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Arts & Culture Look Out, Iron Chef — a Kosher Chef Trains a Generation

March 17, 2005
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Wearing a smock, a pinstriped apron and matching pants — and a large velvet yarmulka –Yochanan Lambiase hoists a large hunk of raw tuna into the air. “How do you know if fish is fresh?” the principal and chef patron of the Jerusalem School of Kosher Culinary Arts asks the audience of 20 people gathered Sunday to watch his cooking demonstration in a classroom in Manhattan’s Lincoln Square Synagogue.

“When you poke it, it bounces back at you. One time, on a test, one of my students answered, ‘You know it’s fresh if, when you touch it, it jumps back out at you.’ I had no choice but to mark him right on that one.” After a short pause, the audience laughs. “Good, you got it?” he asks, smiling and touching his long black beard. “Took you a bit.”

Lambiase, too, took a bit of time to get to where he is now. Coming from a family that had produced five generations of chefs, Lambiase knew his calling early on. In 1985, he began training as a chef at the Westminster Hotel School in his native England. After three years, Lambiase wanted to be apprenticed to Paul Bocuse, a renowned chef in Lille, France.

“I called him up, and asked if I could come train with him in his restaurant,” Lambiase explains. “He said, ‘Sure, but there’s a six-month waiting list, and it will cost you $2,000 to spend one week here with me.’ “

Determined to bypass these obstacles, Lambiase showed up at Bocuse’s restaurant with a friend, offering their services as dishwashers. Before long, they had convinced the chef to train them in his kitchen.

Lambiase didn’t come to kosher cooking directly either. He worked for many years at such hotels as the Ritz and the Savoy before being invited to cook for Schaverein Kosher Caterers in London.

Suddenly, cooking became “a different world to me. It was a challenge to come up with new recipes. I couldn’t just throw butter in my sauces, or sprinkle cheese on my chicken.”

After working for a while at the hall, Lambiase sometimes was invited to spend Shabbat at the homes of a member of London’s Orthodox community. In part through these experiences, Lambiase became more connected to Orthodox Judaism, eventually deciding to become fully observant.

Two years ago, Lambiase attended Kosherfest, the international kosher food and food service trade show, held annually since 1989 in the Jacob Javits Convention Center in Manhattan. Seeing how many kosher restaurants, food service providers and products there are, Lambiase began to wonder why there were no kosher culinary institutes where chefs could train.

To fill this void, Lambiase set up the first — and so far the only — kosher culinary school ever created. Established in January 2004 in Jerusalem, without the help of a donor, and operating only on the tuition it collects, the school now meets in a hotel kitchen, although Lambiase hopes to be able to move to a more permanent location.

The school offers 10-month-long men’s programs and five-month-long women’s courses. The men’s program is extended because it provides training in shechitah, or ritual slaughter, and certification as mashgiachs, or kashrut supervisors. There are now 25 men and 15 women enrolled.

Classes are single-sex because the curriculum includes the laws of kashrut, or Jewish dietary laws. According to the strictest understanding of Jewish law, men and women may not study any religious law together. And in accordance with the requirements of certain rabbinic organizations, only the men are permitted to use their halachic knowledge to receive ordination as shochets, or ritual slaughterers. Women do not receive this level of training.

In order to receive the highest level of kosher certification, Lambiase caters to the strictures of the Israeli rabbinate. “We went a little more Orthodox to encompass everybody,” he says. This school “is a thing for the Jewish people as a whole. By having different people together, everyone can have a good influence on one another.”

The audience gathered to watch Lambiase’s demonstration is a diverse group. Senior citizens and children, women in slacks and women who cover their hair all watch with pleasure as Lambiase chops, sautes, whisks and fries, using only a portable burner and a few simple ingredients.

As Lambiase dips tuna steaks in bread crumbs, an audience member asks about substituting matzah meal. Lambiase advises against it, saying that the flavor will be less tasty.

He does not advocate making substitutions in recipes so that they will be kosher for Passover. Most Passover ingredients, like matzah meal, are highly processed, and Lambiase loves fresh ingredients.

“A cook uses processed foods,” he says “But a chef learns to use basic ingredients, and make his own stocks and sauces from scratch. On Pesach, you just use different basics.” Lambiase even has a solution for dry Pesach cakes — “add a little liqueur or syrup,” he suggests.

At the end of the demonstration, when spinach salad topped with minute steaks, tuna steaks and bruschetta are served — Lambiase offers all attendees tastes of his creations — stomachs are satisfied and recipe books have been fattened.

Leah Buchsbayew, a rapt audience member, said, “I absolutely will try the recipes out at home. I always like to learn new techniques, it really helps” with cooking.

There is a feeling of camaraderie in the room. People are milling about, discussing the availability of kosher products and how they plan to make the new recipes they have learned. Even those who aren’t domestically inclined are satisfied.

“I don’t know how to cook,” Judy Freund admits. “But I still love watching cooking shows.”

Lambiase is pleased. “You see?” he says. “Food brings us together.”

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