When Jesse Blonder met Dr. Elka Pinson a few years ago, neither knew just how fruitful their acquaintance would become. But in 2007, Blonder, a professional chef, and Pinson, a clinical psychologist with a practice in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, N.Y., embarked on a new venture, opening the only kosher culinary school outside of Jerusalem.

Today, with some 80 graduates working in kitchens around the country, the Center for Kosher Culinary Arts – which sits above the Flatbush kitchen supply store operated by Pinson’s husband Baruch – is adding yet another program to its repertoire, and will welcome students next month to its new professional baking and pastry course.

For the Pinsons, a family of Chabad-Lubavitch Chasidim whose Happy Home Housewares offers everything from place settings for newly-married couples to special warmers designed to keep food hot on Shabbat, the culinary school has been a way to educate a new generation of chefs about the intricacies of Jewish dietary law. For Blonder, the academy is a way to ensure those same chefs – who have come from as close as Manhattan and as far away as California and Mexico – are able to use the words “kosher” and “gourmet” in the same sentence.

“Many people are interested in the culinary arts as a second career, or just have a passion for it,” said Blonder, noting the growing popularity of the Top Chef franchise and the do-it-yourself gourmet style typified by icons like Martha Stewart. “Food has always been important to the Jewish people.”

Jordana Hirschel, 30, a personal chef and graduate of the school’s professional training program, agrees. She was working in real estate when she began selling baked goods from home, and was drawn to the kosher program after learning that she would train under such noted chefs and culinary educators as Mark Hellerman, David Ritter and Avram Wiseman.

“It was great learning in a kosher environment, and it’s a lot easier to go to a kosher program and actually be able to eat the food I make,” said Hirschel. “No other program could offer classes in the laws of kashrut, how to make large scale kosher events or deal with kosher issues in big production companies.”

Central to the CKCA curriculum are lectures from local rabbinic authorities on Jewish dietary laws, sessions focusing on traditional Shabbat and holiday cuisine, kosher supervision in food service and industrial environments, and the use of ingredients that contain neither meat nor dairy. Recreational courses, meanwhile, include the art of challah baking and regional Jewish cuisines.

Thus far, most of the school’s graduates pursue careers as personal chefs or open and cook at kosher eateries. Alex Yakobov, a jewelry store owner who participated in a seven-week course last fall, has plans to open a new kosher restaurant, the Pizza Palace Café, in the borough of Queens.

“I’ve always wanted to go to cooking school, but was prevented either because of cost or because I kept kosher,” said Yakobov, who pointed out the importance of tasting the food prepared while learning. “Before I did this program, I didn’t know what I was going to, because I wouldn’t sign a lease for the restaurant without cooking school. Now I know that if the cook doesn’t come one day, I’ll be able to put on an apron and hold down the fort.”

Jordana Hirschel, a graduate of the Center for Kosher Culinary Arts, works as a personal chef.
Jordana Hirschel, a graduate of the Center for Kosher Culinary Arts, works as a personal chef.

Joelle Cohn, a recent college graduate and current culinary student, said that she wants to eventually work part-time as a chef in Brooklyn.

“The culinary arts are my artistic outlet, my way of expression,” said Cohn. “In America, there aren’t many kosher resources, so the CKCA gives people of all levels an opportunity to explore cooking in a new way that was previously not available to the kosher community.”

Avi Roth, 37, studied at the school last year. Since then, the educational consultant has interned at a kosher restaurant in Manhattan and prepared meals for clients for Shabbat and holidays. A local supermarket, he said, is interested in his avocado-flavored ice cream.

“The program was different from others in that we made things that you would actually replicate in a Jewish kitchen,” he said. “In a non-kosher program, I would have had to prepare things that would never enter my own kitchen. A kosher program makes all the difference in the world.”