NEW YORK — On a fall Thursday evening in Brooklyn, New York, a long white-clothed table is set in the backyard of the Crown Heights Chabad house. Along its center on a beige runner are candles, leaves, stones and golden ornaments that have been carefully spread, creating an inviting setting for a dinner party.
Although the guests who made their way over on this warm night don’t all know each other, they have at least two things in common: a love of food and a kosher lifestyle. These 20 Jewish men and women have signed up to take part in a new culinary experience — dinner with the recently launched Musket Club.
The Musket Club, which made its debut in July in New York City, is a monthly pop-up supper club aimed at providing participants with a unique kosher dining experience.
Its mission, the website states, is to provide “a unique journey through food, drink and revelry.”
“We want to broaden everybody’s horizons,” chef Adina Halpern and cofounder of the initiative told The Times of Israel. Seated at a wooden table of the cafeteria section at Whole Foods supermarket on the Upper West Side, she said, “We are lucky that right now in the [kosher] community, there are people who are seeking what we are offering.”
Next to Halpern were Rachel Margolin and Danielle Brody, with whom she started the initiative. The three women, all aged 27, are lifelong friends, who grew up steps from each other in Holliswood, Queens. It’s a neighborhood often described as having “a small town feel in New York City” and for the past 25 years, the friends have been inseparable. Part of their bond was undeniably formed around food.
“It’s funny, because we used to pretend we had a cooking show growing up,” Brody told The Times of Israel.
“I remember going to Adina’s house for a sleepover and she served a three-course breakfast,” Margolin, who is now a school teacher, recalled with a smile. “There was an appetizer, a main and definitely a dessert.”
Halpern eventually turned this passion into a career path: She went to culinary school and has worked in some of New York’s most renowned kitchens.
Over the years, her friends, too, have benefited from her skills. On birthdays and various occasions, Halpern would put together an “extravagant” meal for them. It was over one of those dinners that someone in the group floated the idea of starting a professional venture together.
“They were over for the weekend, we were at my dining room table and we just thought: ‘Hey why don’t we do something with this?’” said Brody.
“We’d always joke around about starting a catering company,” Halpern added. “I had just stopped being a private chef for a wealthy lady, and I didn’t know what my next step was, and we were all expressing an interest in doing something creative.”
One for all and all for one
Private dining has gained much popularity in recent years in the United States, Israel and many other parts of the world. Chefs increasingly offer services fusing the fine dining standards of a fancy restaurant and the comfort of one’s home. The combination, many food-lovers find, is unbeatable.
But as with most food-related trends, up until now it excluded kosher diners. Margolin, Brody and Halpern decided to fill this void. The Musket Club — named after the three musketeers — was born.
“We are about giving the kosher community something that they haven’t seen before,” said Brody, who works in marketing and social media.
Since its first event the club has so far hosted five dinners, each in a different location and under a different theme, from a Shakespearean Midsummer Night’s Dream, to a desert journey, and even a Victorian-era horror story night.
Each time, a seven-course menu with drink pairings is put together. A maximum of 20 guests can attend each dinner, which keeps the experience intimate.
Margolin and Brody work the front of the house, greeting people, serving and preparing drinks, while in the kitchen, Halpern cooks and plates the dishes. All of this comes after getting the green light from a rabbi who has agreed to provide kosher supervision for free, and with much help from friends and family who enthusiastically volunteer to assist them.
“What I love about this is that every single month I get to start from scratch with a totally different theme, totally different ingredients, totally new ideas,” Halpern told The Times of Israel. “I spend two to three weeks coming up with a menu and the drink pairings. I run it by them and we talk about it.”
The Musket Club, Halpern said, is “a 360 experience. We think about everything: We think about the food, when the food is going to be plated, what drinks are going to be there, what glasses the drinks are going to come in, how we’re going to present it, how we’re going to plate it, how it ties into the theme.”
The attention to detail is noticeable. Everything from the table decoration to the side from which one is served has been meticulously planned.
Margolin, Brody and Halpern see their project as a mission to get rid of the stigma that kosher food is bland and restrictive.
“One of my main problems when going out to eat at a kosher restaurant is that a lot of the times what they’ll do is they’ll make a dish like lasagna and they’ll put fake cheese in it,” Halpern said.
“It’s just not necessary. There are a million other things that you could do that don’t require a false dairy product. You can make something else that is just as delicious, just as creative,” she said.
Pssst, got any trout eggs?
Elevating kosher cuisine comes with challenges. On multiple occasions Halpern has had to search for ingredients not typically found in kosher food but which are inherently kosher such as trout eggs or sea grapes.
Beyond the quality of kosher menus, she said, good service is also largely lacking in the kosher scene and highly-trained chefs don’t necessarily want to go into this type of cooking.
“There is a stigma about being a kosher chef because you have to be a ‘kosher chef’ instead of a chef,” Halpern said.
“The reality is that it’s often industry people from the wrong industry,” Margolin jumped in. “You have people approaching it with the business mindset, and kosher does have a captive audience — I can understand why it’s lucrative and why it is appealing on that end. But if it’s not being driven by the food, then that’s the thing that ends up suffering.”
Clearly, beyond the decor and the attractive concept, the food itself is the star of the Musket Club’s gatherings where Halpern’s training and creativity comes through in every dish. It is felt in a velvety spoonful of a bone marrow cream topped with shaved burgundy truffle and marinated hearts of palm; the tender bite of a leg of lamb served on a blood-red stain of tangy pomegranate sauce; or in a piece of foie gras with figs and Egyptian zaatar.
Even a “simple” dish of concord grapes and blueberries in a lavender and lemon balm is unlike anything the dinners around the table have ever tasted before.
But beyond the original food and presentation, those who pay the $175 ticket to sit at the Musket Club’s table get a sense of community, away from the smartphone screen-starring contests often looming over restaurant tables nowadays.
“We were a tiny bit worried that it might be a little bit awkward having strangers and people from all different walks of life coming together around one table, but the conversation has just flowed,” Brody said. “Rachel often has to interrupt them to introduce the next dish.”
“I think it’s become a selling point,” Margolin added. “People are actually looking for opportunities to meet new people and mingle.”
Meanwhile, in the eye of the kosher storm
While guests engage in conversations ranging from the weather to politics, back in the kitchen, the atmosphere is not as soothing.
Anybody who’s ever worked in a restaurant kitchen can identify with the stress and pressure of feeding 20 guests, all at the same time. But beyond the usual quick tempo, the revolving locations and menus also entail some on-the-fly problem solving.
Some of the kinks have yet to be ironed out, but the three women manage to keep a pleasant work environment, and none of the kitchen’s hectic energy makes its way to the table along with the food.
“We’ve been friends for so long that we know what our issues are,” Brody said. “We know how to work around them and if they arise we also know how to quickly resolve them.”
“I think we’ve learned that we work really well together professionally and not just personally,” Margolin added. “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts!”
Back around the desert-themed dinner table in the Chabad House’s “backyard oasis,” guests can’t help talking about the plates in front of them.
“That’s really good,” one woman says to another about the bone-marrow cream in her bowl. “I want this in a bottle to go,” she adds jokingly.
As dishes and glasses change, the enthusiasm remains. The Musket Club founders say they want to “create a community around food” through their three-hour culinary journeys.
“That shouldn’t be very hard to do because Judaism and food go hand-in-hand,” Halpern told The Times of Israel.
“In an ideal world, we’d like the food to speak for itself and go beyond kosher,” Margolin added. “We know that that’s going to be something that draws people in, but the food definitely will be good enough that it’s going to attract all kinds of people.”
“Let’s say we have a restaurant someday. We want people to choose us not because we’re kosher, but because our food is really good and our service is really good,” Halpern clarified.
Guests finish their dessert — a warm shot glass of coconut milk and coffee liqueur served with a coconut date mochi — and congratulate the organizers with a round of applause.
As they file out, Margolin hands them a small jar of etrog jam to enjoy at home and a limited edition piece of paper: the night’s menu.