On the first day of class at a new kosher cooking school in Brooklyn, 22-year-old Erica Zimmerman carefully slices raw potatoes into a stainless steel bowl.
Zimmerman, a student at New York University, says sheâ€™s always been interested in cooking, but as an observant Jew only wanted a kosher school. Why learn to cook food she’d never be able to eat?
That limited her options.
â€œThe only kosher cooking school is in Israel, and I canâ€™t take off a year to go,â€ she says. â€œThen I heard about this new school on Facebook, and I jumped at the opportunity.â€
On Monday, the Center for Kosher Culinary Arts opened in the heavily Jewish neighborhood of Flatbush.
The six-week, $4,500 intensive course, run in cooperation with the continuing education department of Kingsborough Community College, is the only professional kosher cooking school in North America.
According to director Jesse Blondel and founder Elka Pinson, it is the only one 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, perhaps itâ€™s surprising there arenâ€™t more.
Itâ€™s a tough business, says Rabbi Chaim Fogelman, a rabbinic coordinator at the OK kosher certification agency in Crown Heights.
â€œIâ€™ve seen many people try to get a kosher cooking school going, but this is the only one thatâ€™s gotten off the starting plate,â€ he says.
Pinson, whose husband runs a housewares store on Coney Island Avenue, the main shopping street in the neighborhood, has been dreaming of establishing such a school for years. Last year she took over the top floor of the shop and advertised for a chef/teacher 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.
â€œI realized there isnâ€™t any other kosher cooking school, Iâ€™m Jewish, and I grew up not far from here,â€ he says.
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.
Thirteen people showed up this week for class. On the first day, they sit around a large steel table intently watching chef Mark Dâ€™Alessandro, the schoolâ€™s main teacher, demonstrate the finer techniques of chopping vegetables.
Holding up half an onion, D’Alessandro shows how to place it on the cutting board and dice it finely by making several horizontal slices before chopping vertically with his chefâ€™s knife.
â€œThereâ€™s no machine that can do that for you?â€ one student asks anxiously.
Dâ€™Alessandro looks at her balefully.
â€œThatâ€™s the second time my heart has been broken,â€ he says to muffled laughter.
All of the students keep kosher to one degree or another. The class is about evenly split by gender, and range from a 16-year-old boy to a grandmother in her 60s.
Avi Roth runs a learning center for children with ADD and ADHD, and entertains often for his studentsâ€™ parents. His center is closed in the summer, so Roth decided to hone his cooking skills.
â€œWho knows where it will lead,â€ he says.
Sarah Belman, a recent graduate of the University of California, Santa Cruz, dreams of opening a kosher bakery in the San Francisco Bay area.
â€œI was thinking of going to the Culinary Institute of America or the Cordon Bleu, but there are a lot of halachic problems,â€ she says.
Glancing furtively at Dâ€™Alessandro, who has moved on to parsley, she admits, â€œIâ€™m a terrible cook, but my baking seems to come out OK.â€
Itka Dalfen is arguably the most motivated student. She commutes by bus from her home in Toronto every week, leaving behind her seven children and husband.
â€œItâ€™s only for six weeks,â€ she says with a shrug.
Dalfen just took a job teaching kosher cooking at her local JCC, and although she â€œknows how to cook,â€ she wants â€œmore precision, more skills.â€
These are the people the school is targeting, Blondel and Pinson say. Some are looking for jobs as restaurant chefs, while others are considering food production, becoming personal chefs or just taking the course for personal enrichment.
â€œThe school is technique driven, not recipe driven,â€ Blondel says.
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 other cooking schools, theyâ€™ll be able to taste everything they prepare.
Thatâ€™s the real advantage, Pinson says.
If you keep kosher, she says, 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 youâ€™re learning to cook.
â€œThen you go home, buy the ingredients, and cook and taste it there, double the work,â€ she says.
Pinson says thatâ€™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 says, by providing professional training for the kosher cooking crowd.
The center’s six-week course can only cover the basics, but itâ€™s a start.
â€œWeâ€™re on the crest of this new interest,â€ Pinson says. â€œGuaranteed in six months somebody else will do it, too. Good luck! Itâ€™s a lot of work.â€