NEW YORK – Baked into each bite of The Gefilteria’s organic gefilte fish is a subtle message: Artisanal Ashkenazi food is no longer an oxymoron.
Co-founders of the Brooklyn-based enterprise Jeffrey Yoskowitz and Liz Alpern are reimagining the foods of Eastern Europe — be it through their three-year-old business, their forthcoming cookbook “The Gefilte Manifesto: New Recipes for Old World Jewish Foods,” or one of their many pop-up Shabbat dinners, this enterprising duo aims to breathe new life into an oft-maligned cuisine.
“For us gefilte fish was a symbol of how far things had fallen,” said Yoskowitz, who aside from owning The Gefilteria with Alpern is also the enterprise’s chief pickler. “I knew a guy from Yemen who worked on the same farm I did. He laughed about gefilte fish; he called it ‘sausage of the sea.’ My pride was wounded. I felt he’d cast a shadow on all of Ashkenazi cuisine.”
Available online and in select New York City retail stores, the fish is certified kosher by the OU, and for Passover it is certified OUP. Baked fresh and blast frozen before being packaged in cobalt blue paper, customers just thaw it and serve.
Aside from adhering to sustainability and seasonality in their selection of ingredients, the pair hopes to appeal to a new generation that considers the foods of their grandparents and great-grandparents overcooked and under-spiced.
“People say Ashkenazi food is gross, that it’s not healthy, that it’s heavy,” Yoskowitz, 31, said. “And I understand why. It can be so demoralizing to walk through the kosher aisle of a supermarket. You think all gefilte fish comes in a jar and latkes come out of a box. But this [Ashkenazi] cuisine is not just bland and beige. It’s full of vibrant colors and tastes.”
To revive those colors and flavors, the pair harkened to a time when Eastern European Jews farmed the land and based their diet on what was in-season. Meat was a luxury; fresh vegetables were eaten during spring and summer, and pickled to supplement their winter meals.
And gefilte fish most certainly did not come stuffed into jars.
David Sax, the author of “Save the Deli,” said The Gefilteria fills a niche.
“At first when Jeff told me his idea I thought it was funny, almost a parody of this kind of food, but they turned it into something else,” Sax said. “At the end of the day food speaks for itself and if it’s going to succeed it has to be good. The larger story here is that there is definitely a hunger out there for this kind of food. It’s not just quirky and funny.”
Over cups of coffee at the Primrose Café in Clinton Hill section of Brooklyn, Yoskowitz and Alpern talked about their similar upbringings. Both were raised in kosher homes – he in New Jersey, and she on Long Island.
Both recall holiday tables laden with Jewish dishes such as gefilte fish, brisket, and tsimmes. On all other nights both households dined on what Yoskowitz called “very American foods” including chicken, fish, macaroni and cheese, salads, pasta.
After graduating from Brown University with a major in American History, Yoskowitz spent three months at Adamah Organic farm in Canaan, Connecticut where he learned sustainable agriculture and pickling. After spending a year in Israel he returned to New York City and in 2009 started Negev Nectars, a boutique online retailer that imported gourmet foods from small-scale farmers in the Negev desert.
Alpern graduated from McGill University in Montreal in 2006 with a degree in Jewish Studies. Studying in Israel after graduation, she earned an MBA from CUNY Baruch College upon her return and worked for food magazine “New Voices.” Then, while doing a stint in a pastry kitchen Alpern also worked for the noted Jewish cookbook author Joan Nathan.
“Joan was working on a cookbook at the time and I was thrown into the job. I was recipe testing one day, scheduling events the next. It was like a hyper intensive course in everything,” Alpern, 31, said, adding that one of the most important things she learned was “how to write a recipe, how to tell a story through a recipe.”
Alpern and Yoskowitz first met in January 2010 while volunteering for Martha’s Table, a Washington, DC-based non-profit working to increase access to better education, food, and opportunity. They reconnected again that December.
“It was a Jewish food conference but no one was talking about Jewish food. They were talking about religion and sustainability, but the weren’t talking about the ethnic part of it,” Yoskowitz said. “For both of us, our Jewish ethnic heritage is Ashkenazi. And so we thought, if you’re talking about sustainable fish, let’s talk about gefilte fish. If you’re talking about organic meat, let’s talk about chopped liver.”
A business idea germinated: something that both embraced their backgrounds and the sensibilities of a new generation. The Gefilteria was born.
It took them a year to perfect the brand’s blend of sustainably sourced whitefish, pike, salmon and steelhead trout. Their focus groups included family, friends, those attending food demos or pop up dinners, and Alpern’s very large tuxedo cat.
“At first we thought we could jar it and make it good, but after talking with food scientists and trying all kinds of recipes we concluded the jar wasn’t good. It wasn’t going to work,” Alpern said.
The Gefilteria uses fish based on the Sustainable Seafood Guide from the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The whitefish and pike typically come from Great Lakes and they try to order Pacific or Canadian salmon. The recipe also includes Spanish onions, fresh eggs, olive oil, salt, sugar and white pepper. While there is zero matzo meal or any breadstuff in the recipe, the facility isn’t certified gluten free.
But of course the fish couldn’t just taste good; it had to look good.
First they tried serving it as a scoop on a plate, but even when they tried adding herbs or turmeric, it held no appeal.
“It was still a cold ball on the plate. We wanted it to look beautiful. So we added angles and it looked more like a terrine or pâté,” Yoskowitz said.
To say the two are busy would be an understatement. Passover season for them is akin to tax season for accountants: non-stop.
Between juggling gefilte fish orders, honoring commitments to teach, and slinging kosher cocktails at “Matapalooza! Reimagining Passover” at the New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage, the two just finished putting the final polish on their cookbook, due out in September.
More than a cookbook “The Gefilte Manifesto” aims to encourage more people to start cooking Old World food at home and reclaim a bit of this culinary history.
The book’s 100 recipes were inspired from original recipes, old cookbooks, and even descriptions of food and drink in Yiddish literature, like the fermented rye bread drink kvass often featured in Sholom Aleichem stories, such as “Motl the Cantor’s Son.”
‘The carrot on the gefilte fish is so sweet, it’s like a yarmulke on the fish’
There are recipes for comfort food such as Mushroom and Barley Soup and Crispy Honey-Glazed Chicken with Tsimmes; traditional staples such as Classic Sour Dill Pickles; and traditional foods with a twist such as The Gefilteria’s Carrot Citrus Horseradish, their nod to the carrot round that often sits atop a piece of gefilte fish.
“The carrot on the gefilte fish is so sweet, it’s like a yarmulke on the fish,” Yoskowitz said. “We loved the idea of paying our respect to the carrot, so we came up with something a little different that fits in with new and colorful condiments.”
Come June, the two will embark on a three-week residency at the Leichtag Foundation in Encinitas, California. With views on to the Pacific Ocean, the non-profit 67-acre farm supports Jewish life in North County of San Diego as well as food justice and sustainability.
“Jeffrey and Liz fit in with our mission to reimagine our Jewish identity,” said Joshua Sherman, the foundation’s communications and creative manager. “They’re showing us things about where we come from and giving us the story of why this food existed, what meaning it had and what meaning it can have today.”