In connection with the launch of our brand new website, joyofkosher.com, we are very pleased to be able to invite Chef Jeff Nathan into our joyofkosher kitchen. Chef Nathan is the executive chef of The Abigael's Group, which includes Abigael's on Broadway and the Green Tea Lounge. He is also the author of two popular cookbooks, Adventures in Jewish Cooking and Jeff Nathan's Family Suppers. At his restaurants, and on his acclaimed public television series, New Jewish Cuisine, Chef Nathan emphasizes the flavors of modern America while strictly observing the laws of kashrut. Chef Nathan is setting a new standard for kosher cooking with his innovative dishes and creative presentations.
1 What inspired you to take such bold steps towards modernizing Jewish cuisine?
My culinary background had always been on the cutting edge in the non-kosher restaurants I’d worked in. It seems to be in my nature to be creative with food. When I bought Abigael’s, I was intrigued to couple the strict rules of kashrus with my creativity and innovative style of cooking. I just knew that I could incorporate so much of my extensive food knowledge into those long held rules and regulations.
2 What do you see as the next big trend in kosher food?
The food industry is always evolving and one of the biggest changes is within the kosher industry. I see kosher foods as becoming more healthful. Although we salt our meats for kashrus, food corporations are beginning to re-evaluate their formulations to cut down on sodium, preservatives and unnecessary additives and fillers. Being concerned with fair trade and sustainability practices is not a new concept to Judaism; kosher food manufacturers are now joining the movement to get back to offering clean, healthful products.
3 Describe your best cooking moment as a chef?
When one of my guests grins at me in surprise and says that their meal is so delicious, they can’t believe it’s kosher! No matter how many awards I win, or accolades I get, that’s always the biggest thrill!
4 You have gotten the chance to travel all around the world and cook for people like Regis Philbin, Joan Rivers, even Conan O’Brien. Of all the famous people you have had the chance to cook for, who will you never forget and why?
In my early years as a cook in the US Navy, I was part of a small contingency of kitchen personnel that cooked several meals for Menachem Begin & Anwar Sadat during their Peace Talks. Although it was decades before my involvement in Kosher; and several years before I even went to culinary school, I knew that this would be a highlight of my career. In the nearly thirty years since then, I’m still amazed that I had such a wondrous opportunity to cook for them.
5 What are some of your favorite dishes?
It’s so hard to choose because I have so many for all sorts of reasons! My wife’s Lamb & Orzo Stew brings the whole family to the table… My mom’s Stuffed Cabbage was the best thing to come home to! Years ago, I was really thrilled with the excitement of cooking game meats. But some of the dishes that I‘ve cooked over the years that still seem to stay on the top of my lists are my Argentine Style Short Ribs, Polenta with Wild Mushroom Ragout and the Smoked Brisket Eggroll.
6 What is your earliest memory of cooking?
When I was a kid, about eight or so, I begged my babysitter to let me stay up late so I could prepare crackers, cream cheese & olives for my parents. She let me stay up to make them, but not to wait up for my parents. I put them in the fridge for their arrival. My parents assured me that these (most likely soggy) crackers were the best thing they’d ever eaten!
7 What advice would you give the busy home cook?
Decide on your meals ahead of time, keep a stock of the most often used ingredients in your pantry and don’t make meal time an afterthought. Allowing yourself to make planning and preparing dinner an important part of your day, instead of thinking of it as a chore will bring a calmness to the family that most people don’t realize.
8 When you are not wearing an apron and standing behind the stove, what do you like to eat?
Home cooked meals that someone else has prepared! As much as I love to create innovative and modern foods, I find that when I ‘m not working I love the same foods most people do… traditional foods like our grandma’s used to make, comfort foods, and barbecues.
9 What made you want to become a kosher chef?
At first I told myself it was a good business opportunity when we bought Abigael’s, but I quickly realized that I was intrigued with what I could do for the modern Jew and the unaffiliated Jew by making kosher more interesting than Grandma’s brisket or a pastrami on rye at the local deli.
10 Describe your worst kitchen disaster as a chef?
While filming my television series, New Jewish Cuisine, I opened the food processor incorrectly and the bright green parsley and oil sauce flew all over the kitchen! The rest of the day’s filming was backed up for hours while the crew cleaned and reset everything!
11 Tell us about seder night at the Nathan house. Are you able to recline or are you in the kitchen?
When I was a kid, seders were at my grandparents’ house, so I played with my cousins all night. When I got married they were at my in-law’s. I didn’t cook, but I did all the turkey and brisket carving! Nowadays, Abigael’s is open every Passover where we have a Chabad Rabbi officiate at the seders. It’s become such a popular event that I’m at work instead of at home. Over the last few years though, I give myself a break from the kitchen and join my family in the dining room. Every year is a different Rabbi, and we love to hear their different styles as we hear the story of the Exodus. But then, it’s back to the kitchen for me!
12 Our readers are about to prepare their homes and transform their kitchen for the two most important nights of the year. Over the past several years, the kosher for Passover aisle has grown and ingredients and foods that were not imaginable several years ago are now available for the Pesach table. Can you share a few of your favorite Kosher for Passover recipes and any suggestions on how to not only make this night different from all other nights, but different from all other seders?
It’s interesting that out of the hundreds of recipes I create in a year, the most requested ones are always for Passover! When I teach my cooking classes I always try to instill in the home cook that they should not overwhelm themselves with re-creating the wheel! This holiday is all about traditions, so stick to your favorite traditional recipes, but allow yourself to be creative with one or two new recipes each year. To revamp the whole menu, within only a few hours, is really tough. Instead, just choose a few things to play with. Soon enough you’ll have incorporated several new classics into your holiday menu!
I’ve shared a few of my favorite Passover recipes with joyofkosher.com. They’ve become holiday mainstays at my home and are occasionally seen on the Abigael’s menus too! I hope you like them!
Thanks for having me partake in this interview! I really enjoyed answering these great questions!