Charred eggplant with coriander and pomegranate, schmaltzy potatoes with pickled lime, Yemeni honey cake with comb—just your typical Rosh Hashanah fare, right? Jeff Gabel, founder of the Jewish cuisine pop-up Kitchen Kibitz, just announced the menu for his Rosh Hashanah event. The pop-up meal, titled “Land of Milk and Honey,” aims to explore the Jewish cuisine of the Middle East with help from the chef de cuisine at Sofra Bakery & Café. I chatted with Jeff about Kitchen Kibitz and his take on the future of Jewish food.
Tell me about Kitchen Kibitz. How did you come up with the idea?
I started Kitchen Kibitz in July 2013. I had no restaurant or hospitality experience, but I had developed a fascination for various ethnic cuisines. I also missed the Jewish communal meals brimming with family and friends that were so much a part of my life growing up. I found that the Jewish community lacked a culinary voice, but there was a foodie community full of adventurous diners who craved new experiences. I thought, why not combine the two? With the help of some fantastic, creative people who shared this vision, and a little trial-and-error, we launched Kitchen Kibitz. In Judaism, we are encouraged to question everything, so why not question our ideas about traditional foods? Why should there be only four flavors of hamentashen, two kinds of babka and one really dry brisket? When you grow up with Jewish food, it’s not just the food you taste; it’s the experience of the meal. You surround yourself with love, friends, family and conversation, which adds flavor and seasoning to your memories. Those moments are what I hoped to bring to the Boston food community. Whether you’re Jewish or not, it’s all about sharing a communal table and putting out really creative and exciting dishes.
You’re hosting a Rosh Hashanah meal focusing on Yemen. I’m curious about the process—choosing a chef to work with and planning the menu.
The concept of this dinner was the result of a series of fortunate coincidences. A number of months ago I was introduced to Kathy Sidell, owner of the Met Restaurant Group, and we had a wonderful conversation about Jewish cuisine. Her passion was infectious, and we spoke about bringing in a chef to host a dinner in their beautiful private lounge in The MET Bar. Some time went by, and I found myself talking with Geoff Lukas, chef de cuisine at Sofra, about his recent trip to Iran. We talked about exotic flavors, spices and dishes that we both enjoy. Suddenly everything came together—if I could pair Geoff Lukas with the Met, he’d have a platform to showcase his creativity. After careful consideration, we decided to highlight Yemeni cuisine because it presents such a unique culinary story that has largely been overlooked, and its rare honey trade fit perfectly with the High Holidays theme.
Creating the menu is perhaps my favorite part of the whole process. It’s one of the most important elements and helps shape the story of the evening. My approach is similar to the TV show “Chopped,” in that I choose key ingredients, such as apples, honey and fenugreek, and then build dishes around them. We try to be as ethnically authentic as possible while staying true to the roots of Jewish cuisine. The collaboration is fun because I get to trade ideas with the top chefs of Boston and together we bring new flavors and experiences to a classic cuisine.
I just read David Sax’s “Save the Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen,” in which he laments the decline of the Jewish deli. Do you think Jewish food is going the way of the dinosaurs?
I remember watching the documentary “Deli Man,” which is perhaps the best historic overview of Jewish deli and its now-rapid decline. It really struck a chord with me. Jewish cuisine is something deeply personal, a staple of my years of growing up in New York and part of some special memories. It’s a Jewish tradition that food is associated with love and enjoyment, but it hasn’t always included the most nourishing or healthy kinds of food. Have you ever wondered why the Jewish deli in Brookline is named Zaftigs Delicatessen? It’s the Yiddish term for a plump person! Traditional Jewish food, equated with love while served in abundance, has often resulted in gaining a few extra pounds. But I hope we can find a way to preserve traditional foods. The Jewish Food Experience in Washington, D.C., does some amazing work in keeping Jewish food relevant, and restaurants like Shalom Japan and Mile End in New York are showing how we can bring diversity to Jewish cuisine. I’m certainly hopeful for the future of Jewish cuisine—that it will live on and be recognized as a contender for trend cuisine.
What dish reminds you most about the Rosh Hashanah of your childhood?
Rosh Hashanah is certainly a great culinary holiday for a kid. I mean, who doesn’t love the sweet taste of honey squeezed from a plastic bear-shaped container? I can’t think of a specific dish I enjoyed as a child, but my favorite part of the holiday meals was scooping out the insides of a soft, round challah, rolling it into a ball and dipping it—OK, dredging it!—in a dish of honey. I have to admit that I still do that, and I love eating the whole sticky mess!