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Secrets of Kosher Restaurants

A new cookbook offers chefs’ recipes and an inside look at kosher restaurant kitchens.

Eight years ago, I had a great gig.

As a dining columnist for the Jewish Star of Long Island, every week I reviewed a kosher restaurant. Unlike a critic, my job was to foster community spirit and showcase the numerous options available to kosher diners. If the pizza was bad, I wrote about the friendly wait staff. When the management was a disappointment, I talked about the decor.

For over a year I enjoyed the assignment, which ended once I moved to south Florida.

I am amazed how the kosher dining scene has changed since then. Nearly every place I reviewed no longer exists. The family-style diners and traditional delis I visited on and off Central Avenue’s kosher strip in Cedarhurst, New York, are now small-plate bistros, seasonally-driven restaurants and artisanal pizza parlors.

As I flipped through the just-released cookbook, “Secret Restaurant Recipes, From the World’s Top Kosher Restaurants,” (Mesorah Publications, 2014) and salivated over restaurant-style food that can be made at home, I was flooded with memories of the time I spent practically living in kosher restaurants in the tri-state area.

I spoke with the authors, Leah Schapira and Victoria Dwek, fellow kosher restaurant fiends, to talk about how they created this book and to get their insider’s perspective on today’s kosher dining scene.

What sparked the idea to write a compendium of kosher restaurant recipes?

Leah Schapira: Like most people, we love to eat out. But when we try something delicious, we want to recreate it at home. I thought it would be cool if we could get chefs to give us their recipes and showcase the findings in a book.

Victoria Dwek: We are obsessed with discovering the secrets of good food and how it’s made. When my local butcher wouldn’t tell me which spice he puts in his meat, I got into an argument because I believe recipes and cooking information should be shared. That’s how great food is created.

Were restaurant owners and chefs forthcoming with their recipes, or did you have to cajole support for your project?

LS: Surprisingly, most places we contacted wanted to participate. Savvy restaurateurs know customers won’t stop coming just because they can make one of the signature dishes at home. They aren’t going to lose business by sharing a recipe.

VD: The recipe will actually entice people to visit the restaurant. Our biggest challenge was getting chefs to take the time to write down their recipes. Chefs, especially kosher ones, aren’t in the business of marketing their food.

LS: Once the chefs were able to make the time, they wouldn’t stop talking because they are so passionate about food. One chef gave us twelve different ways to garnish his dish.

VD: We also noticed that the more famous the chef, the more time he or she was willing to spend with us. They want to teach and share their knowledge. They are confident and don’t care if people use their recipes.

Restaurant recipes are written in grams instead of ounces or pounds, liters instead of cups, and ingredients come in massive quantities. How were you able to make the conversions and scale down the proportions and cooking times?

LS: Thank goodness Victoria is good at math! And our digital scale, which helped convert measurements, was indispensable. Another thing we did, especially at Chinese places where there was a language barrier, was video how they prepared the food.

VD: Dishes like sesame chicken or Mongolian beef are cooked from start to finish in less than three minutes. Not only are ingredients prepped ahead of time, but pans are always hot and ready and chefs cook really fast. Reviewing the videos helped, especially when the recipe’s written language was hard to decipher.

LS: Interestingly, some chefs went the extra mile to personally test our scaled-down versions of their food. Chaim Shpigelman from Pita Pizza in Montreal, Jeff Nathan from Abigail’s in Manhattan and Jessica Weiss from Serendipity in Miami, tested our recipes at home to make sure they tasted just right.

There are so many outstanding kosher restaurants, how did you pick which ones to feature?

LS: Midway, we realized that aside from focusing on fine dining, we had to include the best version of everyday restaurant food people love, like schnitzel sandwiches and chicken poppers. Since the book came out we’ve noticed from the readers’ posts and online photos that they’re cooking the everyday food from the book before they try things like Côte de Boeuf from La Marais in Manhattan or the recipe for Osso Buco from Harbour Grill in Miami.

VD: There are some restaurant dishes, like an amazing grilled steak, which can’t be recreated at home. Restaurants start with dry-aged meat and their super-hot grill adds incredible flavor because the grill is in use all day. We had to pick recipes with techniques, like braising or pan-frying, which can be done at home.

What kind of cooking tips did you pick-up from kitchen restaurants?

VD: It’s essential to preheat pans. This is how you’ll get a dark crust on proteins and properly sauté veggies. In a restaurant’s kitchen, empty pans sit over open flames and are always very hot. Now, when I start cooking, before I chop vegetables, I put my pan on the burner so it will heat for at least five minutes while I do my prep. Then, when I add the oil, the pan sizzles like at a restaurant and the results are amazing.

LS: Besides properly heating pans, it’s important to choose quality ingredients. It’s not about the amount of ingredients you’re using, but their quality, like choosing San Marzano canned plum tomatoes over the generic version or wildflower honey instead of all-purpose.

VD: I also learned to invest the time in making a really stellar component to a dish. My favorite sauce is the homemade teriyaki recipe we got from Café Rimon in Jerusalem. Caramelized sugar is simmered with aromatics like ginger, carrots, and garlic. If this sauce is in your fridge, anything paired with it — salmon, chicken, beef — will taste delicious. This kind of sauce or condiment will expand your culinary repertoire and you can bring restaurant-quality food to the table in a seemingly effortless way.

How have kosher restaurants changed over the past few years?

VD: Small-plate restaurants like Pardes, Basil and Mason and Mug in Brooklyn, are really trendy. Instead of a menu featuring appetizers, mains and desserts, customers order a variety of small dishes. The idea is to taste original food full of explosive flavors you’ve never had before.

LS: The main thing I’ve noticed is that traditional three-course restaurants are being replaced with places that specialize in one thing like slow-cooked barbeque at Milt’s in Chicago, authentic Mexican at Mexikosher in L.A. or seasonal cooking at Etc. Steakhouse or Ottimo Cafe in New Jersey. Kosher diners are adventurous and want to try new kinds of food. That’s what inspired us to write this book. If readers can’t make it to the restaurants, we want them to be able to recreate the chefs’ food at home.

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