The joy of cooking kosher: First class sharpens skills at only halachic cooking school in U.S.

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new york | Sarah Belman, a recent graduate of U.C. Santa Cruz, dreams of opening a kosher bakery in the Bay Area.

“I was thinking of going to the Culinary Institute of America or the Cordon Bleu, but there are a lot of halachic problems,” she said, referring to the kosher dietary laws she follows.

And then along came the Center for Kosher Culinary Arts, which opened this week in Brooklyn and launched its first cooking class — a six-week, $4,500 course, run in cooperation with the continuing education department of Kingsborough Community College.

Belman is one of 13 students to enroll in the inaugural class, which began July 7.

“I’m a terrible cook, but my baking seems to come out OK,” she said, glancing furtively at her instructor.

According to program director Jesse Blondel and founder Elka Pinson, the Center for Kosher Culinary Arts is the only professional kosher cooking school in the world besides the Jerusalem Culinary Institute, a 5-year-old school in Israel.

Given the numbers of Jews who keep kosher and the growing popularity of upscale kosher restaurants, one wonders why there are not more.

It’s a tough business, said Rabbi Chaim Fogelman, a rabbinic coordinator at the OK, a kosher certification agency in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn.

“I’ve seen many people try to get a kosher cooking school going, but this is the only one that’s gotten off the starting plate,” he said.

Pinson has been dreaming of establishing such a school for years. Last year she took over the top floor of her husband’s housewares shop in Flatbush and advertised for a chef on Craigslist.

Blondel, a 26-year-old Brooklyn native, responded. The kitchen manager at the Culinary Center of New York, he was seeking a new position. Organizing and directing a new cooking school seemed just the ticket.

“I realized there isn’t any other kosher cooking school, I’m Jewish, and I grew up not far from here,” he said.

Pinson and Blondel opened negotiations with Kingsborough and ironed out the details in May. That left little more than a month to set up the room, build the curriculum and advertise for students.

On the first day of class, the students sat around a large steel table intently watching chef Mark D’Alessandro, the school’s main teacher, demonstrate the finer techniques of chopping vegetables.

Holding up half an onion, D’Alessandro showed how to place it on the cutting board and dice it finely by making several horizontal slices before chopping vertically with his chef’s knife.

“There’s no machine that can do that for you?” one student asked anxiously.

D’Alessandro looked at her balefully.

“That’s the second time my heart has been broken,” he said to muffled laughter.

All of the students keep kosher to one degree or another. The class is about evenly split by gender, and ranges from a 16-year-old boy to a grandmother in her 60s.

One of the students, Avi Roth, runs a learning center for children with attention disorders, and entertains often for his students’ parents. His center is closed in the summer, so Roth decided to hone his cooking skills.

“Who knows where it will lead,” he said.

Itka Dalfen is arguably the most motivated student. She will be commuting from Toronto each week, leaving behind her seven children and husband.

“It’s only for six weeks,” she said with a shrug.

Dalfen just took a job teaching kosher cooking at her local JCC, and although she “knows how to cook,” she wants “more precision, more skills.”

These are the people the school is targeting, Blondel and Pinson said. Some are looking for jobs as restaurant chefs, while others are considering food production, becoming personal chefs or taking the course just for personal enrichment.

“The school is technique driven, not recipe driven,” Blondel said.

Over the course of the six weeks, the students will learn basic French culinary skills, from making sauces and soup stocks to cooking the perfect omelet.

They also will learn about applying kosher laws in a commercial kitchen, mainly through lectures by rabbis from the OK. And unlike at other cooking schools, they’ll be able to taste everything they prepare.

That’s the real advantage, Pinson said.

If you keep kosher, she said, you might shell out $40,000 or more to attend the Culinary Institute of America or one of the other prestigious cooking schools, and never be able to taste what you’re learning to cook.

“Then you go home, buy the ingredients, and cook and taste it there, double the work,” she said.

Pinson said that’s the experience of many, if not most, of the chefs working in kosher restaurants in this country. The Center for Kosher Culinary Arts is the first step in changing that, she said, by providing professional training for the kosher cooking crowd.

The center’s six-week course can cover only the basics, but it’s a start.

“We’re on the crest of this new interest,” Pinson said. “Guaranteed in six months somebody else will do it, too. Good luck! It’s a lot of work.”

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].