Jewish cuisine in America is nearly synonymous with New York-style fare. Outside the city, the shorthand for Jewish food is nearly the same list of old-world Ashkenazi delicacies: gefilte fish, borscht, kugel, knishes and other Eastern European Jewish fare.
Yet contemporary tastes are ever-changing, and the vanguard of the expanding kosher palette lies where the American Jewish culinary experience began: in New York City. While tradition rarely bends to the whims of the times, tastes do—and one Chabad House has ventured into the nexus of haute cuisine and halachic permissibility.
At Chabad of Columbia University, students are doing something a bit different: sampling the finest dining options around parts of New York, while still adhering to the comprehensive laws of kashruth.
There, in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of Upper Manhattan, and under the guidance of co-directors Rabbi Yonah and Keren Blum, the students proposed a monthly event of kosher food investigation and appreciation throughout the city. Originally called the Kosher Dining Club, the group moniker was altered somewhat into the more ironic Kosher Foodies of Chabad, or “KFC.”
The food club was co-founded by community member John Peter Kaytrosh, who acts as the group’s iconic “colonel.” With general approval by Chabad’s board, he helps select each month’s restaurant choice. According to Kaytrosh, the “idea of KFC is to bring people together to show them the best kosher restaurants New York City has to offer.”
Blum agrees: “When students suggested the idea for KFC, I thought what a quintessential venue for socializing and Torah learning: NYC’s legendary restaurant scene! It taps into students’ desire to explore the city and Jewish life. It also increases awareness of high-quality kosher cuisine as a plausible life choice for participants.”
The outings demonstrate that haute cuisine and strict halachic observance can go hand in hand.
For the students, it has been important to expand the repertoire beyond the obvious. Indeed, the operative terms for the Kosher Foodies of Chabad are “new experiences.”
A Diversity of Kosher Choices
Accordingly, the types of cuisine have been diverse—everything from an all-American steak and burger joint to Latin tapas, and classic Indian fare to French fusion cuisine. The main ethos of the club, besides being a culinary treat, is to foster a community that becomes cognizant of the underlying beauty of Judaism’s approach to food and culture. It also attempts to show the diversity of worldwide ethnic flavors.
“KFC gives us an opportunity to explore the different cuisines that New York City has to offer,” says Steven Herman, a recent graduate of Columbia University. “Going to the different restaurants with friends allows us to engineer an experience that is vibrant and interesting.”
At the group’s events, participants, who pay for their own meals, present their thoughts on Jewish issues--on the weekly Torah portion, on an anecdote from the Talmud or just make a general toast to the fact that those gathered are dining as a cohesive Jewish group.
According to Kaytrosh, KFC is “about building a community. In our desire to build friendships across various social and religious lines, we don’t have to compromise our adherence to halachah in order to share the same food, at the same table, together.”
Devora Khafi, a visiting student from Singapore doing a summer program at Columbia, joined KFC at its latest outing at Wolf & Lamb in midtown Manhattan. “Coming to New York is an overwhelming place, especially without really knowing anyone. But knowing there is a tight-knit community that does such events makes me feel welcome.”
Hopefully KFC at Columbia University will act a pilot program—one that other Chabad Houses can attempt to replicate, says Blum. While many schools are not within reach of extensive kosher dining opportunities, perhaps they can bring ethnic flavors to their kitchens or Shabbat tables.
For “Colonel” Kaytrosh, “KFC is such a wonderful opportunity, we couldn’t not take advantage of it.”