Teaneck, NJ – These Teaneck yeshiva bochers can braise beef and steam cauliflower to perfection. They can whip up a savory Italian bruschetta, or a Persian khoresh stew from a family recipe handed down from the Old Country, or churn butter from heavy cream.
And when they’re not hunched over the Talmud, in the centuries-old male tradition, they’re in the chemistry lab-turned-kitchen at the Modern Orthodox Torah Academy of Bergen County breaking through gender walls in what is believed to be the first class of its kind in a mainstream yeshiva.
As celebrity chefs and cooking shows have inundated American culture, and as kosher food gets ever more sophisticated — helped along by the likes of Pomegranate supermarket and the Center for Kosher Culinary Arts in Brooklyn — perhaps it was only a matter of time before the culinary arts would have a home in the yeshiva world.
As Chezky Meshchaninov helped prepare a Tunisian schnitzel for the year’s final exam cook-off last week — a puree of sweet and white potatoes was heating up — he took a minute to ponder the ramifications.
“Before this, I enjoyed cooking but never had a chance to express it,” Meshchaninov said. “This class has helped me understand food. It’s an art. I look at a plate differently now.”
Did he have any concern that people might see the culinary class as a “girl thing?” No.
“As we progress [in society], it is ridiculous to assume a man goes to work and a woman stays home in the kitchen,” he said. “The social barriers between genders have crumbled at this point.”
The groundbreaking class is the brainchild of Alex Bailey, who instructs the course and is also TABC’s Advanced Placement psychology teacher. Curriculum coordinator Nancy Edelman was looking to add a skill-based course to the list of 15 electives offered at the school, and Bailey proposed one of his favorite hobbies, cooking. While other schools may offer cooking clubs or less-structured electives, TABC’s program is the only one in which students learn the skills and context of culinary arts four days every week.
The course, which attracted a third of the senior class of 72 boys, teaches the aspiring chefs not only how to prepare dishes, but also nutrition, culinary history and the relevant halacha.
“I have heard of one or two Orthodox high schools focusing on vocational training for boys who don’t fit the Talmud-yeshiva program,” said Marvin Schick, a Jewish educational consultant for the Avi Chai Foundation. “But this is the first time I’ve heard of anything like this in a mainstream Orthodox high school.”
Before the final cook-off got under way (students had an hour and a half to prepare an appetizer and main dish), Jonathan Herszfeld said, “I knew that I wasn’t so experienced in the kitchen.
“This class was definitely better than what I expected. We learned knife skills and how to work a good recipe out of what you have… People thought it was going to be a joke but it’s a very serious class.” Then he began carefully chopping garlic and tomatoes for his group’s appetizer, bruschetta.
The class has pushed him to be more interested in food in general, watching the Food Network and paying more attention to food-related news. “We learn about halacha in class, so when you hear about Agriprocessors [the embattled Postville, Iowa, kosher meat manufacturer that stands accused of, among other crimes, violating immigration laws] in the news, it sticks out.”
While discussions of Agriprocessors and Hechsher Tzedek (an effort to create ethical seals of approval for kosher foods) and the broader movement to integrate social and environmental concerns into the practice of kashrut weren’t part of this year’s curriculum, students have suggested discussing a wider variety of topics in the halacha section next year.
The class studied French, Asian and American cuisine, among others, and talked about how to make substitutions for non-kosher ingredients.
“In today’s culinary world, kosher cooking doesn’t have to compromise,” Bailey said, noting how the class discussed how kashrut-observant Jews can easily use chicken or beef instead of pork in Sichuan cooking, and how soy milk can be was used in some recipes.
All the food the class prepared throughout the year was meat or pareve, except for the butter they learned to churn from heavy cream.
Bailey uses the class to teach his students larger messages, such as making choices, and how presentation isn’t only important for the way they plate food but also for how they present themselves to the world.
Parents have called the school to express their gratitude for everything from their sons’ cleaning expertise — an important skill when their “kitchen” at school turns back into a chemistry lab — to the four-course dinner one student prepared for his parents’ anniversary.
“We’re producing students who won’t feel impotent in the kitchen,” Bailey said. “Parents are incredibly impressed with the school for having the confidence to give this a shot.”
Arthur Poleyeff, principal of general studies at TABC, had no reservations about adding culinary arts to the offerings. “We take suggestions from the faculty and the students to diversify our curriculum, and this one really caught on quickly,” he said. “I expected it to be a course students would think was easy, but it was really challenging, and they really learned how to cook.”
He’s also proud to bring the course back for a second year. While next year’s senior class has only 37 students, 15 have signed up for the culinary arts elective, he said.
As they prepared their final exam, an “Iron Chef”-style cook-off, many students said they started the class able to make only simple foods like eggs or hamburgers. Then one group proceeded to prepare honey-mustard chicken fingers; steak marinated in red wine vinegar, soy sauce, oil and honey; rice and a salad topped with balsamic dressing and strawberries.
Yair Klyman’s group used his great-grandmother’s recipe for khoresh, a Persian stew of beef cubes, apricots, yellow split peas, onions and marinara sauce. They accompanied it with rice and a salad of grilled portabella mushrooms. Group member Justin Wexler cut up onions and beef to be added to the pan. “I knew how to make grilled cheese before this, and now I help my mother with Shabbos meals,” he said.
At least one student, Zvi Rapps, is looking to the culinary world for a possible career. “The class definitely encouraged me to think about cooking professionally,” he said. “I could make eggs before the class, and now I’m making sautéed turkey with prunes, and salmon croquettes. Maybe I’ll work in a restaurant or as a caterer.”
As the minutes ticked away, Bailey became more excited to taste what his students had created. “Normally I wait six hours between milk and meat, so I didn’t get to eat their stuff all year. This morning, I’m fleishig for this.”
Most Orthodox Jews wait only an hour, if that, between eating milk and meat.
The “judges” included Bailey, Edelman and her daughter, “a young foodie,” and TABC alum-turned-restaurateur, Seth Warshaw, who opened ETC Steakhouse in Teaneck in February. The groups paraded their meals to the judging table, actually the chemistry instructor’s demonstration desk, one by one, and even though it wasn’t yet 11 a.m., the judges eagerly dug into the meat dishes.
First up was the bruschetta, served with lamb nuggets, pasta with spinach and asparagus and tri-color cauliflower. All were expertly plated by David Bodner, whose father is a caterer. Next came the honey-mustard chicken fingers, served with three dipping sauces and followed by a salad and steak. As the plates were set down, Rabbi Yosef Adler, TABC’s rosh yeshiva, appeared, taking a tasting plate with him out the door.
The third group to finish produced a corn, red pepper and string bean salad, couscous and fried salmon and cauliflower. The judges noted that it’s unusual to see salmon breaded and fried, but it resulted in a moist, tasty fish. Then came Klyman’s group, the portabella salad preceded by the khoresh, piled high atop a mound of Persian rice, all but spilling over the sides of the serving dish.
“A stew usually reserved for Persian royalty, now at TABC,” Klyman announced.
A turkey salad and a mixed vegetable stir-fry with ground turkey in a sesame soy sauce came next, followed by the final group’s dish, the Tunisian schnitzel.
After observing the groups and tasting their work, Warshaw was all praise. “These guys are in high school and they did an amazing job,” he said. “I wish they had something like this when I was in high school … The level of skill, the way they hold their knives and their technique was impressive. I expected it to be good but not this level.”
Any chance these guys have a future at his restaurant? “I’m sure if any of them had an interest, they could get to that level.”
Warshaw was a big fan of the winning dish, the khoresh, noting its unusual combination of flavors. He might even consider offering it on his menu, with a few changes, possibly even serving it with the sweet-and-white-potato puree. “The spiciness and sweetness would work together beautifully.”