Tomorrow’s chefs and leading foodies tempt their refined taste buds with Jewish food when Chabad of Dutchess County comes to visit the Cunlinary Institute of America.
In the run up to Rosh Hashana, Rabbi Hanoch Hecht is preparing to offer the (Culinary Institute of America) CIA’s Jewish Culture Club a sampling of the holiday’s symbolic foods.
For these gourmands, apples and honey, Rosh Hashannah’s classic pairing, do not suffice. Pomegranates, a sweet carrot stew known as tzimmes, leeks, and fish heads are among those Rabbi Hecht will choose from as his medium to talk about the meaning of the Jewish approach to the new year.
“These students are thinking about food 24/7,” said Rabbi Hecht. “Food is the way to connect them back to their heritage.”
Last year, Alex Cutler, 23, president of the CIA’s Jewish Culture Club asked Rabbi Hecht to spice up the club’s activities. Since then, Rabbi Hecht has peppered up the year with programs before major Jewish holidays.
Food is the main entrée at the events, but Cutler doesn’t think people show up simply to sample the Hecht family’s recipes. At the Culture Club’s Purim meeting, Tzivie Hecht’s homemade hamanashen pastries were Cutler’s madeleines.
“Last time I did something like that I was in elementary school. To be tasting hamantashen again with a rabbi, was a very warm feeling,” he said.
Thirty students, many still wearing their sturdy chef shoes, munched matzah at the Jewish Culture Club’s last event. Rabbi Hecht brought samples of handmade matzah for the students to sample.
Chef Bruce Mattel, associate professor in the culinary arts, munched on a piece and called them “the ultimate cracker.” Aside from the matzah’s snap and brick oven char, Chef Mattel appreciated their authenticity.
He is also a fan of Rabbi Hecht’s approach to the students. Rabbi Hecht “is a source of inspiration for me,” said Chef Mattel.
“He gives the students a taste of the Jewish culture they love, that’s important when they are so far from home,” said Chef Mattel.
Jews comprise an estimated ten percent of the 2700 full time students at CIA. Getting any of them to show up for a Jewish culture event is a feat. Their school days begin at six am and wrap up at nine at night, and for most of the hours the students on their feet, dicing, frying, saucing — navigating the controlled chaos of a professional kitchen.
Yet a good number of them make their way to the Hechts for Shabbat and holiday meals. Some are students from kosher homes who count on the weekly kosher meals cooked by Tzivie Hecht, co-director of Chabad of Dutchess County.
Friday afternoon in the Hecht kitchen in Poughkeepsie, NY, Tzivie adds the seasoning to the potato kugel. Having a table full of chefs over for Shabbat dinner is quite the challenge, especially when classic Shabbat food – challah, chicken soup, gefilte fish, roast chicken – are not the stuff of Food Network glorification.
But, says Cutler, “If you are a true chef, you love all food, especially when it is symbolic.”
At the Hechts’ table, “you learn a lot no matter who you are.”