Dressed in checkered black-and-white pants, long white aprons, and tall, fully starched chef's hats placed carefully above their yarmulkes, a group of 28 haredi men enrolled in the newly launched Kosher Culinary Academy in Jerusalem set out to prove last week that kosher food doesn't have to sacrifice taste or class.
The 10-month course, which began on Sunday and is taught exclusively in English, attracted 22 culinary-hopefuls from the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. It's aiming to prepare a new generation of ultra-Orthodox chefs, most of whom did not fit into the traditional Haredi yeshiva world and all of whom have a passion, quite simply, for good food.
British-born Yochanan (nee Jean Renee) Lambaise, the academy's founder, said the idea for such a school grew out of the increasingly pressing need for sophisticated, high-class and genuinely quality kosher food. "Religious businessmen want to be able to entertain their non-religious clients," Lambaise says. "They want to be able to take clients to a place that's in vogue and doesn't smell like lukshon kugel."
The class is open only to men, and the majority of those enrolled are yeshiva dropouts who didn't quite flourish under the strict yeshiva regiment. "Our students are religious kids who didn't make it through the system," Lambaise explains. "In the Haredi world, if you can't sit and learn all day, you are considered an outcast. Here we show people that they might not be able to learn in yeshiva, but they can learn a trade."
Still, the course demands that the students sit for two hours every morning and learn the religious laws pertaining to a kosher kitchen. Though all 28 students have passed through the yeshiva framework, practical kosher laws were always relegated to the women's sphere. Many of the men may have previously learned sections in the Talmud dealing with the laws separating meat and milk, but few have ever studied these laws' practical ramifications.
For some students, dropping out of a full-time yeshiva program is a welcome change of pace. Zvi Clayman says he was looking for something that demanded the use of both his head and his hands. The British-born 23-year-old immigrated to Israel with his family 20 years ago, and is excited by the fact that the course will enable him to "earn a living in a respectable way."
Still, Clayman, like others in the class, wouldn't have dared enroll in a course with women as classmates, and therefore saw the Kosher Culinary Academy as the perfect answer to his problem.
Last week, Clayman and the other students learned French food vocabulary, kitchen safety and basic cutting techniques. They diced, chopped, and sliced 16 kilos of onions, learned the definition of a poissonier and discovered that cuisine is really just the French word for kitchen. They also learned that the steel toe boots they are required to wear every day are a must in any busy kitchen.
The course was surprisingly well-accepted in Haredi communities, says Sarah Manning, the academy's administrator. "People in the Haredi community don't define themselves by their professions, and so it's perfectly respectable to be a bus driver, teacher, or chef," she explains.
Although the 10-month course costs $12,500, Chef Lambaise adds that studying in yeshiva all day without a source of income can be an even greater expense. Lambaise, in the meantime, is hoping to ultimately teach his students to prepare dishes such as drambuie chocolate charlotte with coffee bean sauce and chicken sausages with lemon, which is a fusion of French and Turkish cuisine. He plans to open a restaurant after Passover on location at the Holy Land Hotel, so that students will be able to test their skills on guinea-pig customers. The restaurant, he predicts, will be a welcomed change of pace for harried and over-stressed religious Jerusalemites. So many of the world's problems, he adds, can be solved over the dinner table.