An ‘Iron Chef’ takes on Kosher Cuisine


Although I’m a total Top Chef junkie, except for the occasional Iron Chef episode, the Food Network usually doesn’t hold my interest. But the other night, while channel surfing, I came upon a promo for an upcoming episode of Dinner Impossible. The basic premise of the show: put a celebrity chef in a very difficult situation, with an unrealistic time limit, and see if they can get the job done.

This season’s star is Michael Symon, a motorcycle-riding, tattooed Iron Chef who, I have to admit, I would put in that “sexy-ugly” category, but I digress. Anyhow, Chef Symon was shown in a kippah as a rabbi explained to him the laws of kashrut, and that he was expected to cook a Passover seder for 100 of his hungriest congregants Uh, Food Network people: We’re coming up on Rosh HaShanah, not Pesach, but never mind.

Naturally, I had to record it, while I nearly wretched my way through Sarah Palin’s speech (sorry, I digress once again).

Symon is from Cleveland, and while I couldn’t tell for sure, the synagogue looked like it was probably Conservative. A local kosher caterer named Marlene was brought in to offer advice and make sure Symon did everything right, and he had two of his usual guys to help.

Before I describe what went down, let me say a word about Symon. He is known on the Food Network as “The King of Pork.” This man loves the pig so much that when the rabbi told him it was forbidden, he pulled his shirt open to show a tattoo of two little piglets holding a banner that says “Got Pork?” on it right above his heart. When he learned that he was cooking a meat meal, so that cheese and butter were also out, he looked absolutely crestfallen when he said, “I can’t use all the things that make my food taste so good: butter, cheese and bacon!

This is not the first time a celebrity chef has taken on kosher cuisine. The winner of Top Chef’s third season, a Vietnamese-born guy named Hung, went on to do a guest stint at a New York kosher restaurant after undergoing some serious training. (Vietnamese cuisine’s favorite proteins are shrimp and pork, afterall.)

As for Symon, a whole array of meat and veggies were available for his use, as was ground up carp to make gefilte fish. He was allowed to go shopping for additional items, but the rabbi warned him that not only did he have to look for the kosher symbol, but that things had to be kosher for Passover.

Right before getting to work, Symon learned there was one more task: his kugel was going to be compared to a master-kugel maker. I forgot her name, but when she walked in, Symon was flabbergasted to learn that it was his brother-in-law’s mother. Later, Symon divulged that even though he has a Jewish brother-in-law, he has never cooked kosher food in his life.

Symon returned from shopping to have his shredded coconut taken away by the rabbi, since it wasn’t Kosher for Passover. Symon balked, and quickly had to come up with another dessert idea, exchanging a berry dessert with sabayon for the macaroons he was going to make.

Overall, Symon rocked the seder. With Marlene giving advice, he and his guys turned out an amazing matzoh ball soup, brisket with wine-braised vegetables, a potato kugel with fresh dill and smoked salmon (Symon grated all the potatoes by hand, enough for 100 people, since the most of the kitchen equipment was under lockdown for Passover), and a carrot salad replacing the traditional Tzimmes. His gefilte fish was deep-fried, and he added spices and other things to it, declaring he would treat it like he does crab cakes. Later, a congregant said it was the best gefilte fish she had ever had.

It was amusing to watch the bald-headed chef try and keep his kippah on, while grating all those potatoes by hand and getting generally befuddled by the kosher laws. Overall, I thought it was a great idea for the show. As we all know, the kosher-for-Passover dietary restrictions are so strict, which makes it the perfect cuisine to introduce as a challenge to someone who’s not familiar with it.

And the kugel verdict? The congregants loved the meal, but Symon’s competitor’s kugel won out. At the end of the episode, Symon took a bow in front of his diners, saying “You guys sure have a lot of rules.”

And when he was done, he went straight to one of his favorite joints for a bacon-cheeseburger.

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11 Responses to “An ‘Iron Chef’ takes on Kosher Cuisine”

  1. Avi Says:

    I hated this episode. First, one caveat, this was the first episode with Michael Symon I’ve seen, so I’m comparing the episode to the previous seasons with Robert Irvine.

    Marlene was way too intrusive and forced the menu to be too traditional. In other episodes the chef was given a few basic ground rules and put his own spin on the rest, but Marlene forced Symon to cook too much like she did.

    Chef Symon wanted to use sweet potatoes in his kugel, but Marlene said she doesn’t use sweet potatoes, she uses regular potatoes. So Chef Symon had to use regular potatoes.

    Chicken soup with matza balls? Come on. Let the chef decide on the soup instead of forcing him to make a traditional soup.

    And the brisket was just plain boring. Let the chef determine what his entree should be. Don’t force him to serve a basic brisket.

    The only dish of his that I liked was his spin on gefilte fish. All of his dishes should have been like that. Taking the basic ingredients/concepts and using them in a whole new manner.

    I don’t know if this is the approach of the show this season, but if it is I think I will have to pass. And if the Rabbi/shul/caterer was responsible for the limited menu then food network wasted their kosher episode on a bad crowd.

  2. jabbett Says:

    Amen to that, Avi.

  3. Alix Says:

    Avi, I haven’t seen the show before, so I didn’t know how much leeway the chef usually gets. I whole-heartedly agree with you; I have seen enough of Symon on other shows to know how talented he is; he should have been allowed to make a sweet potato kugel, but the regular potatoes were already there, I guess. The congregants were very impressed with his dessert, saying it was nothing like any Passover dessert they had ever had, with still being within the rules. Too bad he couldn’t do his entire menu like that. But for some people, I guess, Passover isn’t Passover without a brisket and matzo ball soup (in chicken broth).

  4. seapea Says:

    They definitely should have sent someone with knowledge on the shopping trip (only OUP?)

    Personally, I thought they went over the top with having him make a Seder. A Kosher meal made within Halachic guidelines would have been tough enough and more fun.

  5. Hershele Ostropoler Says:

    After seeing the ads for this episode, I decided to stop watching “Dinner Impossible” and “Unwrapped” (hosted by DI’s producer). I felt Jews were being shown as fascist freaks.

  6. meghan Says:

    Two things to note about Chef Symon:
    1. He made it a point to say he grew up Catholic, so it’s not just non-Jewish, it’s Catholic. It’s not so much that it’s severe, but it explains his total lack of knowledge about keeping kosher.
    2. Despite his self-proclaimed love of all things porcine, he was on the Melting Pot show on Food Network a while back doing Eastern European food with Wayne Harley Brachman.

    I did enjoy this show, and I definitely like how he is more easy-going (and his food more refined) than Robert “I didn’t actually make Princess Diana’s wedding cake” Irvine.

    And yes, he was not at all familiar with the laws of kashrut, but he stuck with them and tried to be creative whenever he could, like with the zabaione. Instead of just throwing fruit on a plate, he made it something better and more elegant.

    Finally I think maybe Hershele is reading too much into this episode. I didn’t think it portrayed Jews negatively at all. Symon and his crew didn’t seem to be having a problem at all, and that speaks as much to portrayal as how anyone looked on screen.

    Marlene was a total noodge though.

    p.s. Marc Summers (producer of Dinner Impossible) was born Marc Berkowitz. Something? Nothing? Just wanted to mention it.

  7. Gypsy Says:

    Oh, darn, I missed it! I hope it reruns soon.

    I’m disappointed to read that the helper he was assigned was so pushy. I mean, I totally LOVE sweet potato kugel and I bet I’m not alone. I suspect making it any meal other than the seder would have given the helper much less opportunity to interfere.

    I am disappointed to note that the fried gefilte fish recipe is not on the FTV website. Ah, well, perhaps when I finally get to see it I’ll be able to reproduce it. Sounds fascinating.

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