For an ex-insurance salesman, chef Josh Kessler takes a lot of risks.
He left a secure career in corporate insurance for the competitive and chancy world of fine dining. At 34, he opened Barnea Bistro, a high-end kosher restaurant in the tough Manhattan market. And after only a year-and-a-half in business, he has now decided to double the size of his eatery.
Kessler began dabbling in food in his early 20s. At first, he sold insurance by day and worked as a cook by night. He then was accepted into the prestigious Culinary Institute of America (CIA), perhaps the country’s top such academy.
Upon graduation, Kessler picked up fine-dining experience by working in a number of restaurants, including Danny Meyer’s Michelin-starred, non-kosher restaurant — a bit of a challenge for an Orthodox Jew who observes the laws of kashrut. But it was during his time at Gramercy Tavern and working as a private chef for wealthy clients that he figured out what the next phase of his professional life would be: He would bring his brand of fine cuisine to the kosher market. Enter Barnea Bistro, which took its place among a number of high-end kosher establishments from Crown Heights to the Upper West Side that are expanding the kosher palate and upending the kosher food scene.
When Kessler first opened Barnea Bistro on East 46th Street, he offered dinner only — three seatings per night. Soon he expanded to lunch. He increased seating by serving food in the bar area. And in warm weather, he put tables outside. But the interest in his visually arresting, seasonal dishes was so great that he couldn’t keep up with demand. As a result, he was turning people away every day, both kosher diners and those with little or no Jewish connection.
Kessler presents his food with beauty and flair, often serving meals on black plates for drama. For seafood dishes, he buys from the fish purveyor used by Le Bernardin, what many believe to be New York’s greatest fish restaurant. By appearance and taste, Kessler’s food is intended to be indistinguishable from what diners might enjoy in any of the critically acclaimed non-kosher restaurants in Manhattan.
When you walk into Barnea Bistro, the only giveaway that this is a kosher establishment is that many of the diners are wearing kippot. The setting is cool and contemporary — black and white marble floors, leather upholstered banquets, walnut chairs. The tables are covered in white linen and guests are served on fine china.
When the space next door to Barnea Bistro recently became available, Kessler grabbed it, doubling the seats in his restaurant and also offering space for private parties. The expanded Barnea Bistro opens this month and is designed, like the original restaurant, by New York-based Israeli artist Roy Nachum.
In the enlarged restaurant, diners will continue to enjoy some of Barnea Bistro’s signature dishes like fish tacos made of fluke, jalapeño, pickled onions and creole aioli, or za’atar roasted cauliflower with Aleppo pepper on a bed of chummus, or Moroccan seasoned rack of lamb served with potato puree and patty pan squash. If you’re in the mood for duck confit risotto, Kessler has that on his menu, too, plated with wild mushrooms, pesto and cashew cream.
Kessler regularly works the front of the room, so patrons get a chance to discuss, and weigh in on, his dishes. But you can also see him and his other chefs at work, as both his savory and pastry kitchens are in view behind a plate-glass window.
Though the demands of a growing restaurant present a challenge to his home life, he sums it up this way: At the end of the day, Kessler said, “It’s good to follow your passion.”
This story originally appeared on JW Food and Wine.