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On Christmas, General Tso demoted by kosher supper clubs

Observant Jewish diners seek trendier alternatives to lemon chicken on Nittel Nacht

Yehuda Malka on left, Dan Rabinowitz on right. Founders of ModernistKosher.com and hosts of a kosher supper club in the DC suburbs. (Ben Zehavi/The Times of Israel)
Yehuda Malka on left, Dan Rabinowitz on right. Founders of ModernistKosher.com and hosts of a kosher supper club in the DC suburbs. (Ben Zehavi/The Times of Israel)

WASHINGTON, DC — If food is the new rock and roll, chefs are the new rock stars. Need proof? Just look at the explosion of cooking shows on American television, The Chew, Top Chef, Hell’s Kitchen, Iron Chef America, and the celebrity status they’ve conferred upon this country’s leading gourmands.

One of the outgrowths of this increased interest in gastronomy is the popularity of supper clubs. Also called underground dinners, these word-of-mouth feasts are set in private homes and give patrons a chance to sample a multi-course gourmet meal in the company of about a dozen strangers who also scored a coveted invitation.

As with other trends – especially popular ones in hipster-friendly cities like Brooklyn and Portland – it was only a matter of time before the Jewish world took notice.

In New York, kitchensurfing.com, a company that lets individuals book personal chefs for private dinner parties, recently launched a new kosher division. The company’s founder, Chris Muscarella, said his service “brings quality food to the people.”

“No more waiting, no more lines, no more middle man,” he said.

In the Washington, DC area, two foodies recently launched ModernistKosher.com, a supper club dedicated to modernist cuisine, a style of cooking also known as molecular gastronomy, which uses scientific methods and techniques to improve and enrich the way food is prepared.

Yehuda Malka of ModernistKosher.com prepares a gourmet cocktail. (Ben Zehavi/The Times of Israel)
Yehuda Malka of ModernistKosher.com prepares a gourmet cocktail. (Ben Zehavi/The Times of Israel)

“Many people think of modernist cuisine as weird,” said Yehuda Malka, a commercial mortgage broker and mohel who co-founded ModernistKosher.com with Dan Rabinowitz, a successful attorney for Booz Allen Hamilton. “And there are, in fact, strange things involved like deep-fried gels, hydrocolloids, and spherical packets of olive juice. But at the end of the day, it’s all about bringing out the intensity of the flavors in food. It’s about using a scientific process to get the perfect degree of doneness to your steak and poultry. With an open mind, it’s a lot less strange than you would think.”

For the inaugural Modernist Kosher supper club last night, guests were asked to “come with an empty stomach and an open mind.” Rabinowitz and Malka said Christmas Eve, also known as Nittel Nacht to observant Jews, was the perfect night to launch the club.

‘People are tired of the old cliché of Chinese restaurants on Christmas Eve’

“People are tired of the old cliché of Chinese restaurants on Christmas Eve,” said Malka. “They’re looking for trendier, more interesting things to do. We figured, what better day to host our inaugural supper club than Nittel Nacht.”

Indeed, the menu would have been utterly unrecognizable to someone looking for sweet and sour chicken or moo goo gai pan. Paired with carefully-selected cocktails, the meal featured coffee-infused carrots, tuna with smoke and spice oil, duck with Thai aromatics, and short ribs and steaks cooked in a temperature-controlled water bath.

And the chicken noodle soup was literally chicken noodle soup: the noodles were made out of chicken.

A modernist take on chicken noodle soup in which the chicken literally is the noodle. (courtesy)
A modernist take on chicken noodle soup in which the chicken literally is the noodle. (courtesy)

“They were made using an enzyme called transglutaminase, commonly referred to as ‘meat glue,'” said Malka. “This is used in the industry to ‘glue’ any two proteins to one another. In this case, it was used to make sheets of chicken, which could then be sliced into noodles.”

Eli and Chana, an orthodox couple from Baltimore, made the 45-minute trip for the supper club.

“Despite the abundance of kosher restaurants in Baltimore, there’s nothing like this,” said Chana, an oncologist. “We’ve tasted Dan and Yehuda’s food before and it’s on a whole different level from even the expensive, gourmet restaurants we’ve been to.”

Rachel, a personal chef in the area who specializes in kosher Moroccan-Israeli cuisine, said she was “blown away by the power of the flavors” at the supper club.

Sliced duck with Thai aromatics and banana paste (courtesy)
Sliced duck with Thai aromatics and banana paste (courtesy)

“My cooking style is 360 degrees different than Dan’s and Yehuda’s,” she said. “I learned everything from my Moroccan-Israeli savta, who spent hours in the kitchen with the most basic tools. These guys look like they’re in a chemistry lab – using specially-designed blowtorches and other equipment that I wouldn’t even know how to describe.”

‘These guys look like they’re in a chemistry lab’

“Nevertheless, I found the food delicious and fascinating. At the end of the day, whether you’re traditional or modern, if you care this passionately about food, you’re going to be impressed.”

Malka said he and Rabinowitz first took an interest in modernist cuisine three years ago.

“At the time, Dan and I were both experimenting with the kind of cooking that was happening in the best restaurants around the world, which was described in exquisite detail through their cookbooks. We learned a great deal from this process. Most notably, though, was the realization that the caliber of these dishes, both in technique and creativity, was beyond anything we had come across in the kosher world. Our supper club was borne out of the desire to make some of these experiences accessible to our friends in the kosher-keeping community.”

Malka adds that ModernistKosher.com is not just about supper clubs, but, rather, a way to share modernist techniques with those in the kosher world who may be unfamiliar.

Seard tuna with smoke and spice oil and carbonated grapes (courtesy)
Seard tuna with smoke and spice oil and carbonated grapes (courtesy)

“Modernist cooking is a way of thinking about food and cooking in general. The same way the tech industry is constantly looking for new ideas that disrupt the norm, modernist cooks look for the best technique or application for both the old and new. For example, while using a Searzall [the specially-constructed blowtorch mentioned above] it is indeed very thrilling to watch, we use it because it’s the best tool of its kind for what it does,” he said.

For now, Malka and Rubinstein say they have no plans to expand supper clubs beyond the Washington, DC, area.

Instead, Malka says, “We’re focusing on learning new techniques and cuisines and sharing what we’ve learned with those who appreciate good food and drink.”

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