For nearly thirty years Chef Lévana Kirschenbaum has owned and operated a catering business, a bakery and a successful Manhattan restaurant all while raising a family. Levana continues to offer weekly cooking demos in New York City to locals and visitors who enjoy dinner and a show. Levana has published four cookbooks, Levana's Table: Kosher Cooking for Everyone, Levana Cooks Dairy Free, In Short Order and her latest hit, The Whole Foods Kosher Kitchen. You can find more from Levana on her blog, LevanaCooks. Read about her new book here.
1. Share some of your favorite memories of growing up in Morocco?
The great hospitality. It's in the blood. If you pass by a family gathered around a meal of bread, olives and dates and a pot of mint tea, they will offer you some. If the repairman fixes your leak, you pay him, and you offer him a cup of tea and a pastry, served in real china. If someone is at your door without any warning, you beg him to come in and have something.
2. How does your cultural heritage inspire your culinary choices?
In every imaginable way. We were eating whole foods every day of our lives without even knowing it: whole foods was the only thing available. So in everything I teach and write about, I'm hardly exploring a new field and novel ideas. when we first started as a bakery, we were considered pioneers and won awards for several desserts: they were never commercial, they were always natural, and unadorned. Good is good and speaks for itself loud and clear: it never needs any adornment. Also, my native cuisine is called one of the world's greatest: not for nothing. What I love best about it is how on earth you whip up something so simple, with the most plebeian ingredients. and end up with something delicious. Our flavors are bold and vibrant, they just know what to do!
3. Since the closing of your restaurant you have been working on what you describe as your “Magnum Opus” cookbook, The Whole Foods Kosher Kitchen. Why whole foods? Why now?
I should tell you here a few words about my "Magnum Opus": it has suffered some serious technical glitches, and as a result is looking very poorly laid out and doesn't reflect the great content and photography we put in. The books from the first printing are being sold below cost—the content is still phenomenal. The great news is, it's out for a reprint: same great content, but looking the way it was intended to look: gorgeous!
I have always taught cooking, and done a lot of writing, even while I had my restaurant. This last book is the culmination of my life work. If with this book I greatly emphasize the whole foods part, it is certainly not because it is a new topic for me, it is because, quite simply, it is an idea whose time has come for everyone!
4. This book has more than 350 recipes, 250 of which can be made gluten-free and 250 of which are kosher for Passover. Why do you think gluten-free cooking has become so popular?
It is most unfortunate that gluten-free cooking has become popular. It means more and more people are getting allergic to one thing or another, often to several things. We deal with a severe allergy problem daily with one of my grandchildren, it is a real torment, so I know the problem only too well.
There is one inescapable equation I hope the public finally comes around to, we would save ourselves so much disease and suffering, more processed foods means more exposure to toxic substances and more allergies and ailments. That said, not everyone cooking with gluten-free suffers from celiac.
It's just another expression of how extreme many people get, except for celiac people, no one needs to convert their whole diet to GF. Exploring with the whole wonderful gamut of whole grains would, in one fell swoop, lower your gluten, increase your fiber, increase your protein, taste great, and keep you in shape. What's wrong with that? As you know, I bake absolutely everything with spelt, and get unbelievable results.
5. The book begins with a story of Rivka, a young woman who was able to reclaim her health through choosing a diet of whole foods. How do you think this story will inspire others?
Oh my gosh! Not only did Rivka clamor to have her story told and her before-after pictures displayed, she likes to say she is the poster child for losing weight (losing over 200 pounds!!!!) just by switching to whole foods: what overweight person, after having tried the whole plethora of diets without any luck, wouldn't LOVE to try this?
Losing weight WHILE eating? I'm there!
6. You say you learned from your mother that there was nothing that you couldn’t cure with food. How has that helped you over the years?
I discuss this at great length in my book. There are some delicious and miraculous ingredients you can't catch me without: ginger, cinnamon, turmeric, olive oil, oats, green apples, unfiltered cider vinegar, garlic, to name just a few.
7. Your cooking classes are fast becoming an Upper West Side institution – much like your groundbreaking restaurant. Do you miss the life of a restaurant chef or do you prefer being a teacher and mentor?
Contrary to what many people believe, I was not the chef at my restaurant, so I was always a teacher, and until recently, a caterer. I was co-owner of my restaurant: I miss that life terribly: we were the first, and the best. Life as a restaurateur was hard and grueling and interesting and fun and delicious! We are remembered for countless great events. We had the longest and best run: we move right along, no more moping!
8. What is your favorite Jewish holiday to cook for and why?
Without hesitation I would say Pesach. That's when we are left with the most seasonal stuff, that's when we can exert the most integrity since so much junk is off limits. Pesach is my gastronomic week, down the line.
9. What is your earliest memory of cooking?
Oyoyoy, I will never live down that fiasco. I was barely 17. First year away in college. We had a gorgeous chestnut tree outside our dorm. I picked some chestnuts and decided to cook them, thinking, how hard could it be to cook a handful of chestnuts? I put them in a skillet on my tiny stove, and went in for a quick shower. I was interrupted by some furious pounding on my door. I hurriedly put a robe on my wet and soapy body and opened, trembling: Security! The chestnuts had exploded and flown in all directions making such a racket that my terrified floormates thought of the worst and called the front desk... Tough times we live in... The guards looked at me with such contempt: Don't you know you must first make a slit in the chestnuts' skin before roasting them? Thanks for the lecture, busters! Now I know! I'm still vexed there was ever a time in my life some cops knew how to roast chestnuts and I didn't!
10. You tell us not to let unfamiliar foods intimidate us. Do any foods intimidate you?
Honestly: no! All aboard!
11. You shun many prepared foods, salad dressings, frozen fish sticks. What advice do you have for the busy mom that can’t get dinner on the table some nights of the week?
My advice, complete with menus and ridiculously simple recipes, is plastered all over my books, my blog, my demos, EVERYWHERE!!! In less time than it takes to reheat those fish sticks and get a rubbery mess, throw a nice piece of salmon under the broiler. Buy prewashed greens and dress them in a jiffy with olive oil and vinegar. Just look at this post: the instant dorm feast. Just as soon as the mindset makes that capital shift from "I'm too busy so I'm reheating fish sticks" to "I'm too busy to even dignify this junk, so I'm making some super quick soup, fish, chicken salad or whatever", then every mom will be on her way and loving it, she and everyone around her!
Try these delicious recipes and your whole body will thank you.
WIN LEVANA'S COOKBOOKS! You could be the lucky winner of all FOUR of Levana's cookbooks: Levana's Table, In Short Order, Levana Cooks Dairy Free, and her new book The Whole Foods Kosher Kitchen. In order to qualify for a chance to win, leave a comment below telling us how your family eats healthy. One winner will be picked at random. Contest ends Thursday June 23 2011 at 2pm EST. Contest open to US Residents only.