in their origin, the better you can break down barriers through culinary diplomacy,” Gabel told the Forward. “The other component is to elevate the dishes… So much of ‘Jewish cuisine’ is viewed as your grandma’s cooking. My approach is to honor the tradition while putting a unique twist on flavor and structure.”
That he has. Every dinner starts with a challah service. At Kitchen Kibitz’s Asian New Year-themed dinner in January, diners gaped at “Black & White Challah” made with squid ink and nori — Japanese seaweed usually wrapped around sushi rolls — along with matzo-ball ramen, stir-fry flanken, and Chinese five-spice kugel with dried longan, a lychee-like fruit.
By day a development executive at Combined Jewish Philanthropies, greater Boston’s Jewish Federation, Gabel says: “The inspiration for Kitchen Kibitz came actually from non-Jewish friends who came over for Shabbat and enjoyed the social experience and the food.”
When a light bulb went off for cross-cultural communal chowdowns, he tapped pal Josh Lewin the chef of tony Beacon Hill Hotel & Bistro as his partner. With no formal culinary training himself, Gabel pores over cookbooks to conceive menus — and draws on his own travels for global flavors. The duo’s inaugural menu made a bold statement out of the gate: Monkfish gefilte fish, Texas-style beef brisket, and pearled couscous with dried lime. barberry noodle kugel with Indian spices and ghee and dill-cream cheese macaroons.
While Kitchen Kibitz hasn’t been certified kosher, Gabel “made a conscious choice to not use pork or shellfish,” he said. (Squid ink in the Black-and-White Challah has been “a minor exception.”)
“The beauty of Judaism is that we are constantly questioning and looking through a new lens,” Gabel said. “People really appreciate what we’re trying to achieve, and the chefs that I work with enjoy the challenge of pushing new boundaries.” Those chefs, Gabel, said, come to Kitchen Kibitz with “varying degrees” of familiarity with Jewish cooking. “What they all share is a passion for the cuisine and creativity.”
It’s not just Jews who have gravitated toward Gabel’s mad-scientist get-togethers, he said. “Levy’s rye said it best in their old marketing campaign – ‘You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s’,” Gabel laughed. “The majority of diners are actually not Jewish. They’re adventurous food enthusiasts looking for a unique experience. We believe that people should walk away learning more about the cuisines that they eat, and we do that through storytelling and presenting each dish as it comes out. Many cultures are used to family-style eating, schmoozing, and creating memories, and that’s what we try to do.”
The social experience, in fact, matters as much as the meal, according to Gabel. “We do seatings at large tables and encourage people to get to know one another,” he said. “It’s really amazing to watch people bond over the food.”