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Jewish chefs are proving that everything old is new again

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Earlier this year, chef Anthony Rose transformed Rose and Sons, his popular midtown Toronto diner, into a Jewish deli.

Overnight, traditional Ashkenazic dishes like varenyky, corned beef, hot pastrami, knishes, chopped liver and other Jewish delicacies replaced a menu that a reviewer once dubbed “glorified stoner food.”

Rose said that he prefers to think of Rose and Sons as a Jewish diner. “A deli is a lunch and brunch thing. I want to serve evening meals like what people eat for Friday night dinner – Ashkenazi-style dishes like flanken and chicken fricassee,” he said.

The reinvention of Rose and Sons points to a resurgence of interest in Ashkenazic or eastern European-style food, according to food-trend maven and author David Sax.

In his book, Save the Deli, Sax points out that the popularity of the traditional delicatessen had been waning since the 1970s, in part because younger Jews were less interested in deli food.

However, a new generation of Jewish foodies and chefs are embracing the old-world staples of their grandparents. “Everything old is new again,” Sax said. “Anthony (Rose) is taking (Ashkenazic food) seriously because he has a cultural interest in this culinary legacy.”

A growing number of Jewish restaurateurs and chefs are modernizing Ashkenazic dishes and demonstrating that the food “can be as interesting and delicious as any other cuisine out there,” Sax said.

In fact, several Ashkenazic-style restaurants have opened in a number of Canadian cities in recent years, but not all of them have survived.

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The Jewish food scene also varies from one city to the next. Some new restaurants typify old-fashioned delis, while others are serving up artisanal versions of the Ashkenazic dishes their grandmothers and great-grandmothers once made.

For instance, Rose said he’s been testing recipes for chicken giblet fricassee, a dish composed of meatballs stewed in a spicy tomato sauce with chicken giblets, wings and necks.

But Rose is not about to use any sauce from a bottle. “I want to take these recipes from where they came from. I’m not revolutionizing these dishes. I’m going back to the wheel to see what it was originally,” he said.

“We’re trying to skip two or three generations, to see where this food came from. I’m cooking like my bubbe, but better. Our technique is better.”

Cookbook author and food columnist Bonnie Stern, Rose’s longtime mentor, said he trained at a top culinary school and apprenticed with Michelin-star chefs. “Anthony could have done anything, but he’s chosen to make simple food really well. I’m so proud of him,” she said.

In Montreal, two younger chefs are having great success with their innovative approaches to Ashkenazic fare, even though the city is home to several iconic Jewish restaurants like Schwartz’s, the legendary smoked meat emporium, and Beauty’s, the famed breakfast and lunch eatery.

Hof Kelsten, a Jewish bakery and café on St. Laurent Boulevard, is known for its challah, babka, borscht and brisket sandwiches.

Restaurant reviewers also mention daily lineups at Arthurs Nosh Bar, a popular St. Henri-area brunch spot that’s serving up house-smoked salmon, grilled cheese on challah and latkes with horseradish, sour cream and apple sauce.

Like Rose, Jeffrey Finkelstein, the owner of Hof Kelsten, has had serious culinary training. He attended the New York-based International Culinary Center and apprenticed at the French Laundry in California. Finkelstein then spent several years honing his cooking and baking skills in England, Spain and Denmark.

“I came back from Europe broke,” he recounted. “I started a bakery in my mother’s kitchen.”

He started a wholesale business, supplying many upscale local cafés and restaurants with bread. Five years ago, he was able to open his “Jewish-inspired sandwich shop” on St. Laurent Boulevard.

“We’re doing babkas and chopped liver the fine-dining way. That was my training,” said Finkelstein. “My dream was to recreate the experience of going to my grandmother’s house. That was my dream restaurant.”Finkelstein cures and smokes his beef brisket and makes his own pickles and mustard. “We go to such an extreme to do what we do. Every single thing is made in-house,” he said. “I pride myself that everything is made from scratch. I think that’s what makes us unique.”

He said that locating his café in the historic Mile End neighbourhood, where many Jews first settled, was very important for him. “I’m just four blocks from where my grandfather came off the boat from Russia 100 years ago. I’m three blocks away from Moishes (the venerable Montreal steakhouse) and Beauty’s, and one block from Wilensky’s,” said Finkelstein.

“This is the epicentre of Jewish Montreal.”Just down the street from Hof Kelsten, one will find the Museum of Jewish Montreal, which offers culinary programming headed by food historian Kat Romanow.

She runs the museum’s restaurant, which serves a variety of traditional Sephardic and Ashkenazic dishes.

Romanow also organizes Jewish food tours through Mile End, where there is “an entrenched Ashkenazi culture,” she said. Participants get to sample smoked meat, as well as hand-rolled, wood-fired bagels from the St-Viateur Bagel and Fairmount Bagel.

Romanow and lawyer Sydney Warshaw are co-founders of the Wandering Chew, a grassroots organization dedicated to educating people about Jewish food.

They received a community grant to hold dinners and other events revolving around Jewish food traditions.

Warshaw said North American Jews in their 20s and 30s “are reconnecting to their culture through this new Jewish food movement. They are looking at the old ways things were made.

“When I was growing up, gefilte fish and pickles came from a jar. Now my family makes gefilte fish from scratch in the same bowl as my great-grandmother used.”

Pickling has also become trendy, Romanow said. “It’s a trendy thing our communities have been doing for generations,” she said.

Ashkenazic food is not necessarily trendy in Halifax, but with the opening of the Hali Deli six years ago, Jewish Haligonians have been able to enjoy their deli favourites and the traditional foods of their childhood.

This community of 2,000 Jews did not have a Jewish deli or bakery for decades, said Sybil Fineberg, a baby boomer who runs the Hali Deli with her husband, Victor, a longtime restaurateur.

She said he was on the lookout for a smaller, retro-style space with a long counter and stools.

“We would go out for breakfast and we’d said, ‘We could do better than this.’ Victor has an excellent sense of timing. He introduced the bagel to Halifax (40 years ago) at his restaurant, the Little Nugget. When he first served up the bagel, no one knew what it was,” said Fineberg.

He manages the business side of Hali Deli, while she’s the creative force in the kitchen, she said, adding that for some traditional Jewish recipes, she consults her 96-year-old mother, Bella Shore.

Hali Del has an extensive menu with a wide selection of kosher-style items like corned beef and smoked meat on rye, sweet and sour cabbage borscht, chicken soup with matzah balls, hot brisket and a variety of  sandwiches made with challah.

Challah has always been popular, according to cookbook author, podcaster and CJN food blogger Norene Gilletz.

In the last five or six years, Gilletz has been leading a lot of community challah bakes. “I’ve braided challah in front of 2,500 people. There’s been a renewed interest in baking challah. It’s a way for people to connect to their roots,” she said.

Gilletz, a Winnipeger by birth, has fond memories of her hometown cuisine. She said she can still taste the corned beef from Oscar’s Deli, Winnipeg’s oldest Jewish restaurant.

The deli has had multiple owners and locations. Larry Brown, the current owner, attributes its longevity to its good food, reasonable prices and “great rapport” with its customers. Bernstein’s Delicatessen is another popular Winnipeg eatery, according to Bernie Bellan, the publisher of the Jewish Post & News.

However, he did not know the details of the recent demise of the Sherbrook Street Deli, which closed in 2018. Given the decline of Winnipeg’s Jewish population – Bellan estimates it at 12,000 today – he surmises that the  community may not have been able to sustain another Jewish deli.

While people have heralded the renewed popularity of Jewish delicatessens and Ashkenazic food, the success or failure of such enterprises depends on the sustainability of their business models, according to Sax. “It’s one thing to open a restaurant, but it’s another to run it profitably.”

The Toronto Jewish community, despite having a sizable population of 220,000, has also seen a number of Jewish restaurants close shop recently.

The last three years has seen the closure of Caplansky’s flagship store on College Street, Essen, a Jewish restaurant on Dundas Street West, and Ben and Izzie’s, a kosher delicatessen on Bathurst Street.

Rose said that operating a restaurant in Toronto is a challenge, noting that, “You’re lucky to make three to four per cent. It’s a daily struggle.”

But he stressed that converting Rose and Sons into a Jewish diner was a good business decision.

Rose and Sons, which opened in 2012, is one of five restaurants, along with two Schmaltz Appetizing shops, that he co-owns with his business partner, Robert Wilder.

Rose said that all his restaurants, including the Schmaltz shops, reflect a part of his personal history and who he is.

For Rose, this authenticity and personal connection is critical: “Any time you do something that’s part of you, it has to be more successful. It’s second nature.”