Spreading the kosher word

UK-born chef operates world's only fully mehadrin cooking school.

cooking kosher (photo credit: )
cooking kosher
(photo credit: )
If chef Yochanan Lambiase had to place his culinary philosophy in a verbal nutshell, it probably would run something like: "Kosher doesn't have to boring." London, UK-born, of southern Italian descent, Lambiase is founder of the Jerusalem Culinary Institute (JCI) located at Moshav Messilat Zion near Beit Shemesh. Established in 2003, the JCI runs 10-month programs for 18-24-year-olds from all over the world with classes on a wide range of culinary and patisserie topics. The 25 students who registered for the upcoming program, which starts in October, will get a handle on the theory behind the gastronomic process but will mostly gain valuable hands-on experience in the kitchen, out in the herb garden and in the institute's restaurant. They will also learn a thing or two about running a business in the real world. "The JCI is the world's only fully kosher lamehadrin cooking school that offers a full-year program in the culinary arts, pastry, wine making and wine tasting," Lambiase explains. "We basically prepare our students to become chefs but also teach them about running a restaurant and a kitchen. There's a lot to learn." And it looks like next year's students will be in good hands. Lambiase trained at Westminster Hotel School of Cooking in London and has plenty of genetic collateral to offer, too. "I come from four generations of chefs, and we originate from southern Italy," says the chef patron. "You could say the Italians know a thing or two about food. Don't forget that Marco Polo brought pasta to Europe from China." The JCI's street cred is augmented by principal Greta Ostrovitz. Prior to entering the food trade, Ostrovitz spent 25 years as an IT executive in various New York corporate law firms and had a stint as a stockbroker. Jerusalemites may remember her as proprietor of the late lamented downtown eatery Chez Gita. She has also chalked up considerable mileage in the catering business. Lambiase happily notes that Jewish cooking is currently very much in vogue outside the fold as well. "I think the JCI is helping to bring kosher into the 21st century. The kosher food industry has really boomed in the past 10 to 15 years. It's very hip to eat kosher these days - you have celebrities like Madonna and Paris Hilton eating kosher." It seems there are also more practical reasons behind the shift toward kosher food. "I think the big thing is that kosher has come to be perceived as very health-oriented. In the eyes of the non-Jewish public, kosher is seen to be healthy." Lambiase continues. "I think that is because there have been one or two food scares recently, especially in North America. Kosher food has been checked all the way through until it gets onto the dinner table, and the non-Jewish public knows that. If you go to some food emporium in Manhattan these days, you'll see a huge amount of food with a kosher stamp on it." Extra-sectoral interest, apparently, stretches beyond pure consumerism. "We've had non-Jews taking courses here," says Lambiase. "Although we really just cater to the Jewish public, we're really open to everyone for them to understand what kosher means and what kosher education in cooking is." The latter, says the chef patron, also involves enlightening the general public about the possibilities offered by kosher cuisine. "The stigma is that kosher cooking is just gefilte fish, cholent and whatever, and it is just very much Hungarian peasant food. Now there is this kosher revolution happening when you can get amazing things in the market, and you can even produce dishes that were not previously possible. You now have milk substitutes you can use with meat - like brewer's yeast that is almost identical in flavor to Parmesan cheese. We had a food critic here a while ago who ate that dish and said she could not detect anything different from what she'd expect from Parmesan. I would say our mission statement is to show and to train people to become kosher chefs without having to compromise." While the institute offers enlightening culinary training to its students, Ostrovitz feels the JCI also needs to spread the word to a wider hinterland. "We need to educate the public in Israel about food," she says. "For most Israelis, big and cheap is good regardless of the quality of the food they're eating. But quality and aesthetics are very important too." To that end, both Ostrovitz and Lambiase hope that the JCI patisserie, breads and chocolate course run by French-born chef Claude Bensimon sets off some positive shock waves outside the school. "That is a great course," says Lambiase. "You should see - and taste - the cakes they produce. They are real works of art. These people really care about what they produce." According to Ostrovitz, the JCI is about more than just dispensing cooking, baking and business know-how. There are some valuable therapeutic benefits to be gained as well. "We've had some difficult students here, with some special needs of their own," she says, "including kids with learning disabilities whose parents wanted their children to learn something. There was one young man from New York whose mother sent him here in the hope that we could help him with his behavioral problems. I must admit I didn't think it would work out - he was very disruptive for the other students. But Yochanan said I should persevere, and he gradually improved. He never became a top chef, but he and his mother were very proud of what he'd achieved and he left here in a much better state than when he got here. " There are also some social breeding-related landmines to be navigated during the course. "We have a herb garden here," explains Ostrovitz. "The students plant the herbs and tend to them as they grow, and they get very excited when they see the fruits of their labors. But we get some who don't want to get their hands dirty, but they all eventually get involved and get into the physical outdoor work, too. It's very satisfying for them to see that what they plant eventually becomes something they can use to prepare a dish with." The JCI courses and workshops cover a wide range of culinary areas. "It's based on the French classic culinary art," says Ostrovitz. "They learn knife skills, and then they go on to learn how to make stocks and sauces and basics, and then we go on to eggs and vegetables, and then come the meat and fish and chicken. We also go into other areas, like Asian and Mexican cooking, so they have the complete experience in all kinds of cuisine." At the end of the day, Lambiase says, it is the really fired-up students who are going to achieve something out there, in the real world, after completing the JCI course. "It's a touchy business to be in, and it is the ones who are passionate about what they're doing who are going to succeed in the food industry. We offer them the opportunity to get as much hands-on experience as possible. They are in the kitchen from day one, and they also learn from their own mistakes. We encourage them to develop their own flavors and their own dishes but also to stick to the rules." With the next batch of JCI students coming from all over the globe, including the US, Australia, South America and Russia, Lambiase is suitably upbeat about the prospects for spreading the joys of kosher cuisine. "The gastronomic kosher word is getting out there," he says.