Reutlinger chef says its like cooking for my parents

Chef Hagai Narkis has cooked for dignitaries and glitterati at New York's Plaza Hotel. He has served as banquet chef at the Four Seasons Hotel in Newport Beach and as executive chef at the Red Lion Hotel in Portland, Ore., where he also made meals for the Japanese consulate for special occasions.

As a hotel chef, Narkis found the greatest demand was for his training in kashrut, creating elegant meals for large groups of people while observing Jewish law.

Last week, Narkis found himself preparing to serve his toughest customers yet, as chef in the kosher kitchen at the Reutlinger Community for Jewish Living, a residence for the elderly nestled in the green hills of Danville.

"I'm cooking for my parents, almost literally," Narkis said as he stepped into the kitchen to supervise dinner for the people gathered in the residence's dining room.

The Israeli-born Narkis learned kashrut from his Russian grandparents, who in 1962 came to the kibbutz near Haifa where he had grown up. When he was 12, he began learning recipes from his grandmother that were typical of Eastern European Jewish cuisine.

"A little bit of this, a little bit of that," he said. "I asked my grandmother, 'What did you put in that made it taste so much better than mine?' 'A bit of my heart,' she'd say. It's a part of the recipe."

After various non-cooking positions, among them teaching radio communications in the Israeli army, Narkis became head cook and kitchen manager at the Ein Hashofet Kibbutz in Israel, feeding 800 people. He then traveled to Hyde Park, N.Y., to train at the Culinary Institute of America. Ever since, he has slipped easily between the worlds of kosher and non-kosher cooking.

"Demand [for kosher cuisine] is high because nobody knows how to do it in the hotel industry," Narkis said. There is so much to know, and the classical styles of cooking often include meat served with cream sauces. For kosher cuisine, "you have to switch [mindsets] completely," he said. "I really find myself comfortable in it."

Because of his background, Narkis says he can shift easily between the two cooking styles. Although a rabbi must check his kitchen to make sure it meets kosher standards, Narkis is the first to check kosher labels thoroughly. "There is no halfway," he said. "You have to know all of it" because the customers are counting on the chef not to mislead them. To serve people who maintain different levels of strictness, the chef has to be the most observant.

Narkis, who has prepared holiday meals for staff members of Kaiser Permanente, where his wife is a nurse manager, says he enjoys cooking at home. The father of three, he has considered going back to Israel, where his eldest daughter attends university in Tel Aviv and his older brother still serves in the Israeli military. But after 11 years in the state, he now feels "more Californian than some of the Californians I meet." He lives in Santa Rosa.

As the new chef at the Reutlinger Community, finding fresh kosher meat in quantity will be one of his challenges, as most kosher meat comes from the East Coast or Chicago. To serve fresh kosher meat, Narkis will have to place orders a week before the meal itself — or settle for frozen kosher meat.

Other challenges include the upcoming cycle of holidays, including Passover, and training his staff in the kosher laws. In addition, he must serve clients on special diets, including many who need to limit salt intake and fat.

Narkis' biggest challenge, and his mission, he says, is to "make good food for Jewish people." He will be cooking for about 180 residents who have spent their lives in the kitchen and are now depending on him to get it right. As he slowly shifts gears, ending his position as a teacher at the U.S. Job Corps culinary program on Treasure Island, he has been spending time in the kosher kitchen at Reutlinger — and in its dining room.

Samuel Zeigler, 93, buttonholed the chef on his way back to the kitchen last week.

"The biggest issue we've had here is a matzah ball," Zeigler said. He listed his other concerns: potato kugel, potato latkes, chopped liver. "Imagine that you have to eat at the same restaurant for the rest of your life, three meals a day," he said to Narkis, who had leaned his 6-foot-tall frame across the table to listen.

With that in mind, Narkis' says his personal philosophy starts with the consumer.

And here is where Narkis' personal philosophy will serve him well. He starts with the end user. "How would you like to see your food and how close can I get?" he asked. "I come from the table to the kitchen."