In today’s foodie-obsessed culture, is Jewish food relevant?

These days—deep into the country’s foodie revolution—chefs are the rock stars.

In today’s foodie-obsessed culture, is Jewish food relevant? photo image
Shakshuka at the Allis restaurant at the Soho House Chicago in the Fulton Market District. Photo credit: Caren Friedman.

Remember when a celebrity sighting meant catching a glimpse of Jerry Seinfeld at LaGuardia or brushing shoulders with Joan Jett at a Los Angeles club?

These days -- deep into the country's foodie revolution -- chefs are the rock stars. Seeing Stephanie Izard cross Randolph between her West Loop standouts or spotting Rick Bayless at the Wicker Park Farmers Market is hitting the celebrity jackpot.

Americans, perhaps none more so than Chicagoans, are infatuated with food. Eating food. Cooking food. Photographing food. Watching others cook, eat, and share photos of food. Television shows such as Top Chef and Chopped are multiplying, food bloggers garner millions of social media followers, and multi-course tasting menus are popping up all over the city.

In this foodie culture boom, is Jewish food relevant?

When Eastern European Jews arrived in Chicago in droves during the latter 19th century, they brought with them their culinary traditions and foods that have since come to be identified as "Jewish" -- bagels, bialys, lox, challah, matzo balls, kneidlach (dumplings), kugel, blintzes, potato latkes. Beloved in both kosher and non-kosher delis and restaurants in Chicago's Jewish neighborhoods, these foods crossed cultural boundaries onto American menus.

Today, the culinary world views Chicago as perhaps the most important food city in the country, at the heart of the experimental dining movement. So where does Jewish cuisine fit in the nation's food capital?

"Jewish foods are relevant and more exciting than ever," said Laura Frankel, professional chef, cookbook author, and JUF News' culinary columnist. Blintzes, bagels, challah French toast, and hoppel poppel are among the Jewish foods on high-end menus that have become so engrained in everyday food life that many do not realize their origins.

Proof is in the, er, kugel, as evidenced by menu items at several Chicago hotspots: Everything bagel and lox at the Boka Restaurant Group's Somerset in the Gold Coast; potato latke with sunny side up eggs, smoked whitefish, greens, and picked red onion at Logan Square's Daisies; and chicken liver pâté at the West Loop's Publican, standing boldly on a menu that otherwise pays "homage to oysters, pork, and beer."

"Traditional Jewish foods have a real place in today's food culture," said Beth Schenker, who talks with Jewish chefs, foodies, and food producers for her podcast, The Big Schmear. "Many chefs have been updating traditional Jewish food dishes by providing more healthful options, getting back into the origins of the food and the ingredients that were used to prepare this food -- both in the Ashkenazi and Sephardic tradition."

Keeping a finger on the pulse of food trends such as farm-to-table, hyper-local, and sustainable ingredients is critical for chefs leading the progressive food philosophy for which Chicago is recognized. Frankel, who brought Kosher fine dining to Chicago with Shallots in 1999, embraces local and seasonal foods whenever possible. However, upholding a modern and mainstream sensibility is a particular challenge for Kosher restaurants, who "serve a microcosm of the population" in Chicago -- "the new cool food town known for inspirational food," said Frankel.

Indeed, Chicago, which boasts 22 Michelin-starred restaurants for 2019, is set to host the James Beard Awards (known as the Oscars of the food world) for the fifth year in a row, and draws lauded chefs and their much-anticipated restaurants.

James Beard Award-winning chef Zachary Engel (profiled on the next page) is moving his family from New Orleans to Chicago to share the stories of Israeli food -- its origins, present, and future -- within a modern restaurant setting at Galit, named for his daughter. "Presenting those narratives is very personal to me because of many shared meals with close friends in their homes, my connection to my Judaism, and my cooking career," he said.

Engel and his wife, Meredith, will bring with them their enjoyment of a wine trend similar to food's farm-to-table movement -- drinking more unfiltered wines, with a focus on natural fermentation and the farmers who grow the grapes. Engel said, "It's only recently become a part of American wine culture. It's beautiful to taste wine that's so raw and unadulterated, and we'll be focusing on a lot of that at Galit."

While Engel specializes in modern Israeli cooking, he suggests Jewish food has a place in any current kitchen: "I think the Jewish experience is such an integral part of the American storyline, so when chefs cook contemporary American food they're bound to cross into Jewish cuisine."

As for the relevance of more traditional Jewish foods? "I've definitely got a brisket dish on the menu," Engel said. "I love brisket, really all braised meats. Food memories are experienced with all five senses, and when you place an ingredient like brisket on a restaurant menu, especially in a way guests haven't seen before, the familiarity still tugs at their heartstrings."

Caren Friedman is a communications consultant and freelance writer living in Chicago.

Connect with us

Sign up for our weekly newsletter featuring issues and events in the Jewish world.