Top Chef's Eli Kirshtein On Kosher Liquid Nitrogen and Cooking in New York
You may remember Eli Kirshtein from Top Chef, where he was finally sent packing for crimes perpetuated on a lamb loin--or perhaps a New Age Pilates curse from Robin. Kirshtein is an Atlanta native who started cooking at 16 and graduated from the CIA. He has worked under fellow Atlantean and Top Cheffer Richard Blais, and Alberto Cabrera at Miami's Karu and Y. Now he's in New York, guest cheffing at Solo, a kosher restaurant in midtown, where he cooks "new American kosher-style." What does that mean, exactly? We asked him.
Check back here tomorrow for the second half of the interview, in which Kirshtein pronounces on his favorite NYC pizza, his feelings for Top Chef's Robin, and the ups and downs of reality television.
Do you have any background in kosher cooking?
It really was just totally from Solo. It's not anything I sought out, not something I foresaw being involved in. But the opportunity was great.
What made Solo appealing to you?
The opportunity to be a chef in New York City is fantastic. My responsibilities boil down to doing my own mini tasting menu every night. I'm not responsible for the a la carte menu, so it's a really comfortable environment for me. What does New American-Kosher mean exactly?
Well, unfortunately it's hard to come up with great identifying terms for a lot of what I do. People's idea of what "modern American" or "new American" is widespread: Some people think it's Charlie Palmer, some people think it's Bobby Flay. Unfortunately, I don't think my food fits into that genre. It's an amalgamation of all of my experience. It's an all-encompassing sort of thing. It doesn't have a genre it falls into.
The press release your publicist sent called Solo a hotspot--Is it possible for a kosher restaurant to be a hot spot for the general population?
You know, that's what I want. I've given myself that as a goal. I don't want people to come in and say: That was a great kosher meal. I want them to say: That was a great meal. Kosher is a genre shunned by serious gastronomes in the general public, and it would be great if that changed. I don't know if it's possible, but I'd like to make it a more accepted place for the general public. The clientele really is a population that eats kosher. And how often to you find serious eaters going into vegetarian restaurants, really taking it seriously?
Did you read that piece in the Times about more people who do not keep kosher buying kosher products in the grocery store? Do you think it has to do with anxiety about food contamination and concern about where food comes from?
I think it's definitely an appealing thing to food clientele, because people are trying to take quality of food to an extreme, to find the best quality possible. It could be another food trend. I also feel that it is good quality, and it's a good way for people to find great food in supermarkets.
What's the most challenging thing about cooking kosher--foods you can't combine, can't use? I feel that it's not really a challenging thing for me. There are things that I would like to do, like to use, combos I would like to use but can't. But all cuisines have rules like that: In traditional Japanese food there's no butter. It's just a different set of rules. It's not challenging, it's something for me to do as a chef. What's your best dish at Solo, or the one you've felt is most interesting or exciting?
It's hard to say, but I've been really excited about our cured arctic char with mustard-cauliflower sauce and pineapple. I've also been excited about a dish I'm doing with Wagu beef tongue with radishes and confit garlic.
I saw on your Twitter feed that you're experimenting with liquid nitrogen in kosher cooking?
I wouldn't call it experimentation, I've used liquid nitro a lot in my culinary career, and I've worked for a lot of chefs who use it. Give me a week or two to get it into the restaurant and I'll use it like I've used it before. Personally, I feel comfortable saying I'm the first kosher restaurant to use liquid nitrogen.
Do you think the diners at Solo will be into that?
You know, the main thing I've found really interesting is that we have a slightly captive audience. They don't have a lot of options, that's why the a la carte menu is so encompassing. It's not an option for them to say: Hey, let's go to the greasy spoon, or hey, let's go to Daniel. So you've got to give them everything.
And especially with our younger clientele, they've been denied forward-thinking food, fine dining, tasting menus. It's something they've been locked out of. Their friends say: Hey, we're going to Jean Georges, and they can't go. So a lot of people find what we're doing very exciting.
The other day, I had a Hasidic man get teary eyed, because he'd never been able to have a dining experience like this. That's not something I anticipated when I started. I've been really taken by that.
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