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Charotte, North Carolina Hotels Going Kosher: Local Rabbis
 Turning on the Ovens at the Westin, Omni, Marriott

By Deborah Hirsch, The Charlotte Observer, N.C.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Jun. 22, 2007 --Armed with a blowtorch and jug of kosher vinegar, orthodox rabbi Binyomin Weiss swept into the kitchen at Best Impressions catering in South End at 7 a.m. on a recent Sunday.

Despite the unusual gear, this was a perfectly normal occasion for Weiss of Ohr HaTorah. He was there to kasher the kitchen, or make it kosher according to Jewish dietary laws. That requires hours of preparation under rabbinic scrutiny and some serious sterilization, hence the blowtorch.

As the Jewish community in Charlotte has grown -- it's estimated at more than 10,000 people -- the practice of kashering kitchens has spread to local commercial catering.

Rabbis from Charlotte's orthodox and conservative congregations began kashering local commercial kitchens in the mid-'80s, at first maybe one every other year, said Ohr HaTorah head rabbi Yossi Groner. The past few years, Groner said it's increased to about 10 events annually.

Local Jews may have felt it was too difficult to throw kosher events, so they didn't bother, Groner said. "Now they know it's available, and so they want it."

In the past, kosher events often required bringing in a caterer from out of town or booking the kitchen at Temple Israel, the conservative synagogue. Seeing a business niche, the Westin hotel decided to keep a set of kosher cookware and dishes for about 600 people when the hotel opened in April 2003, said Marc Cassier, catering director.

The following year, the Westin and uptown Hilton hotels began holding kosher evenings at their restaurants every other month or so, Groner said. That stopped after Gleiberman's, 5668 D International Drive in Charlotte, opened the first and only kosher restaurant in the area last July. But the number of places hosting kosher events continued to grow, including the Omni Hotel, uptown Holiday Inn and Marriott, Best Impressions catering, and most recently, the Levine Museum of the New South and newly opened Embassy Suites in Concord.

"It is an undertaking, but it's nice to be involved in something different," said James Fox, executive chef at Best Impressions.

Meeting with chefs

If a kitchen isn't kosher, rabbis can kasher it by heating nonkosher items, ideally until they turn red-hot, to purify them.First, though, rabbis will meet with chefs a few days before an event to go over the menu and check ingredients to make sure they're kosher, indicated by a circle U or K symbol on the packaging. If the kitchen doesn't have kosher cooking materials in a sealed room, cookware must be set aside for 24 hours so flavors cooked into the utensils have time to deteriorate.

A couple of hours before cooking is scheduled to start, a rabbi will begin sterilizing the cookware and covering nonkosher cooking surfaces.

In addition to the blowtorch and vinegar, Weiss brought a gas tank and personal cooking implements, in case chef Fox needed them for the Sunday luncheon in late May.

As a vat of water heats up, Weiss fires the blowtorch into the oven, waving it across the racks to burn away food drippings that could contaminate a kosher dish. He chats amiably about his experiences kashering and inspecting kosher food plants, chuckling at the memory of a chef who accidentally fried an oven thermostat with the blowtorch.

"It was kosher, but it wasn't functioning," Weiss says wryly.

Behind him, the stovetop sizzles as gas flames sear the burners, which have been flipped to lie in the heat.

Weiss moves on to the cookware, feeling each piece for bits of food, then dipping them into the vinegar-laced roiling water to ensure that previous flavors are negated. "Look what I caught, kosher knives," he says, using a colander to pull up the dripping utensils. "Success!"

Two hours later, Fox's chefs are ready to get started.

But Weiss isn't done yet. A rabbi must be involved in the entire cooking process. That means he must turn on the oven or any stove burners. He'll take shifts with other rabbis so one is there to supervise until the end, just in case a cook grabs nonkosher utensils or ingredients.

The Ohr HaTorah rabbis used to kasher kitchens for free, but business has grown so much they now charge around $20 an hour for the time and cost of renting the torch, Groner said. Caterers might also bill customers for their effort or higher-priced ingredients. The Westin charges about 25 percent more for a kosher event.

Penny Lipsitz, who held a kosher bar mitzvah party for her son Ari at the Westin in May 2005, said it's worth it. Local businesses provide better service and food than outside caterers, she said.

"A lot of people...respect and appreciate the fact that as a community we have this option available," she said. "They take advantage of it to make sure it still exists."

Lipsitz is planning another bar mitzvah party this summer for her son Asher. But she's still not sure where to have it.

"I have options for the first time!"

WHAT IS KOSHER?

Kosher, the Hebrew word for "fit" or "proper," refers to Jewish dietary laws and eating practices first outlined more than 2,000 years ago in the Torah. The Torah doesn't actually give a rationale for keeping kosher. Some speculate that the rules helped prevent health problems in ancient times. Even though there may not be a practical reason, some Jews still keep kosher to connect with their faith and tradition. Kosher laws dictate:

HOW ANIMALS MUST BE KILLED

--Shochets, or ritual slaughterers, recite prayers while killing an animal in the most respectful and painless way possible.

WHAT FOODS ARE FORBIDDEN

--These include fish without fins or scales, land animals without cloven hoofs that do not chew cud, most predatory birds and a number of insects.

HOW MEALS MUST BE PREPARED

--Meat and dairy are not supposed to be cooked, eaten or prepared together because it is considered disrespectful to mix foods that provide life-giving nourishment with those obtained through death. That means a kosher kitchen would not only be free of forbidden foods, but also have separate sets of dishes and cookware for dairy and meat meals.

Deborah Hirsch: 803-547-9000 ext. 40

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Copyright (c) 2007, The Charlotte Observer, N.C.

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