New Walnut Creek butcher wants to kasher the world

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For Armand Gabay, being a kosher butcher isn't an avocation, vocation or career; it's a mission. It began when Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson told the Moroccan-born Gabay to keep kosher.

"I've been very close to him," Gabay, 38, said of his relationship with the Chabad rebbe. "One of my brachas [blessings] was to keep kosher and spread the kosher word around me."

He followed his commandment big time. Today Gabay is the owner of The Red Ox in Walnut Creek, the first and only kosher butcher in Contra Costa County. In addition to kosher meat, it offers an array of salads, Middle Eastern dishes, knishes, breads, chicken, chicken soup and meats that are cured, smoked and pickled on the premises. There are even outdoor tables.

Gabay has enthusiastically taken on the charge of spreading the word on the merits of kosher food.

"I believe what you eat is what you become," says Gabay, who strongly advocates the all-around benefits of eating kosher. E. coli and salmonella don't occur in kosher meat, he said. And kosher meat never comes from an animal that has a tubercular abscess.

"The only people who check the lungs are the Jewish people," says Gabay. "It is not a requirement of the USDA."

And Gabay is recruiting a lot of dietary converts.

"We are having a lot of non-Jewish people asking about kosher [meat] because of mad cow and E. coli," says Gabay, who counts non-Jews, New Yorkers and Angelenos among his customers.

Even though his father owns kosher restaurants and his grandfather was a butcher, Gabay never expected to follow suit.

Raised in Fez, Morocco, Gabay went to Strasbourg, France, for high school. Later he spent two years in Nice studying medicine. Then he was off to Paris where he earned a degree in optometry, but lacking the funds to open a shop, he went back to school. This time it was in Geneva, where he studied for seven years, got a degree in pharmacology and met his wife, Maurisa.

After several more years in Switzerland, Maurisa suggested they return to her home — Berkeley. That was eight years ago. Since then Gabay learned English, got his California pharmacist's license, worked as a pharmacist, went back to school, got an MBA, played the stock market and got the inspiration to open The Red Ox.

"One day I was picking up a movie and I saw a store and said, `This could be wonderful for the Jewish community.'" The store, located at 1271 S. California Blvd., was vacant but previously had been a restaurant and a deli. Gabay started negotiating with the landlord, did some demographics, found out there are 5,500 Jewish families in Contra Costa County and decided that a kosher butcher could do well.

A great idea with only one problem.

"I am not a butcher," Gabay says. The anatomy he took in school helped but it wasn't enough. The solution came in the form of Rabbi Moshe Kagan, a schochet or kosher slaughterer, who was visiting his son, Rabbi Yaakov Kagan, head of Walnut Creek's Chabad center.

Kagan also worked as a mashgiach, inspecting commercial kitchens to ensure that the rules of kashrut are followed. "He showed us how to butcher," Gabay says. "He has been a wealth for me of information and teaching."

With some quick work, The Red Ox managed to open before Pesach. Ever since, Kagan has spent weekdays at the store, returning to his family in Los Angeles for Shabbat.

The name of the store was easy; it is a variation on the story of the red heifer in the Book of Numbers.

According to the Bible, washing in water mixed with the ashes of a red heifer will make the impure pure and the pure impure. The Bible talks of the birth of 10 red heifers in Israel; nine have already been born but none since the destruction of the Second Temple. Many Jews believe the birth of the 10th red heifer will signal the coming of the Messiah.

"I also believe we are in the times of the Messiah coming and I was preparing a feast for him," Gabay says.

In his quest to kasher the world, Gabay is trying to get kosher food on airplanes, into restaurants and camps. He will even cater a party.

His goal is to make kosher meat affordable and accessible.

"I'm dropping my price as low as non-kosher," he says, explaining that the high cost of kosher food is due to short supply and high demand. To keep his prices affordable, Gabay says he's working with his supplier in Iowa to provide as much meat and chicken as possible.

He also plans to add refrigerator cases with prepackaged meat so that customers can help themselves, pay and go.

"I want to make kosher a part of regular life," he says.