By Jacob Kamaras/JNS.org
For most of my 29 years, I’ve been spoiled rotten when it comes to kosher food.
I was raised not only in New York City, but in the borough of Brooklyn, the kosher capital of the world outside of Jerusalem—or maybe even surpassing Jerusalem. I didn’t exactly leave my comfort zone as a college student at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, with access to three meals a day in the campus dining hall’s full-service kosher wing. Forget the notorious “Freshman 15”—I managed to put on the “Sophomore 30.” After graduation, I’d go on to live in two of the best kosher-restaurant towns in America not named New York: Los Angeles and Teaneck, N.J.
I had it all. Kosher cuisine of all shapes, sizes, flavors, and countries of origin. Gourmet, greasy, and everything in between.
Then I moved to Houston.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t live in a kosher wasteland. We have the standard kosher fare for a mid-sized Jewish community: a pizza place, an Israeli place, a vegetarian place, and a kosher takeout counter at the grocery store with delicatessen items and Chinese food. But I used to be spoiled rotten in Brooklyn, Los Angeles, and Teaneck, and suddenly I found myself in a strikingly “ordinary” kosher scene.
What is this Brooklyn boy to do?
As it turns out, the newest entrant in the Houston kosher landscape saved the day. Genesis Steakhouse & Wine Bar has brought a much-needed upscale kosher experience to the city I currently call home. It’s not just the steak. Even the burger is elevated—take my favorite Genesis dish, “The Bruce,” which features a half pound prime burger, crispy pastrami, fried eggs, and onion strings. Each bite is to be cherished, as are the restaurant’s elegant lighting and overall ambiance.
I was particularly thrilled to recently try out the Sunday brunch at Genesis, which includes some menu items that aren’t upscale for the average non-kosher consumer, but marked an exciting first-time kosher experience for this New Yorker—and that’s saying a lot. Chicken and waffles. Corned beef hash. Eggs Benedict with brisket. Well, OK, the latter is generally considered an upscale dish, at Genesis or any other restaurant.
Then, on Feb. 22, I had the privilege of seeing Genesis owner Jason Goldstein get his due at Houston’s 15th “Gourmet Kosher Extravaganza,” an annual event organized by the Greater Texas Region of American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (AABGU). Goldstein was one of seven chefs on what AABGU called a “culinary dream team,” whose members collaborated to present a five-course meal at the Westin Galleria Hotel.
Remarkably, Goldstein was the only chef among the group who cooks kosher food year-round. But perhaps even more remarkably, Houston now has a kosher restaurant that actually deserves a spot on the culinary “dream team.”
“People from New York, Chicago, London, Mexico City, they visit me all the time, and they’re like, ‘I can’t believe I come to Houston, Texas, and there’s an upscale kosher steakhouse just as good if not better than any other [kosher] restaurant on the East Coast. It’s a surreal feeling to have that, it really is,” Goldstein, a second-generation restauranteur, told me.
So how did an annual kosher extravaganza come to be in Houston, of all places? Deborah Bergeron, the executive director AABGU’s Greater Texas Region, told me that when she took the job more than a decade ago, her region “needed a fundraiser.” She had observed a similar fundraiser in Boston that showcased leading chefs.
“When I originally started calling the chefs, I told them who I was, what I was doing. Nobody returned my calls. So I thought, ‘Oh my God, how am I going to pull this off?’ Then I made another phone, and I said, ‘This is Deborah Bergeron, and I’m calling about the top six chefs of Houston.’ Then they all called me back,” she recalled. “I figured if I could convince one to do it, then I could convince the others. None of them had ever cooked kosher, none of them had ever worked together. We really started something in Houston that now all the charities do it, and all the charities have them work together, and it’s a commonplace thing.”
Over the course of 15 years, more than 5,000 guests have been served by 35 chefs at the AABGU-hosted Houston kosher extravaganza. Goldstein is the exception to the rule, as most of those chefs weren’t familiar with kosher cooking prior to their association with the southern Israeli university’s American fundraising arm. And there’s one more thing: they aren’t paid to cook that night.
“They give of their time, their effort, their talents, and it’s not easy. They expect nothing in return,” Bergeron told the crowd.
Oh, so you want to know what was on the menu? I’ll end the suspense. Hors d’oeuvres: stuffed chicken with jalapeño, beef-wrapped asparagus, short rib empanadas, wild mushroom crostini, and tuna poke on a cucumber bite, by Genesis’s Goldstein. First course: veggie and kosher seafood mosaic, by Chef Mark Cox of Mark’s and Chef Carmelo Mauro of Carmelo’s. Second course: duck with a zucchini pancake and figs, by Chef John Sheely of Mockingbird Bistro and Chef Mark Holley of Holley’s. Entree: prime rib with sweet potatoes, by Chef Steve Caruana of the Westin Galleria Hotel. Dessert: flourless chocolate cake with raspberry beet coulis and meringue, by Chef Richard Kaplan of Weights + Measures.
The attendees got to wash down their five courses with—what else?—water. But not just any kind of water. It was the latest—97th, to be precise—speech by author Seth M. Siegel about his popular book, “Let There Be Water: Israel’s Solution for a Water-Starved World.” Siegel and I actually sat next to each other for dinner, and it was a reunion of sorts: I had interviewed him about the book last December in Austin, Texas, in between his 55th and 56th speaking engagements relating to the volume.
“I don’t want to be competing with that great chocolate cake dessert,” Siegel told the crowd while he was doing just that.
I won’t go into a full-scale food review of the evening’s five courses because, first of all, I’m not a professional food critic, and second of all, the point of this column is first and foremost to express my appreciation for the event itself. The kosher extravaganza of Feb. 22 proved to me that indeed, Houston, we do not have a kosher problem. That is the only comfort food I need. One of the reasons we don’t have a kosher problem is, apparently, the tradition of AABGU’s scrumptious fundraiser. But that takes place just once a year. On a much more regular basis, we have Genesis Steakhouse and its visionary owner.
“It’s been more than a challenge,” Goldstein told me. “I had to create an imagination in people’s minds, the belief that it could happen. They didn’t think it could be possible, but I think I showed them, through quality and ambiance, that we can have an upscale venue that just so happens to be kosher.”
Jason, at the very least, you have a believer in me.
Jacob Kamaras is the managing director and editor in chief of JNS.org.