Kosher Meals, A Very Big Deal

Tall order: 14,000 dinners and a lunch for 3,400 were served during the conference, held June 2-4.
Tall order: 14,000 dinners and a lunch for 3,400 were served during the conference, held June 2-4. (By Sharon Farmer)
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By Bonnie S. Benwick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Two consecutive nights of dinners for 6,500 and 7,500 -- with a 3,400-person lunch served in between -- would be a small triumph for any caterer to pull off. If the meals had to be kosher, which means ingredients, preparation, equipment and serving pieces must all be kosher-certified under the auspices of the local rabbinical council, that would be cause for greater kvelling.

Such was the case at the annual policy meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, held June 2-4 at the Washington Convention Center. Organizers say it was the largest seated kosher dinner ever served in Washington and perhaps in the United States.

Portions were generous in a way that, say, a character from "Annie Hall" could appreciate, and attendees interviewed at the final evening's banquet said they were pleased with what was put before them.

The first night, it was short ribs of beef with onion confit and a balsamic burgundy wine sauce, broccolini and Yukon gold potato puree. The next day, the lunch entree was pesto-glazed breast of chicken with a dressed pasta salad, Italian flat beans and roasted yellow bell peppers; that night, split Cornish hens with apple, pear and raisin stuffing, braised cabbage and leeks and bundled baby carrots. (Fish and vegetarian entrees were available.)

In short, really good kosher food. And a blessing, considering what it took to bring to everyone's plates.

"There's no way you can host a series of events without some snafus, but AIPAC goes all out to make their attendees happy," says Peter Grazzini, managing member of the company that provided most of the mealtime accouterments for the group's 54th conference. "Their goal is to make food a non-issue in terms of complaints."

Committee spokesman Josh Block agreed, adding that logistics are remarkable for the bipartisan event, attended by thousands of the group's members as well as administration officials, the Washington diplomatic corps, foreign dignitaries and half of the members of U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.

"We want people to have a good experience; food is an important part of that. We're pleased it turned out so well," Block says.

Food-planning sessions began a year ago at Foremost Glatt Kosher Caterers of Moonachie, N.J., where chief executive Randy Zablo and his team looked at what it would take to provide kosher meals for more than 100 large and small events over the three-day conference. (Concessions at the convention center are handled by Centerplate, which subcontracted this special job.) The food was cooked in Foremost's kitchens and brought down daily. "There aren't too many other caterers in the country that could handle this size kosher event," Grazzini says.

Some sandwiches were supplied by local caterers, but Foremost baked 4,500 muffins and 2,000 pretzels and provided fruit for 4,000 people, Zablo says.

Grazzini's firm, Perfect Settings in Landover, began stocking tableware about a year ago. China is porous and cannot be kashered, or ritually cleansed, usually with 212-degree water and ammonia. So Grazzini spent the year gathering 140,000 pieces of china -- new china does not have to be kashered -- and 185,000 pieces of flatware to handle the event. Rabbi Israel Bacharach of the Rabbinical Council of Washington was responsible for making sure Perfect Settings' supplies and the food-warming equipment from Centerplate were kashered.

One of Grazzini's dishwashing machines had to be made kosher and inspected by the rabbis before the month-long preparation began. That involved bringing in a technician to override safety features so the water temperature could remain at the designated level. Bacharach supervised the scrubbing and then the storage in a special, controlled area within Grazzini's 160,000-square-foot facility (a former Giant Food warehouse). He had to be at the convention center to monitor the cleaning of all food work surfaces, to be present during food service and to place his council's kosher seal on wrapped pallets of dinnerware, silver trays and sauceboats headed back to Landover via cargo trucks and tractor-trailers.

Since the conference's close, Grazzini's staff, following kosher specifications, has been washing all the items used at the event. The cleaned items will be packed and sealed by rabbis for use at next year's meeting. "We hope to finish by Friday," he says.

Any Washington dinner records set by the committee's event may be short-lived. The international chapters of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority will hold a banquet for 20,000 at the convention center in mid-July. But it won't be kosher.

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