People crowdfund all kinds of projects these days–art shows, T-shirt businesses, indie rock bands. Emily Weisburg is crowdfunding a sustainable kosher restaurant. The 26-year-old Wisconsin native, who now lives in the Riverdale neighborhood of the Bronx, New York, has plans to open Moss Café, an eatery that, according to her Kickstarter project page, is “committed to community, sustainability, quality, and creativity”—and also happens to be certified kosher.
If the notion of a sustainable kosher restaurant seems like an oxymoron, it shouldn’t be. The ancient Jewish laws themselves—which prohibit the consumption of pork and nix the mixing of milk and meat, among other things—have little to say about the modern notion of eating local or organic. But, more kosher keeping people who also want their kale, are finding ways to merge their spiritual and ethical values on the same plate.
“I believe that God created the Earth for us to inhabit with the understanding that we would care for it,” said Weisburg. “Eating unsustainably violates that pact.” On that front, she plans to work with local farmers to source eggs, dairy, produce, grain, honey, and maple syrup. “We even plan to use Atlantic sea salt that is harvested right off of Long Island,” she said. The coffee Weisburg plans to serve will also be locally roasted.
The word kosher, which literally means “fit” in Hebrew, refers to the Jewish dietary laws that have guided the way Jewish people eat throughout history. Over the last century, as the American food system has grown more regulated, the kosher world followed suit, instituting a certification system where companies that make processed and packaged foods are inspected by supervisors called mashgichim and given a stamp of approval to show that their products were made in accordance with the kosher laws. Some unprocessed foods like fruits, vegetables, and eggs are considered inherently kosher, and do not require certification.
Today, only about 1 million Jews in America keep strictly kosher, but the kosher food industry has grown tremendously anyway. According to Sue Fishkoff’s book, Kosher Nation, an additional 10 million people actively seek out kosher-certified food, presuming it has undergone a higher level of scrutiny. A vegetarian, for example, can know that a product that is certified as “kosher/dairy,” will never contain any meat or animal products. That said, the kosher laws do not regulate animal welfare or other ethical considerations, so consumers should not assume that kosher certification alone guarantees either.
New York City is, perhaps not surprisingly, an epicenter of the kosher sustainable scene. Throughout the city, a growing handful of kosher restaurants have begun to distinguish themselves from the status quo by adding ethically sourced ingredients to their menus. Basil, an upscale, Italian-inspired restaurant in Brooklyn, for example, punctuates its regular menu of wood fired pizzas and artisanal pasta dishes with seasonal produce.
Not far away, the menu at Pardes, an artisanal, meat-centric restaurant, is filled with local ingredients. This past spring, chef Moshe Wendel featured fiddlehead ferns and stinging nettles served alongside a chicken dish and ramps and pickled mushrooms served with a plate of lamb belly. Wendel buys sustainably raised, humanely slaughtered kosher meat (more on that soon), and partners with local farms for eggs and produce, including Migliorelli Farm and Feather Ridge Farm in the Hudson Valley.
Meanwhile, the kosher small plates restaurant, Mason & Mug, which opened in Brooklyn last November (and also took part in a crowdfunding campaign through Indiegogo) prides itself on using seasonal flavors and supporting local purveyors. An iced chai latte, for example, comes stirred with rich, grassy milk from Bethel Creamery, a dairy owned by an observant Jew in the Catskills. Last fall, Mason & Mug’s co-owner and head chef Itta Werdiger-Roth transformed a bumper crop of apples from Lancaster, Pennsylvania into apple tarts, cakes, and apple-black pepper jam. And come summer, she adorned their cheeseboard with fresh cherries from Red Jacket Orchards in the Finger Lakes.
“People have asked why we never use tomatoes, because until about three weeks ago, I hadn’t bought one tomato since we opened,” Werdiger-Roth said. “But you gotta be patient for nature!”
Werdiger-Roth grew up in a Hasidic Orthodox family in Melbourne, Australia. She grew up eating traditional Ashkenazi (Eastern European-influenced) Jewish cuisine–dishes like potato kugel and the hearty meat and barley stew, cholent–which is not typically known for its diversity of fresh produce. But Werdiger-Roth credits her mother’s unusual love of cooking with vegetables (“she had a really close relationship with our green grocer!”) as the foundation of her own commitment.
Just outside of New York City, ETC Steakhouse in Teaneck, New Jersey prides itself on its seasonally shifting menu. The restaurant also has its own farm called SunPoz about 50 miles south, making it the first kosher farm-to-table restaurant of its kind. Further afield in Oakland, California, chef Isaac Bernstein has transformed the notion of kosher catering with his company, Epic Bites. He ferments his own vinegars (most recently with nasturtium flowers), and regularly incorporates regional ingredients like Pacific sea grass into his dishes
Beyond restaurants, a handful of food companies have also begun to bring an ethical mindset to kosher food products. Take Grow & Behold, a Brooklyn-based meat company that eschews hormones and antibiotics and partners with small farms to provide customers with kosher, pasture-raised poultry, beef and lamb. Grow & Behold also supplies a variety of restaurants, including Pardes and Epic Bites, helping to spread the gospel of good kosher meat even further.
Likewise, Gefilteria, a boutique Jewish food company, also located in Brooklyn, updates Passover’s classic fish quenelles with a mix of sustainably-sourced whitefish, pike, and salmon. Gefilteria also produces beet kvass, an Old World, live-culture drink made from naturally fermented beets. While the company’s reach extends far beyond the kosher and Jewish markets, it was important to founders Jeffery Yoskowitz and Liz Alpern that their products were accessible to people across the denominational spectrum.
Weisburg feels similarly. She grew up in a non-Jewish family “surrounded by farmland,” where eating rhubarb from her great aunt’s backyard and buying sweet corn from farm stands was simply a part of life. When she realized she wanted to convert to Judaism in college at University of Wisconsin-Madison, she began studying with a local rabbi, but did not leave her farm-centric heritage behind. After college, she moved to Israel, where she got married and had a baby, while running a pop-up café in Jerusalem that served as the precursor to Moss Café. As she wrote on her Kickstarter page, she came back to America “with an even stronger desire to build a diverse community around food.”
For some, the particular laws of kashrut serve as a psychological or logistical barrier to eating well–they direct so much energy and focus toward the traditional laws, that more contemporary issues fall by the wayside. But Weisberg, and a growing group of like-minded observant Jewish cooks, think differently. “There are no kosher laws that say food has to be bland, boring, or leave a huge carbon footprint,” she said. “I want to be a part of changing that.”