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Would-be Kosher Chefs Flocking to New Academy

Where can an observant Jew learn to prepare gourmet cuisine that is not just delicious and pleasing to the eye, but 100% kosher as well?

Until last month, there was no such place. As a result, the vast majority of chefs in kosher kitchens around the world have not been Jews — at least not observant Jews. Yochanan Lambiase, a 34-year-old English-born newly observant Jew — whose father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all chefs at elegant hotels in Italy — was dismayed to find that yeshiva students weren’t choosing to become chefs. Maybe, he thought, if he created a cooking school for observant Jews, they would come.

After a year of fundraising, Lambiase opened the Kosher Culinary Academy last month. The academy — undoubtedly the first kosher cooking school in the world — is housed in Jerusalem’s Holy Land Hotel. To Lambiase’s delight, the 10-month course, which is being taught in English, has attracted 28 students ranging in age from 18 to 53; five are Israeli and the rest hail from North America, England, South Africa and Australia. The school may, in fact, be accomplishing two goals at once. While potentially fulfilling a need among yeshiva students seeking a career amid Israel’s difficult economic times, the academy is helping to keep open the doors of the Holy Land Hotel, which has been hard hit by the severe drop in the number of tourists visiting Israel since the intifada began. The hotel even hopes to open a restaurant featuring food cooked by the academy’s chefs and their students.

Lambiase described a typical day at the school: “In the morning, the students learn Halacha — for example, what is kosher and what isn’t… In the afternoon, the students are divided into three groups, each led by an experienced chef. One of them, Shlomo Levengrund, has 30 years experience under his belt training the people who cook for Lufthansa airlines. We teach our students the same things they would learn in any other cooking school: the proper use of a knife, how to fillet a fish, how to prepare puff-pastry dough, tasting the difference between a mediocre and a superb Merlot, and so on and so forth.”

On a recent day trip, Lambiase brought a group of students to Marcel Hess, a German Jew who is the sixth generation in a line of butchers dating back to 1795 and who still prepares sausages according to the recipe of his forefathers. Yehuda Cohen, a 21-year-old Chicago-born student of the academy, gushed: “He brought out these cold cuts of smoked turkey with almonds. It was amazing!”

Hess confided that he also made a kosher substitute for snails, by cutting up calves’ brains and braising them in an herbal sauce — a recipe Lambiase hopes to share with his students. “Let’s face it, “ Lambiase said. “Lots of today’s customers of kosher food didn’t always keep kosher and still remember the taste of those non-kosher delicacies. That’s why we teach our students not only traditional Jewish cuisine but also kosher variants of dishes from all over the world.”

“In fact,” Lambiase continued, “some Parisian restaurants do the same thing. When their supply of snails runs out, they substitute fried calves’ brains, and the customers don’t know the difference.”

Avrom Berger, a 53-year-old former resident of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, is the program’s oldest student. He began cooking when his wife was immobilized by back pain. While reading the Jerusalem Post, Berger noticed that a kosher cooking school was opening, and reasoned that with training he someday might be able to cook for Jewish institutions.

“The first week was rough,” Berger said. “One of the ovens didn’t work properly and the pastry we prepared didn’t come out right. And the truth is, I wasn’t terribly interested in all that French terminology, and all the different sauces… But then we made this chocolate mousse pie which was really good. So when I got home I tried it…. My wife said it was delicious. It gave me a real sense of satisfaction.”

Recipes included in the curriculum range from French classics to contemporary European-Asian fusion dishes. Lambiase plans to invite chefs from around the world to demonstrate their techniques, including Jeffrey Nathan, head chef of Abigael’s kosher restaurant in Manhattan and author of “Adventures in Jewish Cooking.“

Lambiase is optimistic about the future of the Kosher Culinary Academy. A February 15 dedication ceremony is set to include such dignitaries as the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger of Israel. In April, the school will launch a four-month course for women — classes currently are open only to men — interested in learning catering skills or specialized menus. Because many Orthodox women are busy raising a family, they tend not to look for careers as full-time chefs, but rather as part-time caterers, which enable them to work from home. For the same reason, a four-month training course would be more appealing than the rigid 10-month program for the men. And of course, most of these women have been in the kitchen for years, and so are quite adept at the laws of kashrut already.

“My greatest joy,” said Lambiase, “will be having the head chef of a kosher restaurant coming out to greet his guests, and everyone realizing that the guy who prepared this delicious meal was an Orthodox Jew.”

This article has been adapted from the Yiddish Forward.

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