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.