Today, in a post Covid-19 world, people are looking for diets that nourish the mind in equal measure to the body. In this regard, the Mediterranean and flexitarian diets, which are related, have gained in popularity. Both emphasize plant-based eating, but consuming fish and meat in moderation is encouraged as well. Together, the properties in these foods, such as omega-3s, iron and antioxidants, boost the body and mind. Those in the U.S. eat out at restaurants at high rates and therefore a lot of our nutrition comes via that venue. Rabbi Dov Schreier takes us through the process of certifying restaurants.
As head of food services at the OU, he shares his personal story, what it takes to be hired as a mashgiach, the role of a mashgiach, what it’s like to hold a pulpit rabbinic position while working at the OU, his favorite dish and other insights.
Steven Genack: You just received the coveted award for recognition of service to the OU for 25 years. Can you briefly reflect on what it has meant to work at the OU and what it has been like managing the food service division for the OU?
Rabbi Dov Schreier: Interestingly, my connection to the OU began when I was very young. Growing up, my father was involved in the Rabbinic Kashrut Commission of the RCA, so he used to come monthly to the OU for kashrut meetings. Therefore, I had a little insight into what was going on at the OU. When I was finishing semicha in YU, I participated in the first Ask OU program. The following year I learned in the YU Kollel and got involved in a kashrut related project which required me to be in touch with the director of food services at the OU quite a bit. At the end of that project, I asked the director of food services if jobs were available and I got hired as an intern in food services, soon to be hired full-time. Some great aspects of the OU are the “chevra,” – the great closeness among the rabbanim and also that no one is ever alone in their specific area. I always have fellow rabbanim with great experience in the food service area with whom I can speak and consult, ensuring that every kind of issue is addressed. Twenty-five years represents longevity, the opportunity to have been involved in many things and to have come in contact with many people who have become longtime friends.
SG: The world, including the United States, recently endured a severe pandemic. How would you assess the restaurant and catering industry is doing at the moment?
RDS: When the pandemic came the world shut down. Things have developed since then. In the last year, some new restaurants opened, which is a positive sign. Catering has a different dynamic as it’s a week-to-week operation. Just a couple of weeks ago, we had one of the busiest weekends. But people are still careful with Covid-19 and therefore, it’s possible for someone to book a catering event for a large number of people but not all will attend.
SG: Can you give a picture of what your day looks like at the OU?
RDS: Actually, I don’t know where a day will take me. Right now, caterers are preparing their Pesach productions, so even if the program isn’t under the OU, we often supervise the kitchens. Then, there are questions from caterers in general whether certain products are certified for Passover. Furthermore, this time of the year companies that are doing events call many times inquiring about the kashrus status of liquors. In addition, on a daily basis, if a mashgiach has to take off or can’t come, I have to find replacements for that. To give you a feel, my day starts at 4 AM and ends late at night with little sleep in between.
SG: In terms of food services, does this include restaurants, catering, holiday programs and kiddushes? Do you ever do private or large party events for organizations?
RDS: Included are restaurants, catering, hospitals, yeshivas, schools and basically any event where food is served. For instance, last week, one of our caterers did a five-day event in Aspen, and a week before that they did one in Miami.
SG: So much of the weight of success for any food service hashgacha – from a halachic to customer relations standpoint – is shouldered by the mashgiach. How do you determine who is fit to take such a pivotal position?
RDS: When I interview or meet someone for the position, I explain to them, that besides being conscientious when on the job, it is also necessary to keep in mind that even when not on the job, it’s important not to engage in any behavior that would not bring honor to the OU.
SG: From a halachic standpoint, can you explain – whether we are talking about a meat, dairy or pareve restaurant – what issues must be addressed and what must the mashgiach do in order for the restaurant to be OU kosher-certified?
RDS: The mashgiach comes in the morning and unlocks the kitchen or in some places he has to unlock the gas and refrigerators. Because the mashgiach has the key and is the sole person with the ability to enter the kitchen, the halachic concern that meat, dairy or cheese can come from unknown places is solved. Each morning the mashgiach must turn on the flames to avoid bishul akum. Today, many restaurants use induction cooking, which doesn’t involve a flame. When a pot is put on the metal surface a chemical reaction heats it up. If a non-Jew would put the pot down each time, it would be bishul akum. So, we make sure the mashgiach puts an induction disc on the metal cooking surface which turns on the heat and thereafter any pot put on the disc is considered cooked by a Jew.
SG: In terms of catering as a whole, what kind of halachic issues can arise?
RDS: Let’s say you’re talking about a kiddush on Shabbos or Yom Tov, then hilchos Shabbos and Yom Tov become a critical part of the endeavor. Also, some jobs require the kashering of equipment.
SG: These days, supply chain issues are pronounced. Restaurants are trying to attain ingredients in accessible ways. Nevertheless, a large percentage of food in America is wasted. From a food service perspective, are there any ways to address this issue?
RDS: Well, personally, when I made bar mitzvahs for my children, we made a menu with the caterer so that nothing would be thrown out. We took with us whatever was extra. Obviously, this isn’t the general mindset people have, but that is a possible strategy to avoid waste.
SG: For a time, you worked as a pulpit rabbi while working at the OU. Can you explain how that position differed from the OU position and what lessons you learned as a pulpit rabbi?
RDS: In truth, I run a “pulpit” from the OU. I’m in touch with rabbanim from all around the country and I give shiurim for the OU. That being said, as a practicing pulpit rabbi I had the privilege to perform hachnasat orchim and help change people’s lives on a day-to-day basis. It’s all about saving neshamot. At a shul you save neshamot that want to draw close and at the OU you save neshamot from eating maachalot assurot, forbidden food.
SG: What’s the most satisfying part of your job?
RDS: When things work out. You’re trying to set up a lot of things and make a lot of things happen, so when it materializes, there’s a feeling of satisfaction. And it’s satisfying when people say thank you. It doesn’t happen often but when it does, it’s appreciated.
SG: Do you ever have time to eat out?
RDS: Mostly when I go away with my family.
SG: Lastly, what’s your favorite dish?
RDS: I’m a French fries man. I also like poppers.