Culinary Adventures in Kosher Processing

Chef Jeffrey Nathan finds himself on a culinary adventure of the kosher kind.

By Diane Toops, News and Trends Editor

A 14-hour workday is not unusual for Chef Jeffrey Nathan, but he has a mission – setting a new standard for kosher cuisine by emphasizing the flavors of modern America while observing kashrut — the kosher laws. Nathan views these seemingly restrictive laws as inspiring points of departure, rather than hindrances. Seasonal fruits and vegetables are the instruments of his creativity, while his use of interesting and unexpected combinations of ingredients inspires a sense of culinary adventure that never ceases to surprise his customers and clients.

This energetic James Beard Award winner is executive chef of The Abigael’s Group, which includes Abigael’s on Broadway and the Green Tea Lounge in New York. He is also host of the TV show “New Jewish Cuisine,” author of “Adventures in Jewish Cooking” (Clarkson Potter) and “Family Suppers,” coming out in October. Nathan heads Exquisite Cuisine, which provides kosher meals for special events and area restaurants, and is the exclusive caterer for the Museum of Jewish Heritage, a living memorial to the Holocaust, in lower Manhattan.

If that wasn’t enough to keep him busy, Nathan is also the director of culinary development for Hain Celestial Corp., the Melville, N.Y.-based natural foods company, which introduced the Jeff Nathan Creations line of foods in conjunction with its Kineret line of kosher products.

Chef Nathan describes his cooking style as “modern American.” Starting his career as a dishwasher at the Villa Russo, an Italian restaurant in Howard Beach, N.Y., Nathan says that was also where he learned to cook. He graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in 1981.

Describing his approach to menu development, Nathan says, “I like to lead with the information and explain where I want to go. I give my team flexibility; everything is teamwork. At this point, my team knows me better than I know myself. My chef de cuisine has been with me 22 years, and my banquet chef for eight. We work wonderfully as a team, and everyone gets the credit."

Nathan doesn’t pigeonhole his style nor limit himself to a single regional cuisine. His restaurant features a Japanese sushi bar, Malaysian, Korean, Pan Asian and other combinations of Asian flavors. He equally serves Latin, Italian and Continental cuisines. He also strives to make food simple and prefers to use the freshest, seasonal items. ”I don’t believe more is better. Let it be simple and let the freshness of the ingredients speak,” he declares.

A Higher Law

“Kosher is a tricky word,” says Nathan. “There’s a higher authority than I that determines what it is.” As for higher authorities here on Earth, Nathan points out laws currently up for passage in the New York State Assembly on regulation of kosher food.

“In a restaurant that serves meat, glatt kosher — the strictest form of kosher — is most important,” says Nathan. Glatt means clean, and it requires that the shochet, the ritual slaughterer, makes certain the slaughtering knife has no nicks or abrasions. The slaughtering is done cleanly and in one swift movement — the animal cannot suffer or feel pain. The organs, including the lungs, must be checked for abnormalities. If any exist, the animal is not fit for kosher consumption. Only about 30 or 40 of each 100 animals are considered glatt kosher, which is one reason kosher meat can be more expensive than conventional.

Abigael's On Broadway is under strict kosher supervision. “At all times we have a mashgiach (supervisor) on the premises,” says Nathan. “His job is to make sure the kashrut of our restaurants stays impeccable. With the exception of vegetables, which are automatically kosher, the rabbi inspects all food that comes into my restaurant. He washes all the lettuce, checking for insects with a fluorescent light. He’s the first one in and last one out of the restaurant, and he locks the refrigerator every night; even I don’t have a key.”

From Chef to Shelf

“There are many challenges in bringing a food from the kitchen to the mass market,” Nathan says. "If you take a soup recipe from one gallon to 5,000 gallons, everything doesn’t go up accordingly.”

He also eschews chemicals and stabilizers, making natural stabilizers an important aspect of the recipes. “I love Hain because it’s known for natural and organic; that’s the motto and goal of the company. Hain products use no trans fatty acids and are GMO free,” he says. “These are serious issues, and consumers are becoming much more aware.”

Chef Nathan is a stickler for detail. “If I’m making soup with roasted pepper, sourcing the peppers, cutting and dicing become very important,” he explains. “You have to find ingredients that can be manufactured in bulk in the plant. I source the best, although they cost more. Plus you have to consider the methods being used. Before I work on a product, Hain sends me to the facility making the product. I tour it and work with the employees to see what my limitations are, then go back to the drawing board knowing what I can and cannot do. There’s nothing worse than showing a buyer a delicious product and then saying, ‘I can’t do it.’”

All that preparation leads to the easy part for Nathan — creating foods and flavors for the raviolis in Rosetto’s Pasta, Terra Chips and soups for Health Valley. “I find out what I can improve upon and then, if something is successful, such as Terra Chips, I work on flavored line extensions.”

Every product idea doesn’t get the stamp of approval. “I wanted to do a sweet chai potato chip, but It never got past the buyer,” says Nathan. New products coming out soon include: a toasted sesame and ginger potato chip, a goat cheese and fresh herb ravioli, a roasted garlic and three cheese ravioli. Successes are sweet for Nathan. “I was most surprised with the success of simple pesto ravioli with toasted walnuts in a beautiful basil dough,” he says. “It’s absolutely delicious – no additives, no artificial ingredients.”


FC: What is your personal “food lifestyle?”

JN: In the restaurant, I cook stylish food and sauces. At home I want simplicity. My favorite food in the world is my wife Allison’s tuna fish on melba toast, made with extra virgin oil and sea salt. We grill a lot in the back yard. I grow my own herbs and vegetables, chop them up, throw in some extra virgin oil, fresh-squeezed lemon on chicken or a piece of meat. Two or three times a week, I go out with my chef friends.

FC: Describe your typical work day.

JN: I get up and kiss my kids goodbye as they leave for school. I check e-mail and do paperwork for an hour. Then, during my 45-minute commute, I call my lead people from each venue. When I arrive at work, I meet with my chef and banquet chef, meeting and event planners, discuss what needs to be ordered and read my daily server reports. In the afternoon, we go over specials. Then I dedicate one hour to each client, the Museum café, meals for Temple Beth El or other pro bono work. I have a camera in my office, so I check the progress of the cooking line. Then I spend time talking to customers. I get home around midnight, sometimes 2 a.m. It’s a 14-hour day, but I don’t go into the office on Friday, Saturday or Sunday. That’s when I write my monthly news articles, work on retail products for Hain and on my cookbooks. I don’t work at all on Shabbos (Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath), and try to spend time with my family on Sunday.

FC: What are some of your favorite foods (when others are cooking for you)?

JN: Simple grilled fish, but it depends where I am. If I’m at Daniel, I expect something great, and I’ll be critical. If I’m going to the neighborhood diner, I expect something totally different.

FC: Where do you look for ideas for new menu items?

JN: I travel and I eat everywhere. There’s not a periodical or magazine about food that I don’t receive.

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