On a recent Tuesday night at the Chabad House Bowery on the Lower East Side, a crowd began to form. Tables covered in craft paper filled the room, tea lights flickering in mason jars. At a long table at one end, servers set up paper plates and jugs of ice tea — but no food. “Jazzie’s running late,” explained Matt Glick, the Chabad House chief of staff.
“Jazzie” is Jasmine Einalhori, the 27-year-old chef and co-owner of Sage Kitchen, a new kosher catering business. Tall, with curly brown hair pulled into a messy ponytail, Einalhori dresses casually in jeans and a T-shirt, not unlike her young clientele. Every other Tuesday, she and her business partners host a pop-up restaurant at Chabad, as they seek to fill what they see as a void in the kosher dining world: high quality, healthy, modern kosher food at a reasonable price.
Chabad House Bowery is a community center and Orthodox synagogue that “hosts Jewish gatherings of all kinds,” said Zach Novetsky, a partner in Sage Kitchen. Founded by Rabbi Dov Korn, Chabad House Bowery seeks to support NYU students while they are at NYU, and then convince them to stay in the area after graduation. “The Lower East Side historically was a Jewish area, with a synagogue on every street,” said Novetsky. “And over time that dissipated. Now Chabad is targeting young professionals, and many are staying downtown.”
Novetsky and Einalhori, who met at summer camp as children and reconnected as NYU undergrads, want to be part of that effort. “Chabad was instrumental in bringing us all together,” said Novetsky. “The Rabbi sat us all down and said, ‘There weren’t so many Jews here for a long time, but now people are staying down here because the Jewish life is really flourishing, and one thing we are missing is a restaurant for people to go to.’”
For Einalhori, cooking is a lifelong passion. Her parents both emigrated to the United States as children, her mother from Israel; her father from Iran. Growing up in Los Angeles, Einalhori was raised Jewish but allowed to eat “whatever was comfortable for us.” She taught herself to cook at a young age. “If we wanted an egg growing up, my parents would say ‘Okay, go make it.’” She enrolled in the hospitality program at NYU, and then traveled to Italy to train in a restaurant after graduation.
It was not until she returned to the U.S. that she decided to focus on kosher cooking. Einalhori entered a cooking contest called “The Next Great Kosher Chef” sponsored by the Brooklyn Center for Kosher Culinary Arts. Not only did she win, but the competition was covered by The New York Times. “I got about 1,000 jobs from that article,” said Einalhori. “I later found out if you Google ‘best kosher chef’ my name comes up, which is kind of cool.”
Two years ago, Einalhori and Novetsky started Sage Kitchen with partners Glick and Richard Norman, all of them in their twenties, although “really it’s like 30 partners,” Einalhori says, as spouses and friends are as committed to the concept as the official four. “Beneath 14th and Canal streets, there is only one kosher restaurant,” said Novetsky. “At the same time there are about 9,000 kosher-identifying individuals in that same area, so there’s a huge underserved market. We thought that this would be a great opportunity, both from a business sense, but also from a developing community sense — we’re all very active in developing community — to see if we could create something.”
Although Einalhori focuses most of her time on the catering business, the pop-up restaurant is her passion. “I don’t want to be stuck in the kitchen all day,” she said. “I love hosting the pop-up.” Servers take orders using an iPad and serve food cafeteria-style; diners can choose between sandwiches, salads and grain bowls. The food is Mediterranean, says Einalhori, with Israeli and Persian influences from both her parents. Customer favorites include lamb with fennel-tzatziki slaw and olive oil cake with vanilla and bourbon. Sage does not serve “traditional” Jewish dishes like latkes and gefilte fish. “I don’t think that is where any of our food preferences lie,” said Novetsky. “Our food is pretty healthy, and it was never any of our passions to cook traditional Jewish food.”
Dani Klein, founder of the food blog Yeah That’s Kosher, says that the menu at Sage Kitchen reflects the impact millennials’ priorities are having on the kosher dining scene. “We are the ones watching the Food Network and cooking shows, demanding better quality ingredients, healthier options, better pay and treatment for restaurant staff and leaving very vocal feedback on Yelp, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and blogs,” he said.
At the most recent pop-up, the crowd of around 150 diners included Chaya Suri Leitner, who drove from Brooklyn to try out Sage Kitchen with her husband and two young boys. Leitner, who keeps kosher, had read about the pop-up on social media. “I wanted to see what it was all about, and what’s new on the kosher market,” she said. Andrew Gluck, another diner, decided to visit after reading about the pop-up on Klein’s blog. “Once he posted it I wanted to go,” he said. He chose a roast beef sandwich with a side of eggplant marinated in tahini. “It’s more artisanal, seasonal — the ingredients are a little bit of a change,” he said.
Einalhori and her partners plan to expand Sage Kitchen: They dream of opening a “fast casual” kosher restaurant that would have crossover appeal. For Einalhori, this is only the beginning. After winning the kosher chef competition, she was quoted in the New York Times as saying her dream was to be the “kosher Danny Meyer,” and received a letter from the famed restaurateur in response. “He said, ‘What you are doing is important and it is missing in this world and I’m sure our paths will cross some day,’” she said. “So I’m leaving that to the future when I will say: Hey, remember me?”
Lindsay Purcell is working on her Masters at the Columbia Journalism School. Follow her on Twitter, @lindsaypurcell