Mild discontent in the kitchen

Chef Rossi details her journey from Orthodox upbringing to treyf caterer to the stars.

Chef Rossi (photo credit: EITAN SHAPIRA)
Chef Rossi
(photo credit: EITAN SHAPIRA)
Her mother called her by her Yiddish name, Slovah Davida Shana. She prefers to be known as Rossi – one name, like Cher, who is among countless celebrities to have chowed down on Rossi’s cuisine.
But more telling than the author’s personal name is the one she chose for her book and her New York City catering company, The Raging Skillet. You don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to guess that the proprietress of this hugely successful business has some issues. And in this entertaining “memoir with recipes,” as the book is subtitled, Rossi traces those issues to an unsurprising source: Mom, a.k.a.
Harriet Ross or “the Big H.”
“I can’t say we had a happy family, but we ambled along through mild discontent, with occasional bursts of joy and nausea,” she writes.
According to Rossi, the Big H presented her dysfunctional family with god-awful dishes such as “overcooked roast chicken seasoned with black pepper, paprika and guilt,” and “cabbage and noodle casseroles with enough butter for six heart attacks.”
That and the arrival of a microwave oven (the “Big M”) in the Ross home in 1977 propelled Rossi’s interest in creative cooking. And though her family home was “kosher style” (more on that later), The Raging Skillet includes recipes that would make Mom spin in her grave: crab cakes, shrimp creole and fried calamari, for instance.
Kosher or not, the recipes are humorously titled (White Trash but Keepin’ It Kosher Tuna and Macaroni Salad, Super- Tacky Chinese-ish Fruit Cocktail Chicken, Eggs I’d Cook for Elvis, etc.).
Amounts are given as plops, shots and drizzles; Rossi writes off a measuring cup as a “soul-crushing thing.”
So who exactly is this Jewish lesbian caterer to the stars, Huffington Post blogger and radio-show host? The New York Times has dubbed Rossi “a new breed of rebel anti-caterer” and Zagat described her as “the wildest thing this side of the Mason- Dixon line.” The Raging Skillet has been named among The Knot’s Best of Wedding Caterers every year since 2010.
Shipped to Crown Heights as a teen by her desperate parents, Rossi predictably does not take to the hassidic lifestyle of “submission and double standards,” though she finds the Lubavitcher Rebbe “electric.”
Out on her own in the Big Apple, Rossi becomes a bartender and then a chef, cooking her way passionately through the kitchens of eclectic Manhattan venues – a “beach” in Tribeca, an East Village supper club, even a makeshift grill at Ground Zero after 9/11. There, while feeding search-and-rescue workers burgers and sandwiches on Rosh Hashana, she finally has a positive Jewish experience when a soldier in a camouflage tallit recites the High Holy Day liturgy and blows the shofar.
After many amusing escapades, eventually Rossi reaches a professional pinnacle with The Raging Skillet, catering everything from bar mitzva receptions to Ms.
Magazine’s 40th anniversary party in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.
The accuracy of any personal memoir is difficult to gauge, and it makes no matter for the most part. But one particular aspect seems deliberately imprecise: Rossi identifies her parents as Orthodox, when many incidents in the book make it clear they are not. Orthodox Jews do not collect Sizzler steakhouse coupons, serve Entenmann’s (dairy) cake for Thanksgiving dessert and drive to Brooklyn on a Saturday morning.
It is only in her Huffington Post writings that Rossi reveals more accurately: “I grew up what you might call ‘lowly Orthodox’ meaning we kept the meat and dairy dishes separate but ate the fish sandwich at McDonald’s. My mother, Harriet, had her own special brand of Jewish. I called it ‘Reader’s Digest kosher.’” Fine; nobody’s judging. But why mislead readers of The Raging Skillet? I suspect it’s meant to play up the comic effect in this funny, earthy book spiced liberally with dollops of sarcasm, insight, outrageousness and even tenderness – and I don’t mean the roast beef. Though she skewers her parents through most of the book, Rossi offers some surprisingly poignant memories of the late Big H toward the end ■