Alex Levin has an old photograph of himself as a little boy standing on a stool in his grandmother Hadassah Nadich’s New York City apartment kitchen. In the picture from the early 1980s, he is perched next to a stand mixer, wearing an apron over a white shirt. All smiles, it’s obvious he’s thrilled to be baking with his savta, as he called her, using the Hebrew for grandma.
Having spent countless hours of his childhood in that kitchen, Levin learned an incredible amount about cooking and baking from his grandmother, the wife of Rabbi Judah Nadich, the late esteemed spiritual leader of Park Avenue Synagogue from 1957 until 1987.
Equally loved and revered by the congregation, Hadassah Nadich, who died in 2008, was an outstanding hostess who prepared lavish meals for huge numbers of family members and guests every Shabbat and holiday. Nadich’s culinary talent was so prodigious and appreciated that in the late 1950s and early 1960s she became New York Times food editor Craig Claiborne’s go-to person on questions of Jewish food.
Fast forward a few decades from that photo and Levin, 38, can still be found in the kitchen wearing a white shirt and apron. Only today it is the professional uniform he dons as the executive pastry chef of lauded Italian restaurant Osteria Morini in Washington, DC.
For the fast-rising chef, his fond memories of baking challah with his grandmother are no less influential than his top-notch training at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, and subsequent stints working for renowned chefs such as Jean George’s Johnny Iuzzini, The French Laundry’s Francisco Migoya, and Cafe Boulud’s Noah Carroll. His consultations with pastry chef Bob Truitt at New York’s Marea also leave a mark on his work.
“My grandmother let me take ownership of making desserts in her kitchen from the time I was very young. She connected with me through food, especially desserts. She instilled a lot of confidence in my abilities. She saw that I had inherited her DNA in terms of an intuition about how to work in the kitchen, and she really fostered that talent,” Levin recently told The Times of Israel.
Notwithstanding everything Levin learned from his grandmother, it was only years later through his professional training that he learned to make the deconstructed desserts that wow Osteria Morini diners and earned Levin the title of Best Pastry Chef from the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington. His desserts have also garnered praise from Washingtonian magazine and Zagat, and earned him a spot in Eater’s 2015 class of Eater Young Guns, which aims to identify the most promising and up-and-coming talent in the restaurant industry.
These deconstructed desserts are delicious pieces of art almost too beautiful to eat. Levin honed his artistic sensibilities on childhood visits to New York’s museums and galleries with his other grandmother, Muriel (Mitzi) Levin, who was an artist.
Some dishes are monochromatic and others burst with color. However, all are a carefully thought-out and executed balance of contrasts in texture and temperature, and with three to four different flavors fusing to create a unified balance profile.
Among Levin’s mouthwatering and original desserts currently on Osteria Morini’s menu are “Mele,” composed of maple pecan bavarian (done in tubes), honeycrisp apple, pecan financier, candied pecan, maple powder, brown butter gelato, and “Pistacchi e Fichi,” a beautiful dish of pistachio panna cotta, red wine-marinated figs, pistachio financier lemon curd, concord grape sorbet.
“Deconstructed desserts taste good if they are made well. They are hard to do, because they need to taste better than a non-deconstructed dessert, and they are complicated to plate,” Levin said.
Levin may be known for his deconstructed style, but it is actually one of his non-deconstructed desserts that sells best at the restaurant. His “Tortino,” a warm guanaja dark chocolate cake with azelia hazelnut milk chocolate and vanilla gelato, is ordered by patrons 400 times per week.
Second chance at success
Levin’s quick ascension to the level of executive pastry chef at one of DC’s best restaurants is even more impressive when one discovers that he began his professional journey in the culinary world only a handful of years ago. Until his early 30s, Levin worked in New York in corporate management and finance.
A top student at the Ramaz School and later a Yale graduate, the notion of making a career in the kitchen never occurred to him in earlier years, despite his precocious talent for cooking and baking.
‘My grandmother let me take ownership of making desserts in her kitchen from the time I was very young’
“In the circles I moved in, the expectation was that you would go into business or the professions after college. Culinary, with its minimum-wage earning at the beginning, was never suggested as an option,” Levin explained.
Levin relied on savings and took a big chance in starting a second career. He is keenly aware that his relatively quick change in earning ability as a chef is unusual.
“I’ve already reached the executive level as a senior manager and pastry chef. There is only a small number of people who go from pastry cook to pastry executive chef and can make a life out of it,” he said.
The move proved to be a good one for Levin, whose intellect, focus and earnestness have turned out to be huge assets, even from his first days at the CIA.
“I was a better student because I was older than my classmates and I took full advantage of the education being offered. I totally immersed myself and took more on myself,” Levin reflected.
Always guiding him was the strong base he gained in his savta‘s kitchen. Well before he began culinary school, he had learned from Hadassah Nadich that every single ingredient used had to be of the highest quality. Thanks to her, nothing was really unfamiliar to him. She may not have known the technical terms for everything, but she had taught him to use the oven and various equipment, and to understand the touch and feel of dough.
The rabbi’s wife had also taught her grandson about abundance and hospitality. Levin recalls there always being an amazing spread in her dining room every single time she entertained.
“For me in the restaurant context, that translates into my insisting that every time a plate leaves my station, it is perfectly executed so as to be the highlight that will finish someone’s meal,” Levin said.
Inspired by his maternal grandparents’ devotion to nourishing both the bodies and souls of their congregation, Levin also bakes for the local Jewish community when he can. Earlier this month he opened a pop-up Rosh Hashana bakery at his restaurant, offering his gourmet takes on traditional holiday treats such as round challah breads, honey cake and apple pie.
Raised in an observant Conservative home, Levin now considers himself a secular Jew. “I love being Jewish and I love to attend services at all different kinds of synagogues. I appreciate the spirituality of all religions,” he said.
‘Every time a plate leaves my station, it is perfectly executed’
He is pleased that food can help people connect to Judaism and the Jewish experience, and he is not judgmental.
“It’s great if someone wants to celebrate Rosh Hashana by going to a restaurant for a holiday meal with friends [instead of to services or making a meal at home]. If someone is excited about challah bread and nothing else about Jewish tradition, then that is good too,” he said.
The power of traditional Jewish foods are certainly not lost on Levin. He often turns back to his grandmother’s recipes — tweaking them with his professional knowledge.
A piece legendary Jewish food writer Joan Nathan recently wrote for the New York Times featuring Levin’s update on Hadassah Nadich’s honey cake recipe drew a great deal of attention. Nathan detailed how Levin “omits [his grandmother’s] cloves, allspice and raisins, and adds an apple cider compote to the batter, which moistens the cake and gives it a caramelized apple flavor.”
The young pastry chef may change up his grandmother’s recipes, but he still sentimentally uses the cast-aluminum Bundt pan she bought at Zabar’s. Her aprons and kitchen tools have been passed down to her grandson, as well.
Levin explained that the main reason he ends up updating classic Jewish recipes like his grandmother’s honey cake is due to the fact that their ingredients are in fluid measurements instead of by weight.
‘She’s always there underneath everything I do’
“You have no idea what the relationship between ingredients is when they are not done by weight. All recipes are ratios, and this is hard to see when you are using fluid measurements,” Levin explained.
He converts his grandmother’s recipes to weight measurements and then casts a professional eye on them. It immediately becomes obvious if something is way out of whack. He knew, for example, that his grandmother’s honey cake recipe required not only adjustments, but also additions.
Determined to work together with other Washington pastry chefs in coming years to turn the nation’s capital into a destination for dessert lovers, it would seem that Levin aspires to lead his professional field. But even at the top of his game, he will never forget who set him on his way.
“She’s always there underneath everything I do,” he said sweetly of his savta.