By Jennifer Rak
In a bright, airy teaching kitchen straddling Marine Park and Mill Basin in Brooklyn, six budding chefs hustle to complete a five-course Chinese menu. Their workspace is laden with oversize containers of soy sauce and sesame seeds, deep tins of finely sliced scallions, cabbage, and carrots, and a bowl of dried lily flowers soaking in water. The students work diligently, playfully teasing each other as they pinch potstickers closed for steaming, wrap egg rolls for frying, and brown Szechuan beef in a wok.
But this isn’t your run-of-the-mill culinary school. Here, at the Kosher Culinary Center–the only kosher professional cooking school outside of Israel–the chef instructor and his assistant praise students with exclamations of “kol ha’kavod” and affectionately call the men “tateleh.”
“We have very hungry Lubavitchers coming to town today,” jokes Chef Avram Wiseman, the school’s cofounder and sole instructor, goading his charges to pull off the feast he has tasked them with preparing.
The center, which opened in May, aims to fill a void left by the abrupt closing of Brooklyn’s former Center for Kosher Culinary Arts in 2015, where Wiseman had taught and served as dean. His cofounder and the Kosher Culinary Center’s director, Perline Dayan, had been his student at the old school. The new center also caters to ever more refined and curious kosher diners eager to taste what they see on Instagram or popular cooking shows. In addition to the professional program, the center offers recreational classes and hosts events.
“This whole era of social media, the Food Network, and the Cooking Channel has really given a whole generation this excitement of learning more about food,” says Elan Kornblum, president and publisher of Great Kosher Restaurants Magazine.
“Twenty, thirty years ago, food was .Â .Â . basically to live on. It wasn’t anything exciting. You had your balabustas, you had some of your chefs, but it wasn’t cool. Now people love to talk about it, people love to share their ideas. .Â .Â . [The school] will keep elevating the palate of the consumer and make it more sophisticated.”
The 216-hour professional course, spread over 54 days, costs $7,750. (As a point of comparison, The Institute of Culinary Education’s program is 440 hours plus an externship. Training at The Culinary Institute of America takes 21 months.) It covers culinary basics such as the mother sauces and knife skills, as well as Shabbat cookery and Asian cuisine, from General Tso’s chicken to Tibetan lamb momos. Students are encouraged to pursue an externship after completing the course, with the option to continue their culinary training at Ben-Gurion University’s campus in Eilat. In class, Wiseman is assisted by another former student of his, Hillel Kober, who also supervises kashrut. (Wiseman calls him “Rabbi Hillel.”)
Wiseman started out as a saucier at the Essex House in the late 1970s, eventually serving as executive sous chef at the United Nations and later running a restaurant on the Jersey Shore before switching to kosher catering in 1986. When asked why he endures an “absolutely obscene” daily commute from his home in Freeport, Long Island, Wiseman, 58, quotes the Blues Brothers: “I’m on a mission from Gâ€‘d.”
Wiseman founded the center as a vocational school so the students would be able to make a living doing what they love.
“There are many, many young people in the Jewish community who, after high school, are not ready to sit down in a four-year academic environment,” he explains. “You can just as soon tell them that they can fly to the moon. It’s not gonna happen. So, for some of these kids, this is an alternative. They’ll never be playing golf with Donald Trump on Sunday mornings, but there’s something in between.”
The students, four men and two women in their late teens and early twenties, conveyed that traditional schooling had been a struggle and that they had dreamed since childhood of pursuing their love of cooking but didn’t know where to start. All of the students have had a passion for cooking since childhood but they could not attend a non-kosher culinary school because they are all religious.
“If it wasn’t for culinary school and for a place like the chef opened up, who knows what would’ve happened, and it probably wouldn’t have been good,” says Batya Lust, 19, a Monsey native who has lived in Brooklyn for four years. “It really got my life into shape a little bit. I wasn’t in such a good place before. But when I heard .Â .Â . that I was going to be doing something I loved, it really woke me up.”
“This really saved my life,” echoes Efraim Friedman, 17, of Boro Park. At 14 he started experimenting with brining and smoking foods with a “really, really big smoker” he bought, and read “tons and tons of cookbooks” cover to cover. But high school bored him, so he quit, idling for about a year, he says, until he learned that the Kosher Culinary Center was opening. He was the first to enroll.
Finding an outlet for their passion has boosted the students’ drive as well as their outlook. Tzvi Silberberg, 22, has scored an interview at a steakhouse in Deal, N.J., near his native Lakewood. Long-term, he envisions opening a food truck that sells smoked meats; his father has already applied for a permit. Lust aims to open a bar and grill “in a place where there’s nothing like it” that would serve as a gathering spot. “I’m a big fan of barbecues .Â .Â . and a good hamburger and a beer with it,” she says. Bentzy Kirschner, 24, said his training has given his life a more immediate benefit: for his first wedding anniversary in June, he wowed his wife with a home-cooked meal of short ribs and pasta with chive sauce. “I kick my wife out of the kitchen,” he says. “I want to show her that I actually am learning stuff in school.”
When the class completes its training in August, will kosher restaurateurs come calling? Wiseman, who also serves as career adviser, has such an extensive pool of contacts in the kosher-food world that his future graduates expect to land on their feet.
“Ultimately, anything that increases the quality of the food and increases the size and talent of the labor pool is great,” says Josh Lebewohl, co-owner of the 2nd Ave Deli. “I’d interview people.”
At the moment, chefs in kosher restaurants either attend culinary school in Israel, attend a non-kosher school elsewhere, or work their way up in kitchens with no formal study.
For Wiseman, though, success lies not in revolutionizing the kosher-food world, but in how it transforms his charges. “If I can take, let’s say, six, five, ten people a year and change their life and make them be able to become independent and be able to have a decent quality of life .Â .Â . and not have to rely on anyone else for their livelihood so they have good self-esteem, that’s why I do this.”
He says, “Just for them to get an apartment, have an independent life, pay the rent, fall in love, have a child, it’s a beautiful thing.”
This article first appeared on The Jewish Week’s food and wine website, jwfoodandwine.com