Pork-for-veal swap proves tough for some to swallow

Tipped off by a former kitchen worker at the popular Bella Mia restaurant in downtown San Jose, local newspaper reporters conducted their own undercover operation, sending samples of veal dishes to a lab for analysis.

The verdict: pork.

"It's obviously a terrible shame," said Rabbi David Teitelbaum, executive director of the Board of Rabbis of Northern California and former spiritual leader of Temple Beth Jacob in Redwood City. "We would call it a shanda and a harpa. For those who have been fooled, it's very sad."

Nevertheless, "if Jews have eaten pork unknowingly, they are excused," he said, chuckling. "There are different categories of sin, and this certainly falls in the 'unwitting' category."

Co-owner Bill Carlson, 52, said he "had no idea that my chef was substituting pork for veal." He bought the restaurant with his wife, Julie, in 1985 and hired Gary Kjolhaug as a chef 10 years ago.

"I'm sort of an absentee owner," he said. "I put my executive chef in charge. Gary is a very good-hearted person, but a bit misguided in his drive to please the customers."

Reporters from Bay Area television, radio stations and newspapers descended upon the restaurant after the San Jose Mercury News broke the story Feb. 23. That afternoon, TV news cameras were lined up outside Conservative Congregation Beth David in nearby Saratoga as reporters sought the reactions of rabbis.

Aside from a consumer-fraud issue, Rabbi Dana Magat, spiritual leader of Temple Emanu-El, San Jose's oldest Reform synagogue, pronounced "the whole discussion ridiculous."

"It's not a kosher restaurant," he said. "It is an issue only for those who keep 'Torah-kashrut.' It's kind of ridiculous to talk about because we're talking about a [meat] dish that has cheese melted on top of it."

Talmudic law defines more precisely rules of kashrut, he said, adding that accidental mixing of meat and dairy occurs far more often than accidental substitutions of pork for other types of meat.

Regardless of that, the owner sheepishly admitted, "That doesn't let us off the hook. We still must take full responsibility," Carlson said.

The effect on business has been negligible at worst. Friday afternoon, two days after the deluge of publicity, the 400-seat eatery was packed with customers, most in business attire, and prospective diners were waiting for tables.

One of the diners, Rome native Lucia Salomani, said "We used to use [pork] all the time in Italy because veal wasn't that plentiful."

Carlson's response: "In America, you can't tell consumers they are getting one thing and then serve them another. To those people whom we may have offended, we must apologize, ask for forgiveness and try to regain their confidence.

"I have really learned a lot about the Jewish religion in the past few days," he said — much the result of talks with Rabbi Daniel Pressman of Congregation Beth David, whom he called for guidance.

Kjolhaug, 41, offered a simple explanation for making the substitutions. Veal proved too tough for customers' taste, he said. Kjolhaug was suspended indefinitely until Carlson hears from the Santa Clara district attorney.

The Carlsons could face criminal misdemeanor charges and thousands of dollars in penalties. They could also be slapped with civil suits by disgruntled customers.

"I do wish he [Kjolhaug] would have told me," Carlson said. "We could have just put pork tenderloin parmigiana on the menu."

The restaurant does not serve the higher-grade white veal because of maltreatment of the calves that produce it.

"They're milk fed, and they're all crated up," he said. "So we use the older veal. It's called 'kip.' But it's tougher."

The cost difference between the tougher-grade veal and pork tenderloin, the highest-grade pork cut, is roughly $4 a pound, Carlson said.

Until the debacle, the restaurant served two veal dishes: veal parmigiana, in which the breaded patty is covered with melted cheese, and veal scallopine, in which veal slices are smothered in a sauce and covered with raisins, capers and carrots. Both have been pulled from the menu for the time being.

Carlson invited anyone who believes they have been deceived to come in for a free meal.

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Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.