Hardly a cook will say that cooking for a Passover Seder, with its multitude of strictures, is easy, let alone when doing it for the first time.

But for Linda Bergh, it's all part of the job. Literally.

For the past year, Bergh has been the only kosher caterer in Santa Fe, N.M., cooking out of the kitchen of the city's Chabad Jewish Center. In the days leading up to Passover, which begins Saturday night, her kitchen was a flurry of activity as she prepared the dishes for the communal Seders to take place Saturday and Sunday night. The menu included such delicacies as roasted vegetable soup with homemade lemon mayonnaise garnish, braised turkey with sweet potatoes and pineapple, and red wine braised brisket.

A trained chef who specializes in private catering, Bergh, who is not Jewish, has a resume full of non-kosher venues. But when Rabbi Berel and Devorah Levertov wanted to celebrate the Chabad-Lubavitch center's 10th anniversary, their friend recommended Bergh.

Once the community tried her food, "she sort of became our chef," revealed Devorah Levertov.

Bergh learned kosher dietary laws, and a mashgiach, or supervisor, is always present to ensure those laws are followed. The supervisor also turns on the pilot light on the oven and stove so that the food will be considered bishul yisroel, or cooked by a Jew.

The caterer allowed that her cooking hasn't changed all that much. The kitchen at the center is entirely fleishig, or dedicated to the preparation of meat dishes, which means that Bergh doesn't have to keep track of different categories of dishes. (Jewish law prohibits the mixing of meat and milk.)

"I just approach the food with different rules," said Bergh. For instance, "I don't mix meat and fish." (The prohibition of mixing meat and fish applies only to the food's preparation and consumption; separate dishes for each are not necessary.)

Berel Levertov trained Bergh in the special laws of Passover, which prohibit bread and other leavened products. In addition, all products used in the kitchen must be certified as kosher for Passover.

Assistants of chef Linda Bergh put the final touches on salads for the 10th anniversary dinner of the Chabad Jewish Center in S. Fe, N.M.
Assistants of chef Linda Bergh put the final touches on salads for the 10th anniversary dinner of the Chabad Jewish Center in S. Fe, N.M.
"She learned very quickly," said Levertov. "She knows a lot about keeping kosher."

She certainly has had practice, she said. She catered community meals for the High Holidays, as well as for the Torah dedication ceremony a few months ago and the center's Purim party last month.

Each month, Bergh also works with Devorah Levertov on a themed community Shabbat celebration. Her repertoire includes Iraqi, Moroccan and Hawaiian cuisine.

And while her non-kosher business continues, the Levertovs now recommend her for kosher affairs, which she prepares for in the Chabad center's kitchen.

"She is very meticulous and reliable," offered the rabbi.

"The rabbi gives my number to people who call looking for kosher catering," said Bergh.

Bergh attributed her success to the fact that at the age of 40, she was a clean slate when it came to kosher. Her natural culinary curiosity as a chef took over.

"I came with no pretenses, no notion of what kosher was," she said.

Bergh, along with her crew of three assistants, was excited about serving the expected crowd of 60 for the first Seder.

"We do it all," she said. "It's a lot of fun."