TORONTO — “Whose cuisine reigns supreme?” This is a question that begins every Iron Chef episode, but not one usually heard in kosher circles, where you might think that flavour will take a backseat to Halachah.
This is clearly not the case for at least three kosher chefs in Toronto, as the recent Taste for Success Kosher Chef Challenge proved.
Those chefs, David Blum of Hartman’s, Ashley Farnell of Culinary Magic and Ayelet Or of Zuchter Berk battled with knives and flame at the Warehouse Event Venue, in the second annual championship of kosher cuisine to benefit the Toronto Teachers’ Center of Torah Umesorah, the two-year-old local branch of a nearly 70-year-old organization based in the United States.
Co-hosted by media personality Adrienne Gold and Park Hyatt executive chef Joan Monfaredi, the women-only event offered all the thrill of the televised series in a scaled-down kosher version. Three chefs, 35 minutes and a theme ingredient: blue marlin, a “meaty” fish that was an unusual pick because it’s so similar to swordfish that it was long considered non-kosher by many.
Chefs were given only butane burners, convection ovens and a few kitchen tools. Unlike on the real Iron Chef show, there were no sous-chefs or assistants, and unlike last year’s event, no preparation was allowed ahead of time. “I don’t know why we love to watch people sweat,” Monfaredi said jokingly. “But we do.”
True to the Iron Chef tradition, the three chefs produced very different dishes with a humble piece of fish: Blum’s was presented steak-style, with a galette of potatoes and zucchini, Farnell’s was incorporated with a Mediterranean-inspired ratatouille, and Or’s was presented herb-crusted and lightly seared, served with beet salad and drizzled with soy and grapefruit juice. Using text messaging, audience members voted for their favourite dish, based on visual appeal.
Tasting the results was a panel that included chefs Samir Elamri of the Windsor Arms Hotel, Sam Kanner of Pantry Foods and Catering, cookbook author Daphna Rabinovitch and thrilled audience member Nancy Weisbrod, a Cordon Bleu-trained chef who’d entered a raffle to win a spot as a judge.
Judging was “very close,” Gold announced, but ultimately, based on presentation, creativity and flavour, the winner was Zuchter Berk’s Chef Ayelet Or.
“Cooking is natural,” Or said in a video recorded before the event. “It’s not work, it’s a way of life.” The secret ingredient that helped her win the competition? “Love.”
Participating chefs received a case of kosher wine, courtesy of Herzog Wine Cellars. The winning chef also received a refrigerator from Frigidaire.
Earlier in the evening, a stand-up reception offered more than 330 guests the chance to sample “savoury bites” from local restaurants and caterers including Umami Sushi, Menchen’s Catering and Ba-Li Laffa.
Kanner, who won last year’s Kosher Chef Challenge, was thrilled to be back judging the event and giving out tasty samples of his restaurant’s vegetarian delights: tofu taco, mango salad and a cucumber-melon drink. He said the Toronto Teachers’ Center is “a great resource… you have to give teachers as many tools as they can get.”
The centre receives 20 per cent of its funding from its international parent organization, Torah Umesorah (its name means “Torah and tradition”), which supports educators in Orthodox day schools. Its activities include workshops on topics like teaching strategies and technology, as well as hands-on support, like poster printing and lamination services, to help teachers create vibrant classrooms.
At $100 for the evening, not many on a teacher’s salary could afford to attend, but several, including Bais Chomesh Girls’ High School teacher Aydla Wechter, won seats ahead of time. She said the teachers’ centre services help her “creatively present holiday themes and activities,” and network with other teachers. Its central location, on Bathurst Street just north of Lawrence Avenue, makes the centre “very inviting.”
The centre has had more than 5,000 teacher visits since it opened in 2011 and estimates that, thanks to its services, nearly 50,000 students a year benefit from its resources.
“It’s a gift to the community,” Wechter said. Besides Toronto, there are other Torah Umesorah locations in Chicago, New York, St Louis and Lakewood, N.J.
For more information, please visit ttctu.com or call 647-352-7900.