Kosher Charcuterie and Pretzel Challah Bread from a French Tunisian Chef | KCET
Kosher Charcuterie and Pretzel Challah Bread from a French Tunisian Chef
Thanks to creative, internationally-inspired twists on kosher cuisine, a small cafe on Pico Boulevard has developed a loyal following far beyond its neighboring Jewish community. Chef Alain Cohen, owner of the shop known as Got Kosher?, draws upon his Tunisian and French background as well as the diverse culinary influences of Los Angeles to create an eclectic menu that upends eaters’ expectations, even those who don’t keep kosher.
On the menu, you’ll find French-Tunisian classics such as merguez sausages, crispy breik a l’oeuf, hearty tajines and couscous feasts. The newly expanded deli next door to the cafe offers complete Shabbat meals for pickup, and also hosts Texas-style barbecues on Sundays, an unexpected sight for a kosher shop. For years, Cohen has been defying expectations with creations such as his highly sought-after challah breads with innovative twists, including a unique pretzel rendition with rosemary and olives. And now he’s taken on another culinary challenge by creating kosher charcuterie to offer otherwise hard to find kosher takes on cured meats like salami, pancetta and prosciutto.
“When I moved to America from Paris, I got served kosher food and found it to be not so good, I said, 'Guys, you don't know what kosher food is.' It was bland, uninteresting, all the clichés about kosher food. When you come from Tunisia, where I was born, and growing up in Paris, you have this whole palate of taste with herbs and spices and everything, combined with the French style of cooking. Then you come here, and in the 80s, there were not as many interesting restaurants even in existence in L.A., it was very plain as a city in terms of food. I was shocked, and I said, 'I have to do something.”
Born in Tunisia, Cohen moved to Paris with his family in the early 1960s when he was just six years old. “I was completely impressed by France,” he says. “It was the first time I ever saw ice and snow on the street. Although we spoke French when we arrived there, I felt like I was a peasant because of all the fancy French pronunciations.” His father opened a small, hole-in-the-wall wine bar where they gradually introduced Tunisian specialties to feed customers. The challenge, however, was that the space didn’t have a kitchen at the time. That meant that Cohen’s mother would cook the food at home in the suburbs and a nine-year-old Cohen would have to transport the food to Paris by public transportation, an ordeal he does not remember fondly. “I was with my rattan bags full meatballs and couscous taking the bus and Metro for about 45 minutes to an hour,” explains Cohen. “The first impression was one of shame and embarrassment because the fried meatballs would smell, and everyone on the bus would smell them, and I would try to hide it.”
Not long after, Cohen’s father expanded the business with a kitchen and more space, bringing an end to the need for delivering the food, and offering Cohen a chance to learn more of the family trade. “I really learned the business from scratch, from busboy to waiter to the bar,” says Cohen, who notes that the bar was less like an alcohol-only bar, instead offering an extensive menu largely designed to keep people ordering more rounds. “A typical Tunisian drinking party would be about three or four people and they drink Boukha, an alcohol made of fig, or beer or wine, and we would automatically serve plates of food with each round, maybe fried fish or merguez sausage, anything appetizing and salty so they'd keep drinking.”
While working at his father’s restaurant, Cohen began taking an interest in cooking, and while he never explicitly learned refined French techniques, he soaked up quite a bit from observation and experimentation. “What really pushed my development into cooking was that I wanted to impress my father,” he says. “So we would have guests at home and I would volunteer to cook, which was unusual for a boy in a Jewish Tunisian family. I learned to taste and whatever I saw them cook at my father's restaurant, I tried to do it, and I invented things or play around with food and develop my sense of cuisine.” Cohen also says that while attending school, he gained an appreciation for non-kosher foods, which were strictly forbidden in his home.
After years of helping with the family business and experimenting in the kitchen, Cohen decided to pursue another passion of his: film. He worked for a while in French television, which included directing two short documentaries about Jewish and Arab communities living together peacefully on the island of Djerba, just off the southern coast of Tunisia.
Later he returned to his family’s restaurant to help them remodel, and also developed the menu further with dishes that blended elements of French and Tunisian cuisines. “Some of these innovations had never been seen before in the Tunisian community in Paris, and as far as I can recall it was the first time someone was fusing those two cuisines,” says Cohen. “I don't claim to have created the genre, but it was just a revelation in our community.” But it wasn’t long before the allure of filmmaking drew his attention toward Hollywood.
“I wanted to be a filmmaker, so after helping to renovate the restaurant which became very successful and I felt I had repaid my father — he had helped produce two of my documentaries — I moved to Los Angeles,” says Cohen. In L.A., Cohen studied at the American Film Institute and after completing the program, began working in film production. But he soon encountered significant challenges to his career choice. “I didn't know anybody and my English was from schoolbooks, so people couldn't understand a word,” he explains. “It's a very difficult handicap.”
Cohen eventually married and had a child, and faced with the ubiquitous challenges of breaking into Hollywood compounded by the language barrier, he decided to return to the restaurant business. In 1993, he purchased Tampico Tilly’s, a 350-seat Mexican restaurant in Santa Monica. “The old owner kept it until Cinco de Mayo and then sold it to me the next day so he could keep all of the money from that day,” admits Cohen. “I didn't know those things at the time.” He managed to build up the business, but when the Northridge earthquake hit in January of 1994, Cohen says business dropped dramatically and he lost 40% of his revenue overnight. After years of guerrilla marketing and working hard to keep the business going, Cohen shifted gears again and opened a nightclub with world music, reggae, salsa and Brazilian music. But it wasn’t long before his Santa Monica neighbors, who were not interested in a nightclub in the area, forced him to shut down operations.
Not to be discouraged, Cohen went on to work at several other L.A. establishments, spanning a diverse array of styles and service, including a fine dining restaurant in Pasadena, Jerry's Deli and then as food and beverage director at Raleigh Studios. He then went to become the manager of the store at La Brea Bakery, next door to Campanile at the time, where he says he learned a great deal from celebrated chef Nancy Silverton, “I learned from her the importance of quality. Quality breads, meats, cheese, olive oil, quality everything.”
Then in 2000, Cohen put his experience and insights to task when he was asked to consult on a new gourmet grab-and-go sandwich shop at the California Mart in the Fashion District. There he featured artisanal bread, imported European meats and dark chocolates, as well as French-Tunisian flourishes. He designed the menu and developed the space from the ground up, including learning the ropes of permits and other city bureaucracy. Then just before opening, Cohen was suddenly informed by one of the investors, who was Jewish and from Morocco, that everything at the shop had to be kosher. “Everything was prosciutto and jamón and mortadella, and definitely not kosher,” Cohen says. “So I had two weeks to change the menu, find a supplier and retrain the staff.”
The last minute change to a kosher menu, however, ultimately proved fortuitous — and ultimately life-changing — as one of Cohen’s customer offered to finance a kosher business run by Cohen on Pico Boulevard. Beginning in 2005, Cohen began making kosher sandwiches with La Brea Bakery bread to supply both USC and UCLA. They eventually expanded to service hospitals in the area, creating kosher meals that were inspired by Cohen’s French-Tunisian upbringing. “We had things like beef bourguignon and chicken tagine with preserved lemon,” Cohen says. “And after I saw the orders increasing, the nurses told me that the non-kosher patients are ordering the kosher food.”
Then came a big change for Cohen, “That's when I became kosher myself. Initially I was just dealing with the manager of the cafeterias where I would deliver my sandwiches and that was it. The day I said, ‘We're going to open a store and have the public come in, and the name of our business is Got Kosher?’, I looked at myself in the mirror, and said, 'I cannot sell kosher if I am not kosher myself." And with that Cohen went kosher cold turkey.
“The moment I made the decision, I felt a ton of weight lift up from my body,” Cohen admits. “Because up until that point, every time I would eat pork or shrimp or whatever, I had a voice telling me, 'You're not supposed to do that'. It was a tiny and buried voice, but it was always there. The moment I decided to go kosher, it was like my soul was coming home. Finally, I joined the tribe, my family, my roots.”
Cohen admits that up until that point, he thought he knew what it meant to keep kosher, but says he learned a lot when he made the decision to commit fully. “The first thing I realized was that decision kept me Jewish,” he says. “Before that, I saw myself like I think many millions of young Jews, sliding the slippery slope, saying, ‘It's old, archaic, who cares? Or, I don't have the time.’ I realized when you pay attention and decide to follow the rules, it becomes a discipline, like a Martial Art, it becomes for your mind and soul a way to stay Jewish and understand what it means to be Jewish and why you are Jewish. So every time you open your mouth to put something in it, which happens many times a day, you have to think. It trains your consciousness like a muscle.”
“When you say you're Jewish and kosher in 2017 in Los Angeles, and you have friends that are hip, you're like a party pooper,” adds Cohen. “But the fact that you stay with it, creates some kind of admiration and respect from others who see you as serious and committed. It's important to me to pass on this tradition to the kids so that they carry on the mission that we've had to bear witness to the presence and reality of G-d and the teachings that we receive.”
As Cohen sees it, the kosher laws tend to be thought of just as a set of strict rules about what you can and can’t eat, but he says it goes beyond just rules. “There's immense literature of rules that the rabbis have developed. But behind that, what's the motivation? The motivation is compassion,” says Cohen. “The law of kosher tells you that you cannot kill an animal savagely, you have to kill it in a way that is very fast and not painful so they don't suffer. My sense is that the original impulse of kosher laws was to have compassion and to teach compassion of humans towards animals. I think being aware of what kosher is and practicing kosher food is very important philosophically and almost politically.” Cohen adds that while there are many degrees of being kosher, which people apply in different ways depending on their perspective, at the core he feels that being kosher, “Really forces you to reflect, to think, to choose, to define yourself.”
The menu at Got Kosher? reflects Cohen’s desire to expand people’s perceptions of what kosher food can be and to show that he can utilize a diverse array of culinary traditions to bring delicious flavors to what some perceive as a limiting diet. Initially, Cohen focused on his renditions of traditional French and Tunisian recipes. One such dish definitely worth ordering is breik a l'oeuf, a quintessential Tunisian street food, which Cohen says can be found on nearly every corner there. “They have a little shop with a huge pan full of oil. And there's a guy sitting next to it on a chair, and he takes the malsouka [a paper thin dough similar to phyllo], puts an egg and different things like tuna, capers and parsley, then he folds it puts it in the oil, then turns it over, drain it and give it to you. All day long.”
At Got Kosher? you’ll also find that during the week the salad bar used at lunch, converts into a couscous bar in the evening. There you’ll find the refined bulgar steamed so it's light and fluffy, with a variety of ingredients that can be added to make a meal, including broth, vegetables, meats, and specific to Tunisia, meatballs. “The recipe is really a best kept secret that mother transfers to daughter, and guarded until you die. But I got it!,” boasts Cohen. “It's the national dish of every Jewish family in Tunisia every Friday night. There's no other alternative, couscous is a given. So we've become experts, we know every variation. There are a thousand ways to make it.”
The couscous is also traditionally served with a variety of sides and salads, such as baba ganoush, hummus and carrots with fennel. Cohen explains that many of those leftover sides are then served the following day with cholent, a stew that in keeping with the rules of the Sabbath, requires no active cooking. Depending on where the recipe is from, cholent will include beans, wheat or barley, meat, egg, potatoes and other hearty ingredients, which are left to simmer in a slow cooker the night before. Traditionally, the pot of ingredients were brought to the local baker with each family’s name on the pot, and left to slowly cook in the residual heat of the baker’s oven. Similarly, Got Kosher? serves as a communal kitchen of sorts, serving up cholent every Friday night as part of their special Shabbat menu offerings.
Over time, Cohen began experimenting with a variety of cholent recipes that evolved over time as Jewish populations migrated to different regions of the world, and now rotates each week between four different versions. Studying the trajectory of cholent as it evolved from Palestine to North Africa, as well as throughout the Middle East and onward through Poland, Russia and elsewhere, Cohen was inspired to explore the ways that other dishes and ingredients are connected around the world. “I started noticing overlapping flavors, techniques, ingredients and spices between different cuisines, and that's how he became aware of how amazing it is the way food travels,” says Cohen. It was then that he was inspired with the ambitious experiment of creating kosher food from every country in the world. “So every week I do Shabbat pickups and so far, we have explored over 36 different cuisines. We've done Korean, Syrian, Mexican, English, French, Japanese and so on, and made them kosher.”
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Cohen was also inspired to experiment with the challah loaves that he began baking. “I wanted to do something interesting and unusual with it because my food was already unusual for L.A. as Tunisian-French food and kosher,” he recalls. “I remembered that at La Brea Bakery, Nancy Silverton took a ficelle, a French bread that's thinner than a baguette, and made a pretzel ficelle.” So inspired by Silverton, as well as the pretzel croissant from the since-closed City Bakery, Cohen created his now legendary pretzel challah. As word spread and demand grew, he began trying out other flavor combinations, and currently offers around seven to nine versions, including one with Belgian dark chocolate, and one with olives and rosemary inspired by his French upbringing. The loaves now fly out the door and can be found in supermarkets around Southern California and are shipped across the country. “It became a bit of a revolution, and people would come from all over L.A. and my little store was packed.”
As the popularity of Got Kosher? grew and Cohen became busier with Shabbat takeout orders, he decided to expand again, creating a deli for take out on one side and a larger sit-down cafe where the original space had been. In the cases of the deli, you’ll find an array of prepared salads and sides, including both French-Tunisian dishes and American-style options such as Waldorf chicken, tuna and egg salads. The shop also offers an extensive array of dressings and mayo options, including a signature peppery harissa one, all of which are kept kosher and vegan thanks to the use of tofu. Cohen also prides himself on his desserts such as the chocolate pretzel challah bread pudding and even French pastries and cheesecake made with Tofutti, so that one can enjoy brisket followed by a creamy dessert without breaking kosher laws.
With the expansion and more coolers to fill, Cohen has also been inspired to experiment an unusual foray into kosher charcuterie, which he calls “Faux Treif” — a clever play on the Yiddish word for non-kosher food. “Faux Treif is two negatives that become a positive — it's kosher,” explains Cohen. “I make prosciutto with beef because pork is forbidden, so I took beef and applied the same techniques. I've also made soppressata and saucisson sec. I also do a very Tunisian merguez sausage, so it's a culmination of my original thing, what I learned in France and what can be done in the kosher world.” Cohen also adds that the project had a personal inspiration as well, “The charcuterie was born of my lust for pork, I remembered that taste and wanted to find it, but wanted to do it kosher. People love it, I have to make more and more now.”
Beyond his own personal culinary curiosity and hunger, Cohen explains the inspiration behind creating dishes that offer kosher versions of typically non-kosher foods, “The reason I'm doing this is to give people that experience to young Jews so that they don't have to cross the line and go taste pork and all of that. They can have it all and still stay kosher.” As an example he mentions a young woman who ordered one of his burgers that uses dairy-free cheese and pastrami bacon, and was overjoyed with the opportunity to finally experience a bacon cheeseburger. He also adds that even those who aren’t kosher can still enjoy the menu, thanks to the creative and flavor-packed options. There’s also an extensive selection of vegetarian and vegan options, that appeal to an array of health-minded Angelenos. “People who eat kosher, it's a natural to come here,” says Cohen. “People who aren't kosher feel more comfortable because when a product has the kosher symbol, it has a connotation of pure, clean, good to eat and all of that. There's more acceptance of kosher in the mainstream now.”
Cohen credits Los Angeles with helping to shape the creative diversity of his menu and encouraging him to push beyond expectations of what kosher cuisine is thought to be. “L.A. influenced me a lot,” he says. “I discovered Mexican cuisine, which I didn't know at all. I discovered Japanese cuisine. When I arrived here in 1981, French was at the top of the town, but then it started to go down and Italian became the fancy thing, and then a few years later, that went down and you started having more Japanese and then Mexican because of the books of Kathleen Kennedy and Rick Bayless in Chicago. And then Korean and then Thai. So I've seen the emergence of these cuisines, and following along and going to the latest hip restaurants, and all of that has enriched me enormously. Now you find everything everywhere and everyone takes it for granted, but it didn't happen all together.”
He also compares the evolution of L.A.’s overlapping culinary layers to that of Tunisian cuisine, which has been greatly influenced by an array of cultures over the years. From the Berberes to the Romans, to the Turkish-Ottoman Empire to the Italians and French, “Now it's all these layers are like a lasagna with each contributing a food type, technique or ingredient.” Cohen adds that he’s always been naturally receptive to exploring all of those layers, wherever he goes. “I was born curious. There are two types of customers: those that look at the menu to find something they're familiar with, and the other type, which I am, I look for something I don't know. It's a different mentality.”
Top Image: Rosemary and olive pretzel challah | Got Kosher?
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