A rabbi walks into a kitchen with a blowtorch…
It sounds like the start of a joke, but it’s actually the start of the process of kosherizing a kitchen.
It’s Sunday morning and the kitchen staff at the Infinity Convention Centre in Ottawa are stepping around their own kitchen carefully.
Not just because there’s a blowtorch-wielding rabbi walking around, but because they’re hosting their first-ever kosher event and are unsure what they can and can’t use.
“It changes everyone’s workflow because at some point everything becomes muscle memory, you reach for a pan in a certain spot, it’s not there anymore,” said executive chef Jason Peters.
“We’re not allowed to use it because it’s not kosher.”
Peters admits it’s like retraining everyone for one event that will serve 650 kosher meals.
While Peters gives instructions to his cooks, Rabbi Levy Teitelbaum of Ottawa Vaad HaKashrut runs the blue flame over a stainless steel prep table.
It’s the modern way of carrying out a 3,300-year-old tradition of purifying cooking surfaces and instruments so they are kosher.
He said he can kosherize most equipment in the kitchen — either with the blowtorch or by boiling it in a scalding hot pot, but the equipment needs to have been set aside for 24 hours before the process can start.
That’s when they hit a snag.
Peters calls Teitelbaum over as his crew is getting ready to chop vegetables, but the knives were used the night before so they can’t be used now.
“That kind of threw us off in terms of timing and all that,” said Peters.
A group of cooks is dispatched to the local cooking supply store to buy new knives which, fresh out of the package, are already kosher.
That’s in addition to the hundreds of kosher plates, knives and forks that had to be shipped in from Montreal — otherwise, the convention centre would have had to buy their own and use them for kosher-only meals.
The extra cost and work may seem like an inconvenience, but there’s a deeper spiritual meaning behind it.
Teitelbaum explained a kosher diet isn’t just about eating cleaner, healthier food — it’s an entire lifestyle.
“Kosher teaches us restraint and it teaches us self-control because we are careful about the food that we eat,” he said.
In the Jewish faith, food that is eaten becomes part of the people in a spiritual way.
Kosher food can be broken down into three basic groups: meat, dairy and pareve (also known as neutral). Eggs, fruits, vegetables and most grains are considered pareve. However, strict kosher laws say meat and dairy cannot be served during the same meal.
Pigs, shellfish, reptiles and rabbits are not kosher at all and may not be eaten.
READ MORE: Keeping kosher 101: a look at the basics
“If a Jewish person was to eat something that isn’t kosher, in a sense it blocks their spiritual arteries and we want to keep these open to receive the spirituality that’s within the food that gives us sustenance,” explained Teitelbaum.
Cooking kosher is nothing new to Tim Wasylko, the head of food and beverage services at the convention centre.
The former chef at the prime minister’s residence cooked for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2012 during an official visit to Canada.
For this meal, he eschewed the best-known kosher wine, Manischewitz, in favour of a lesser-known, but aptly-named South African vintage, Unorthodox.
Unorthodox is how Wasylko describes the entire operation, pointing out the kitchen is a reflection of the country’s diversity and how we come together as a community.
“It really kind of shows what Canada is made of,” said Wasylko.
“We have Muslim cooks doing a kosher event, we’ve done Muslim events where we bring in halal meat. It’s a very versatile space.”
Teitelbaum applauded the convention centre for making the move to kosherize their kitchen, even if it’s just for one event.
If they host another kosher meal, the entire process will have to be repeated — but say they likely won’t forget about the knives again.