In Kosher Kitchens, More Than Taste Matters
Thursday, February 21, 2008
The only things standing between executive chef Richard Tassiello and his fresh tarragon were a determined rabbi and 3,000 years of Jewish food law.
In the middle of a recent lunch-hour frenzy at Potomac's new Pomegranate Bistro, Tassiello -- wearing a crucifix -- cast a pleading look at Rabbi Joseph Pinto -- wearing a yarmulke -- and held up a bundle of fresh herbs.
"Can you do these right away?" Tassiello asked.
Pinto grabbed the greens and hurried to a tub filled with water, salt and vinegar. Because the Torah forbids observant Jews to consume insects, even accidentally, fresh produce in a kosher kitchen isn't so much washed as prepped for surgery. Pinto vigorously sluiced the herbs, rinsed them and dunked them in the tub.
"The salt and vinegar makes the bugs come free," Pinto murmured as he scrutinized each stem under bright fluorescent lights. "Ah, ha," he cried, pointing to a nearly microscopic mite swimming for its life.
Pinto is a kosher supervisor, or mashgiach, for the Washington-based Rabbinical Council of Greater Washington. He is recruited, trained and assigned by the council but is posted full time in the kitchen of the Pomegranate Bistro, which opened this week as the region's newest fully certified kosher restaurant.
Pinto and about 30 other in-house inspectors serve as a little-seen kosher police force in restaurants certified by the rabbinical council. They ensure that dairy never touches meat, that a knife used to bone fish is never used to cut steak, that no creepy-crawlies ever make it into a salad. They turn on the ovens in the morning and burners as needed (to fulfill the edict that a Jew be involved in the cooking), and they search every label for the telltale circled "K" or other marks of rabbinical correctness.
And when they spot a slip-up, they can trash the food, shut down the line and order any offending pot or pan, unto an entire oven, to be cleaned and re-sanctified before it goes back in service.
"It happens once in a while," said Pinto, a French immigrant who has been a kosher supervisor in restaurants for the past five years. "In a busy kitchen, people can a make a mistake. Most of the time, they are very nice when we have to stop something."
The supervisors, who often stay for years at a given location, maintain remarkable vigilance over their restaurants. They are typically the first to arrive and do not leave until after the last dish is washed. (Indeed, Pinto literally holds the keys to the bistro kitchen; neither the owners nor managers have a set). Sometimes, the supervisors will take on other, non-kosher duties, such as managing inventory or clearing the cash register each night.
"These restaurants contract with us to guarantee that they maintain kosher status, and they quickly learn that the supervisor is worthy of the highest trust," said Rabbi Binyamin Sanders, who runs the program for the rabbinical council. "It's a relationship that works for everybody."
More than 30 certified kosher restaurants, bakeries, caterers and other outlets are in the Washington area, including at a Krispy Kreme in Alexandria and at a Park Hyatt Hotel in Georgetown. In addition to the Pomegranate Bistro, Sanders recently certified a bakery in Potomac and the kitchen of George Washington University's Hillel House. Any outlet that serves meat is assigned a full-time mashgiach.