Kosher dining definitely ain’t what it used to be. “Will it be French, prime rib or sushi tonight?” is not a question kosher diners would have ever imagined asking before the last quarter of the twentieth century. Yet, it looks like the growing attraction to the more exotic kosher fare has joined the classic craving for pastrami on rye with a side of pickles.
Despite the fact that restaurant businesses constantly face hefty competition and a high risk of failure, a growing number of kosher dining enterprises are defying the dismal statistics. Whether offering an elegant ambiance or fast-food flurry, they’re breezing the critical five-year trial period and booming way beyond it.
“Today’s OU kosher restaurants seek to provide upscale cuisine,” says Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of OU Kosher, “with a tasteful milieu to match.” And the kosher public is savoring each opportunity.
As the kosher consumer’s palate yearns for a more elaborate, worldlier cuisine, the OU’s impeccable supervision required increasingly more sophisticated programs. “The amount and range of ingredients used in restaurants is much broader today and the availability of kosher components is fantastic,” says Rabbi Yaakov Luban, Executive Rabbinic Coordinator. “The kosher supervising agency has to determine whether certain ingredients can be used; it is the role of the Rabbinic Field Representative (RFR) to make sure those standards are implemented.”
Meet the “Rabino” in the Kitchen
A phone call comes in to OU headquarters from a Manhattan restaurateur interested in opening up a kosher eatery. As with every applicant, Rabbi Leonard Steinberg, rabbinic coordinator in the new company department for fourteen years, informs him that the OU requires that he employ a full-time onsite kosher supervisor called a mashgiach temidi (Hebrew for a continuous RFR). The OU supplies the professional, but the owner pays for his services. “That’s usually the biggest hump to get over,” says Rabbi Steinberg. “Since a restaurant needs constant supervision, a mashgiach temidi is necessary. Aside from all the ingredients going into the myriad dishes on any given menu, what makes an OU certified restaurant 100 percent kosher is the vigilance and acuity of ‘the rabbi in the kitchen.’”
If the restaurant agrees to a full-time RFR, the OU conducts an initial inspection of the establishment in order to determine what equipment, dishes, cutlery, etc. need kosherizing. After the details of the contract are finalized, the owner receives a letter of certification and the OU appoints an RFR, the sole keeper of the keys to the refrigerators, freezers, ovens, cabinets, as well as every other kosher-sensitive area in the place. In every sense, he is an OU-certified restaurant’s key man.
By accepting the position as OU Kosher restaurant supervisor, the OU-trained RFR takes on one of the most demanding jobs in the kosher world. He is not only a kosher connoisseur; he’s a manager, sleuth, diplomat, teacher, scientist, inventory control expert, vegetable-checker, with a knack for foreign languages and, according to Rabbi Yermia Indich, Rabbinic Coordinator (RC) for twenty-five years, “has eyes in the back of his head.”
“The RFR has to be on top of everything,” says Rabbi Indich, “from the moment he opens the doors until he locks up at night.” In between, he turns on the ovens (Kosher law mandates that a Jew participate in the cooking of foods); checks deliveries to confirm each product has proper kosher certification; meticulously cleans and checks vegetables – making sure they are free of bugs; cracks the eggs – checking them for forbidden blood spots, all the while monitoring the kitchen crew to ensure that all is running according to strictly kosher guidelines.
“Unlike big manufacturing companies, in a food service environment, things can go wrong in the snap of a finger,” says Rabbi Steinberg. “In a factory, they use 55 gallon drums of ingredients and get deliveries far less frequently (than restaurants.) We obligate them to have only what’s in their schedule and produce according to what we’ve outlined in the contract, whereas a restaurant could receive orders throughout the day and at any time decide to put something new on the menu. It requires a lot of supervision.”
Apparently, OU-certified restaurants welcome the rigorous oversight. “We wanted a nationally recognized certification known for having a clear and solid set of rules and standards,” says Steven Traube, managing partner of two popular restaurants on Manhattan’s east side, The Prime Grill steakhouse and Solo, which offers “Mediterranean with an Asian rub.”
“The OU has a corporate structure; they offer a standardized system, complete with training and updated handbooks for the food service RFRs, and always-available RC’s. I barely know any cell phone numbers by heart, but I know Rabbi Dov Schreier’s (one of the RC’s responsible for OU food services).”
The Prime Grill actually requires two kosher supervisors, one for each of its two operating kitchens. “Our RFR’s are dedicated and hardworking, and the staff appreciates and respects it,” says Mr. Traube. “The employees see them washing vegetables, packing orders, ordering produce, fish, and groceries. They understand that ‘rabino’ (Spanish for rabbi) is management and that we are here to work together to churn out food while remaining under strictly kosher standards.”
According to Rabbi Zvi Zinstein, RFR for five years at Mike’s Bistro on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, establishing this sense of teamwork with the kitchen crew is critical to the success of his job. “The most challenging part is helping them realize that I’m not a barrier for them,” he says. “You have a chef who has been working in a kitchen his entire life and now he’s not allowed to even turn on his stove or oven; that’s hard for him to understand. If they see that I’m going the extra mile, they’ll go the extra mile for me.”
Rabbi Zinstein, who’s been working in food service since the summer of his fourteenth year, not only goes the extra mile, he racks up plenty of reward miles every workday. He’s the first to arrive and the last to leave. In between, he cleans 25 pounds of vegetables (plus an array of herbs), keeps close track of the restaurant’s daily order inventory; he’s on top of orders that go out and deliveries that come in (consulting with the chef and bartender to make sure they have everything they need), and oversees the kitchen throughout the six-hour dinner service stretch. By 11:30 p.m., he’s locked up the refrigerators, dry goods, wine and front door and calls it another successful OU-Kosher restaurant day.
“I’m gratified that kosher diners can eat high-end food, something that wasn’t available to them before,” says Rabbi Zinstein. “At the same time, it comes with a major responsibility; the OU puts its name on the line. As the RFR, I’m the one making sure it’s kosher. I can’t let anything slip by and deem it not a big deal.”
But he never feels he’s shouldering the task alone. Thanks to the OU’s abundant at-the-ready RC’s and resources, the RFR’s find their job a lot less daunting. “If something comes in with a dubious kosher certification, I call Rabbi Indich,” says Rabbi Tzvi Margo, RFR at Eden Wok, a kosher Chinese and sushi establishment in Midtown, Manhattan. “He will tell me yes or no or ask that I fax over the label. Rabbi Indich allows me to call him at his own home if need be. The RC’s are always available.”
To ensure that the OU’s policies are operating up to par, a designated outside RFR conducts unannounced visits to the over 30 OU-certified restaurants across Manhattan. “I don’t want to give the impression that I’m there to catch anyone,” says Rabbi Issar Mordechai Fuchs, RFR. “I’m not there to police them; I try to be there for them.”
Rabbi Fuchs helps keep the RFR’s on top of their innumerable tasks, while keeping himself apprised of all the duties covered; he supplies each with a protocol list, as well as logs and checklists to fill out regularly. His schedule includes visits to an average of ten restaurants per week. “I’ve developed a good relationship with the RFR’s, as well as the restaurant owners,” he says. Save, maybe, one innocent grumble. “There’s a restaurant where they complain that the RFR is in the kitchen too much,” says Rabbi Fuchs. “I like those kinds of complaints.”
Habla-ing Español, Taking the Heat and Dodging Curve Balls
With Manhattan’s constant influx of immigrants filling food-service positions, the RFR’s have had to ensure that the kitchen crew knows exactly what is expected of them in a strictly kosher environment. They’ve peppered the workplace walls with signs in appropriate native tongues, stating: No outside food or beverage permitted in the kitchen; All deliveries must be checked by rabbi; Do not turn equipment on; and All vegetables must be checked by rabbi.
“I’ve learned to deal with people of different nationalities,” says Rabbi Margo. “I speak a form of ‘Chinglish.’” He’s also learned to apply his vegetable-checking skills to Chinese cabbage (ten heads per day) and nori seaweed. In his four years at Eden Wok, he has developed a discerning Chinese-food palate “Lately I’ve been running around the kitchen trying to figure out what to eat,” he says. “I’ve tried them all.” (Sesame chicken remains his favorite.)
Just as employees are expected to keep up with the rigors of maintaining a kosher kitchen, the RFR’s quickly learn to adjust to the difficulties that come with working in a continuous cooking environment, especially in the summer, when the kitchen temperature can exceed 100 degrees. “At the height of the morning, nine or ten fires are burning simultaneously,” says Rabbi Margo. “It can feel like a sweat bath!”
Despite the hot summers and the long hours, Rabbi Margo takes pride in his work and never underestimates its importance. “Kosher customers are relying on me,” he says. “They are putting their (religious) observance in my hands. Employees ask me why I spend so much time looking at broccoli. (Truth is), they see that this person who appears a little different from them is taking so much care in doing his best for the customers.”
Since every step of every day’s food preparation demands a flawless “live performance,” the pressure behind the scenes runs high from opening to closing. “In a catering facility or hospital, you know what to expect,” says Rabbi Zinstein. “You know exactly how many guests are coming and how much vegetables you need to wash. In a restaurant, you never know how many people will be walking in each day. There are always curve balls – a change in the menu that day or the chef wants a certain product that needs to be checked out. It’s a lot more intense.”
The surprises are not always food-related. While interviewing Steven Katchen, manager of Mendy’s Kosher Delicatessen, a popular high-end deli with five locations across Midtown Manhattan, his chef interrupted our conversation with some urgent news. Mr. Katchen promptly informed me that he had to go. “I have a refrigerator to fix.”
“The most challenging part of the job is maintaining one’s cool,” says Rabbi Schreier. “It happens that, due to extenuating circumstances, an RFR can’t come in to work. We keep a list of potential RFR backups, (just in case). It’s a 24/6 job.”
Some restaurateurs welcome the drama. “There’s always disasters that have to be dealt with,” says Mr. Traube. “A hood broke down; our main drain is clogged. It’s the nature of the restaurant business; that’s what keeps it exciting.”
Others view the constant contact with the public as a character-building experience. “It’s my favorite part (of the job),” says Bracha Silverstein, owner and operator of Dougie’s in Brooklyn, NY. “I get to meet a lot of people. Because they (also) come with a lot of expectations, it can get challenging. One has to swallow one’s pride.” She makes sure not to take it to heart. “You can’t take care of all of their problems in a dinner.”
Nonetheless, many are discovering that going out to a first-rate kosher restaurant certainly couldn’t hurt. According to Rabbi Steinberg, OU Kosher upscale eateries are here to stay. “They’ve proven to have longevity,” he says. “They are great places to take clients and wine and dine them.” He attributes these triumphs to the winning working relationship these establishments and the OU consistently enjoy. “Communication is our strong point,” he stresses. “They realize that we are partners. We want their businesses to succeed and we want kashrut to succeed.”
Jose Meirelles, owner of Le Marais, an acclaimed Midtown Manhattan kosher steakhouse and Clubhouse Café, a Portuguese wine bar (across the street), concurs. “The OU explains the kosher issues in a straightforward way that (even) a layperson can understand,” he says. A graduate of the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan, Meirelles says he managed to overcome what he calls his “biggest (kosher) hurdle,” – preparing traditional French dishes without butter. “So, we make our sauces without the extra fat,” he says, “which (in the end) turns out to be more healthful.”
Die-hard deli lovers don’t fret! Pastrami on rye still satisfies. The OU Kosher restaurant “menu” and its devoted service have simply (and scrumptiously) expanded. Go enjoy!
To Help Whet Your Appetite:
The above mentioned restaurant owners’ and RFR’s’ favorite dishes:
- Steven Traube: managing partner of The Prime Grill and Solo – Porcinni Mushroom Soup.
- Steven Katchen: manager of Mendy’s Delicatessen – A tie between Skirt Steak and Burger Deluxe, medium rare
- Bracha Silverstein: owner and operator of Dougie’s, Brooklyn – Steak Caesar Salad
- Rabbi Zvi Zinstein: RFR at Mike’s Bistro – Gnocchi, fried potato dumpling
- Rabbi Tzvi Margo: RFR at Eden Wok – Sesame Chicken
- Jose Meirelles: owner of Le Marais and Clubhouse Café – Le Marais’ Prime Rib for Two and Clubhouse Café’s burgers