As soon as Jake Cohen picks up the phone, you can hear the enthusiasm in his voice. He’s genuinely excited to speak about his rise to fame as an openly gay Jewish man in the culinary world.
Cohen, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), is one of America’s most viral chefs right now. His first cookbook, Jew-Ish, is making waves in both the Jewish and secular culinary worlds, inspiring people to stick to their faith in whatever way they connect to it.
The New Yorker’s cooking skills are showcased daily on his social media accounts, where he puts on live cooking shows each week. He’s become so popular that he’s been highlighted on Good Morning America, the Today Show and many others.
But Cohen never imagined publishing a book until he and his husband, Alex Shapiro, started experimenting with different foods to eat on Shabbat. Each week, they combined their two cultures -- Ashkenazi and Persian/Iraqi -- and they ended up with a plethora of delicacies that would knock your socks off.
Now, Cohen is preparing for Passover by discussing how his book came to be, his journey to the top of food culture, as well as what his favorite foods are for the Festival of Matzah.
Where did your passion for Jewish cooking begin?
“Like so many, it was something ingrained in me long before I got into food professionally. It was something that, as a young adult, I realized it was such a huge factor in the way that I eat, cook, host and so much of it was rooted in Jewish values and tradition. I started to dive a little bit deeper and I found a passion.”
How did you figure out you wanted to be a professional chef?
“For me, it was something that started in high school by hosting dinner parties. I fell in love with the act of hospitality, being a connector and community builder. I was so entranced by it and it was the only option. I applied to the Culinary Institute of America -- no backups -- and it was what I was going to do.”
Why is now the perfect time for a Jewish cookbook? What made you want to put this together?
“There are many factors. When you look at writing a book, so many people work hard to get this privilege. It really is a privilege to write a book and have resources put behind it. Great recipes are a dime a dozen. There are great recipe developers all around. I put out recipes all the time on the internet, on social media and with different food publications. They’re all great and come out delicious. I think a book of great recipes is just fine and it’s a baseline of what a cookbook needs to be. But in the age of digital media where people question why people still buy books, it’s because of the stories, narratives, voice and the way you can have a lush hard copy book that tells someone’s story and creativity. I was starting to pursue that and, when I was given the opportunity to write a book, it was more of, ‘What story am I going to tell? I’m Jewish and I’m gay.’ Gay people don’t cook differently from everyone else. However, Judaism, with the way it affected my relationship, being an Ashkenazi marrying a Persian Iraqi, all of this influenced so much of how I eat, cook, host and how I act as a guest when I’m invited over someone’s house. All of these things are rooted in a small or big way to my Jewish identity.”
How did you incorporate the many different types of Jewish foods in this book?
“It started with Shabbat. It was a desire from my husband and I to explore what that was for us as a young couple -- how we were going to build communities to connect to Judaism. We were figuring out all of these things at the same time we were starting to explore Jewish food. Our definitions of Jewish food are completely different. When we met, he’d never had babka before, and I’d never had kubbeh. We used Shabbat as this vessel to not only build a community, but a base to cook these dishes I grew up eating and never made myself. In New York, you can get matzah ball soup anywhere, but the number of Jews who can make it from scratch is not as high. I started to make a lot of dishes that my husband grew up with.”
Any Israeli food in the book?
“Well, what is Israeli food? That’s a whole different conversation. When you think of Iraqi food, something like sabich became part of Israeli culture. Israeli food is a whole conglomerate of foods throughout the diaspora and meeting at the levant. For me, a lot of the Mizrahi dishes, inspired by my husband’s family, blends in. I’m inspired by so many other ingredients and flavors that have been brought together by the flavors of Israel.”
How is social media helping you grow your brand?
“Everyone wants a ‘get rich quick’ scheme, like losing 20 pounds in a week. There’s no secret. I’m someone who comes from a background of media, working for different publications. There was always a gatekeeper with someone saying what is acceptable or trendy and what is not important enough to be covered. Social media is the only place throughout my entire career where I have free range and can do what I want in my voice. This book is the perfect example of that because I didn’t budge with my publisher on anything that didn’t go with my vision.”
You’ve worked for some of the biggest names in food media (Saveur Magazine, Time Out New York and The Feedfeed). How did you get your foot in the door?
“I worked at ABC Kitchen in New York City and then, I wanted to switch to media. It’s a flawed industry that I’m glad I’m not part of anymore. I took an unpaid internship for a few months and clawed my way up. I put my all into it. I carried groceries around the city and got a hernia from doing it. I had to carry every grocery for this kitchen. It was non-stop. I took any opportunity for a byline and for recipes. At the same time, I was growing my social media because I knew how important it would be. It was this great business card. People like what I’m selling and I’m lucky about that. I’m not looking to grow into millions of followers and have the whole world love me. I need an engaged group of people who enjoy the way I cook and how I’m delivering Judaism. I rather have a modest, well-engaged audience than millions of followers who feel warm about me.”
Have you heard about Jewish National Fund-USA’s planned Galilee Culinary Institute? GCI by JNF-USA will be located in Israel’s far north. In appreciating that Israel’s north is a melting pot of so many different cultures and ethnicities, what would you choose to cook if invited to run a class for the Institute’s students?
“One of the things I’m obsessed with is the way ingredients transcends Ashkenazi and Mizrahi communities. One of my favorite things is a cup of tzimmes, which is old-school Ashkenazi with carrots, prunes and cinnamon. You can find the same ingredients and flavors in Persian stews using bacharat. We can play around and blend things together.”
We’re just days away from Passover. What is your favorite Passover recipe to make?
“It’s always a brisket because it’s the star of the show. But for me personally, it’s matzah ball soup because it’s my comfort food, Passover or not.”
What makes matzah ball soup stand out to you?
“It’s nostalgia. It’s funny because I’ve done so many Instagram lives with chefs to celebrities like Rachel Bloom and Katie Couric. The one thing that everyone loves is soup. Soup is a meal and it’s this historic thing. There’s a true feel of replenishment and nourishment from soup thanks to the way we were raised.”
You even made your own Haggadah I saw.
“It was something when I was writing the book as a pre-order bonus. I wanted to give extra recipes. In the book, I have a real breakdown about Shabbat, the ways I practice and how to make it accessible to all. It was my gateway to a deeper connection to Judaism, and I hope it’s going to be the same for so many others. I wanted to do the same for Passover. Passover is so important and people just go through the motions of the seder, but it could be so much more. You can have conversations with your loved ones about systems of oppression and the value of freedom. We have all of these beautiful symbols on the table, and there are ways you can make it new and fresh.”
What is your advice to budding chefs looking to make their mark in the world of food?
“Tell your own story. Be true and be yourself. Don’t be what you expect people to want. That can be on both sides. People might want you more Jewish or less Jewish. At the end of the day, none of that matters. You have to be authentic and transparent.”
Jake Cohen will join JNF-USA’s JNFuture supporters for a pre-Shavuot cooking demonstration on May 16 at 12:00 pm ET. For more information, email [email protected].