Kosher, With a Side of Creativity

The closing of Pardes restaurant last month marked the end of a six-year stretch for New York City’s pioneer of innovation in the kosher food landscape.

With a menu that changed every day, and a kitchen that only utilized the highest quality ingredients, Pardes’ Chef Moshe Wendel was a trailblazer in setting the new standard for kosher food in New York.

“What he was was inventive,” said Chef Isaac Bernstein of Pomegranate, a premier kosher supermarket in Brooklyn with a forward-thinking approach. “He forced people to eat outside of their comfort zone.”

Wendel introduced the kosher New Yorker to dishes like lamb “porchetta” pizza and aerated creme brulee, while using ingredients as progressive and unconventional as sesame dust, pistachio dirt and fennel pollen – no easy feat for a chef tasked with adhering to the kosher community’s strict rules on food preparation.  

Pardes’ closing was a sad event for many kosher foodies, but the shuttering of its doors and a quick Facebook message expressing remorse over the closure lead to the reevaluation of an industry and an encouraging discovery: the kosher food industry in New York City has undergone massive changes over the past few years. Kosher consumers’ expectations have shifted from favoring quantity over quality to an outlook that now favors innovative food experiences.

“We’ve seen in the last now three to four years really an explosion in restaurants that are doing this kind of thing,” said Naftali Hanau, a frequent panelist and presenter at kosher food events across the country.

Over the past two decades, the number of kosher restaurants in New York City increased by at least 50 percent, according to Elan Kornblum, president and publisher of Great Kosher Restaurants Magazine, a magazine that offers a comprehensive list of kosher restaurants around the world. In 2016 alone, nearly 25 new kosher restaurants opened before the year’s halfway point, keeping new restaurant openings on par with 2015’s rate. Except this year, the number of closures is a much smaller fraction of the number of openings compared to 2016.  

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Bison and Bourbon, a new kosher restaurant that opened earlier this year (Renee Saff)

New York City is now home to 325 kosher restaurants. This number may seem like a drop in the bucket compared to the city’s 24,000 eateries, but it comes close to the number of the city’s French and Indian restaurants, which clock in respectively at 355 and 332, according to the city’s Department of Health.

While the numbers in and of themselves are growing at an unusually fast pace, the new restaurants that are opening aren’t all conventional kosher eateries. Instead, smokehouses, sports bars, and Hibachi restaurants have been opening, as well as restaurants with bolder and more ethnic cuisines, like Georgian, Indian and Korean, according to Kosher Today, a monthly trade newspaper for the kosher food industry.   

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Artisan pastries and bread at Brooklyn Artisan Bakery, a kosher bakery that opened several months ago (Renee Saff)

According to Hanau, CEO and founder of Grow and Behold, a Brooklyn-based seller of kosher pastured meats raised on small farms without any added hormones or antibiotics, Kornblum is one of the key players responsible for spearheading the kosher foodie movement. When Facebook started becoming popular, he came up with the idea to create a group called “Great Kosher Restaurant Foodies,” a community of now nearly 25,000 members who are actively seeking recommendations for delectable dining experiences.

“If you’re posting something to 20,000 ladies around the world, you’re going to get a response,” said Sylvia Fallas, a kosher food blogger, recipe developer and product seeker for Optimal Marketing and Seasons, about social media’s influence on the kosher foodie movement. “You’re going to get an answer. You’re going to get 122 answers, you’re going to get 200 likes, you’re going to get 10,000 views. People like to be heard, people like to be engaged with, and social media has really put it out there.

“People are going to restaurants because of the chatter, because of the buzz, because friends, family, and social media has said, ‘Oh, this place is new. Let’s go try it out.’”

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Screenshot of “Great Kosher Restaurant Foodies” Facebook group page (Renee Saff)

In addition to the rise of social media and Pardes’ innovation, another factor contributing to the demand for more progressive kosher food experiences is the Baal Teshuva movement, which is the return of secular Jews to religious Judaism, and is Hebrew for “master of repentance.”

A 2013 Pew Research Center study revealed that 28 percent of Jewish people ages 18 to 49 keep kosher in their homes, nearly double their parents’ generation, in which only 16 percent of Jews above the age of 50 keep kosher at home. But, regardless of the younger generation’s reasons for embracing Jewish dietary restrictions, their introduction into the kosher food industry has been a transformative factor.

“There are a lot of people keeping kosher now who did not used to,” Hanau said. “When they came into the kosher world and they started having to drink this wine and eat this food they said, ‘What is this? Why is it so bad?’”

Because these people who previously did not keep kosher were able to experience what top of the line, non-kosher cuisine tastes like, their introduction into the kosher restaurant world created a demand for the industry to step up its game. Many chefs with non-kosher experience now bring fresh ideas and expertise to the kosher food market.

Bernstein, who recognized the need to revamp the kosher food world and has experienced success by popularizing the idea of “Modern Haimish,” a progressive approach to the classic, homey Eastern European foods that many Jews are fond of, and he believes that “there is a future for progressive kosher food.”

Due to Pardes’ innovation, the rise of social media, and the Baal Teshuvah movement, innovation in the kosher food world is not just limited to restaurants. The past few years have endured different types of kosher innovations, ranging from a traveling Texas kosher barbecue to a fish store selling gourmet ingredients that keep the strictest standards of kosher to a wave of new cookbooks encouraging readers to step out of their comfort zone and “dare to be different.”

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A variety of gourmet beers at BenZ’s Gourmet, a kosher shop in Crown Heights offering gourmet kosher products that adhere to the strictest kosher standards (Renee Saff)

“It’s not just the restaurant scene that has evolved and become upscale,” said Shlomo Klein, the chief operating officer for Joy of Kosher with Jamie Geller Magazine. “We’re trying to keep up with the trends.”

And the kosher food industry has certainly made progress.

“I used to say, when we started, that the kosher food business was five to ten years behind. Now kosher is much much closer to following the trends,” Hanau said. “The kosher world is in a place that’s so far ahead of where it was, and it can continue to improve.”

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