Yesterday Pardes announced the final closing of its doors after six years upending assumptions and expectations of kosher dining. Thankfully, its influence on progressive and seasonal kosher cooking will be felt for a long time to come.
I’ve only dined at Pardes twice, but it’s affected me like no other kosher restaurant. Of course the food tasted good, really good. I appreciated Moshe Wendel’s food on other levels as well. His creativity in pairing flavors, in technique, and in presentation stands out. I got a lot of satisfaction trying to figure out the process, and I marveled at Chef Moshe’s creativity just as my own Modernist musings were kicking into high gear. At Pardes, I would get a little moment of joy when I realized “I know how he did that!” or sometimes even “I just did that last week!”
Pardes is the first restaurant I’ve dined at where I couldn’t eat my food before taking the time to just look at it, and where I had to eat slowly to make sure I absorbed the whole creative experience of flavor, texture, and technique. At Pardes, I didn’t pay to leave with a full belly, I paid because the food thrilled, inspired, and challenged me.
In 2015, I sent Chef Moshe a message, essentially a fan letter expressing my appreciation and support for what he does. I told him a little about myself and mentioned that before my birthday the year before, the ever-thoughtful Mrs. A Jew’s Bouche had inquired whether he gives private cooking lessons but didn’t get a response.
To my utter surprise, he invited me to come and stage (rhymes with “garage” and means to intern) for a day. He didn’t usually let customers into the kitchen (at Pardes, even waiters are not allowed to enter). I wanted to be honest with him, even if it made him reconsider. I told him I had no professional training, worked slowly in the kitchen, wasn’t actually available for a couple months, and that one of the only two times in my life I’d sent back food at a restaurant was at Pardes (the mushroom croquettes, while delicious, were cold).
This was my George Costanza moment, and it led to an experience of utter fulfillment. Chef was still serious about the offer. He didn’t ask me not to publicize it, but out of respect for his generous, exceptional invitation and my own reticence to cause others to hound him about working there, I haven’t posted anything explicit about my experience until today.
For 12 hours on my feet, I trailed the chef de partie (in the kitchen hierarchy, this chef is responsible for managing a specific station and is subordinate to the head chef, or chef de cuisine) for the day. The working mashgiach (kosher supervisor – “I don’t just sit around and read the Jewish Press”) showed me around. I had been fretting about what to wear and decided to wear a white shirt to match the kitchen (I did my research watching this video). As it happened, they had me change into fresh kitchen whites and apron, and I was set up at a station in the basement prep kitchen.
Aside from two dressings (green goddess and Meyer lemon), I didn’t make anything totally from scratch, but I did a ton of prep and finishing including preparing sauces; pureeing, straining, and reducing raspberry jam and forming rugelach to bake; doing mise en place for cucumber soup; prepping hazelnut rice krispie treats for the dehydrator (which became the foundation for a lemon curd); portioning out caramel-chocolate blondie cookie dough and setting a chocolate ganache in a sheet pan, which got sliced into long narrow strips and wrapped around cocoa nib and peanut ice cream on top of the blondies for the “Snickers” dessert; weighing out carrageenan for the cinnamon vanilla foam; using the backside of a tulip spout from a pastry bag to cut lamb fat baby biscuits we baked for the fried chicken salad; making taramasalata; and scaling my first sea bream (with a citrus zester?!). My fish-cutter grandfather would be proud.
Everything was such a blur I can’t remember individual recipes, iota to kappa carrageenan ratios, and the like. For a while I’d been experimenting with my agar gels, trying to find the right elasticity using different ratios of locust bean gum. At Pardes they mixed agar with beef gelatin. Aside from one last box of Kolatin I’m hoarding for the “right” project, kosher beef gelatin is too expensive and hard to come by for me to use. It seems like they had a commercial supplier. Man, what I could do with a kosher gelatin supply!
So no, I didn’t come away with recipes, but I did bring into my home kitchen a new way of looking at kitchen mechanics, flavor pairing, mise en place, workflow and plating, and an enduring appreciation for the humble and indispensable quart container.
I also learned that bumping into Chef (known to be a curmudgeonly sort) with a huge bowl of French fries in the hot, cramped quarters of the kitchen is just as frightening as you’d imagine, but eminently more survivable.
Coming from a home kitchen, I exulted in the luxuries of plentiful equipment and a dishwasher (the person, not the appliance) who came around collecting dirties. Family meal (i.e., staff dinner before service) was spaghetti with a wonderful and spicy tomato and green olive sauce with some kind of meat (beef cheek?). I wolfed it down in under 5 minutes, which was my only time off my feet in 12 hours. My FitBit said I walked only 7,000-8,000 steps that day, but I climbed about 35 flights of stairs, a lot of up and down to the prep kitchen and its walk-in freezer.
During dinner service I worked alongside the chef de partie at the salad and dessert station in the dining room, and sometimes in the kitchen to use the salamander or deep fryer. She gave me bits and pieces here and there to taste, and it was all so incredible I found myself running out of superlatives. I assisted in plating and putting out orders. I loved learning how each dish is composed and in the repetition of putting out the same dishes over and over, got an intimate sense of each dish’s personality through its plating, an experience I never get cooking and serving at home. Over the course of the evening we got into a good rhythm as I quickly learned to anticipate what was needed or to take care of one element while she worked on another, especially when we got slammed with tickets. We made a good team, and I got addicted to the rush, the controlled panic, and the elegance of well-prepared teamwork.
Chef Moshe had warned me that the experience is not at all glamorous, and he was right. Luckily I wasn’t looking for glamour, just sweat, sore feet, and maybe a couple of scars. It was my first time in a professional kitchen and I loved every minute of it. I couldn’t be happier getting raspberry jam and fish scales in my eye or burning my fingers. I didn’t anticipate how much joy it would bring to slave away in the dungeon for hours prepping components, then assembling them into something beautiful, sending it off with a waitress, and watching her deliver it to the customer, a stranger, whom I got to observe take that first bite and react, savor something special that I prepared for them to experience, and slowly nod across the table in knowing bliss.
Toward the end of service, the chef de partie accidentally oversalted a ribeye tartare (served with asparagus puree, ramps, smoked egg yolk, and garlic toast) and cut more meat to add to it and dilute the salt so it could be served. After service she torched the leftover tartare, threw in a couple egg smoked egg yolks, and put it on a baguette. Strikingly, that was the most delicious thing of the night for me after a whole romp tasting my way through the Pardes menu. It was savory and chewy and unctuous and smoky and glutenful, though I wonder how much it had something to do with enjoying something off-menu, improvised, that I earned with my hard work.
After service, I stayed to scrub and clean every surface (in the process ruining a good pair of jeans with bleach). After all that, I walked out into the middle of the night, exhausted and energized, to the parking garage.
Which was closed and locked.
I eventually found my way inside after 20 minutes or so and discovered there was an attendant, asleep. I gingerly woke him up and told him I wanted to get my car. “You’re the Porsche, right?” I drove home in my decidedly less glamorous ride, but who knows what could have happened had I aspired to another Costanza moment?
Aside from the pictures taken behind my station, I culled the following photos from Facebook, where appreciative diners shared them. The taramasalata and fried chicken salad were from the actual service I prepared and plated. The other photos were from within a few days before or after.
Taramasalata on eggplant confit with cucumber soup, garlic toast, crispy chickpeas (not pictured), and herbs.
Tempura (curly) and raw (tuscan) kale salad with sesame snow, soy, and ginger.
I burned my fingers grabbing a hotter-than-I-thought platter when I was looking for something to put the fried tempura kale on. The aloe plant at my station turned out to be both decorative and medicinal!