Monday, September 12, 2016
Clara Santos Perez, 59, didn't own any long black skirts before March 2010. But when she became the general manager of Basil Pizza & Wine Bar, a Brooklyn kosher eatery frequented by Orthodox Jews, that quickly changed.
"It was very challenging in the beginning," said Perez. The Hasidic rabbis who certified the restaurant for kashrut demanded that employees dress modestly in accordance with Orthodox law. (The restaurant, pictured, is certified by OK Kosher Certification, in Brooklyn.) For Perez, a Catholic and native of Colombia, the high-necked shirts, long sleeves and knee-sweeping frocks were completely foreign. "I thought they should worry about the food and not the way that we have to look and dress," she said.
She quickly came to realize that high-end kosher dining in the Hasidic Chabad enclave of Crown Heights meant more than just double-checking ingredients.
"Even though we stress that this is just a great restaurant that happens to be kosher, your average customer here is a kosher customer," she said, pointing to a large picture of the late Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, hanging on the wall opposite the dining area. "They have their culture. We try to accommodate that."
Gaining the stamp of approval, or hechsher, from a top kosher certifying agency is a hard-earned right of passage for restaurants catering to religious Jews. In the six years since Basil opened, the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of Crown Heights has become a hot spot for fine kosher dining. Eastern Parkway, the main thoroughfare, once served as an unspoken dividing line between the neighborhood's Hasidic and West Indian communities, but today kosher restaurants are steadily pushing past the boundary. Perez and her managing partner, Danny Branover, are slated to open a new restaurant, Meat, in August even farther north of Eastern Parkway.
To keep up with the diverse customer base, ensuring the highest level of kosher certification is a must, said restaurateur Tzemach Woolstone, 25, the owner and chief chef at Boeuf & Bun, an artisanal hamburger joint across the street from Basil. The restaurant opened in January 2014 as Woolstone's first culinary venture. Today, it serves 2,000 kosher burgers a week.
"We're part of a community, and though I would say 60% to 70% of our customers at any given time are coming from out of the area, we still believe it's important for a small business to give back," said Woolstone. To make sure local Chabad patrons felt comfortable in the hip new spot, he selected a small, local and exceptionally stringent label to certify his kashrut, the Vaad Hakashrus of Crown Heights.
Working with the agency has not been easy, said the young Australian food entrepreneur. He's had to battle for approval of many of his ingredients, including truffle oil for mayonnaise, red wine vinegar for pickling onions and beets, and maple syrup for barbecue sauce.
"Every item that I bring in I have to run by them," Woolstone said, a note of frustration in his voice as he described the "arbitrary" nature of kosher certification. "Sometimes the decision not to allow an item is based solely on the fact that it would be too much effort for them to go down to the factory and figure out if it's kosher or not."
Selecting meat that is up to standard is by far the hardest challenge, he said. Orthodox law sets stringent rules for how meat is slaughtered and salted, in addition to specifying which parts of the animal can and cannot be used.
"There's no choice when it comes to meat," said Woolstone, who buys his beef at a 30% premium. "I'm currently buying meat at sky-high prices because my hechsher only has three places I can buy it from."
Despite the community's quirks and strict demands, Woolstone called Brooklyn his ideal location. He comes from a Chabad background and values the community's moral customs, even if that makes running a business difficult. In the coming years, he hopes to open more innovative venues.
"When you love food and you love Jews, it's going to be a journey," he said.
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