Baseball / Cholent at Yankee Stadium
Chef Ouri Nidam has come a long way from the Knesset to the famed ballpark, where he rubs shoulders with celebrities as a matter of course
NEW YORK - Visitors to the new Yankee Stadium craving falafel, shawarma or matbuha (red pepper and tomato salad) should seek out the services of chef Ouri Nidam.
Nidam runs the kosher food concession stand at the home of the legendary baseball team, which is seeking to win its first World Series since 2000. At the state-of-the-art stadium, which opened four months ago following a $1.5 billion investment, Nidam also serves skewered meats, hummus, Moroccan cigars, and even cholent (on Thursdays, not on Saturdays, as his restaurant is glatt kosher). "At the stadium, I serve foods of all the ethnic groups, gourmet," he says.
Nidam's customers at the stadium come mainly from the VIP crowd. "They purchase tickets for $1,000-2,500 per game and receive this food for free," says Nidam. "At that price, why not?" There are also celebrities among them, including Jack Nicholson and Kate Hudson. To the general public he also serves more American food, such as hot dogs and chicken nuggets.
The lion's share of his customers, he says, are not even Jewish. "They prefer kosher food because it's considered cleaner and more carefully handled. Most of the restaurants in the VIP section serve regular food. Pasta and pizzas and hamburgers. I serve unusual foods here."
The Yankee Stadium restaurant is only one element of Nidam's businesses; his New York catering company also supplies food for events hosted by well-to-do Jews. One of his clients, for example, is Yitzhak Tshuva.
Nidam is used to being around celebrities, but of a different kind. In the early 1990s he worked as the Knesset chef for two years, feeding Yitzhak Rabin, Benjamin Netanyahu, Ehud Olmert and many others. He also cooked for events hosted by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.
Nidam, 40, has traveled a winding road from the Knesset to Yankee Stadium. He was born and raised in Jerusalem and eventually started working for his brother's catering business. When he was 20, he prepared food for the wedding of the Baba Sali's grandson.
"Chefs from the King David and the Hilton were supposed to come," he recalls, "but for whatever reason they were late. My brother said 'start cooking,' and I worked like a madman. At 11 P.M., at the end of the wedding, people wanted to know who prepared the food. It was a big success. "After the army I heard that the Knesset needed a chef," he continues.
"I was a 22-year-old kid. I went and cooked there from the heart, the way my mother cooks. For example, I made kubbeh the way my mother makes it at home. There are many Kurds in the Knesset, and they all love it. The truth is, Ashkenazim also learned to eat this food. I started preparing food for events at the home of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. I prepared madias and tongue with mustard. At the rabbi's house I met Edmund Safra and Jack Avital [a businessman and prominent member of the Israeli community in New York]."
What does Netanyahu like, for example? "Bibi eats a lot of fish and salads. He eats relatively healthy food. Arik Sharon loved food a lot. Fish and lamb. What was interesting at the Knesset was that on television you would see Shas and Tibi eating each other up in front of the camera. And then afterward, they would come to eat next to each other at my table and everyone's friends."
Nidam arrived in New York in 2000. "I came here on a trip," he recalls. "A friend of mine took me to a wedding of Syrian Jews. It was a million-dollar wedding. And it sparked an ambition inside of me. I decided to stay. I worked for a guy who had a small sandwich bar. After eight months, he introduced me to the manager of the She'arei Zion banquet hall, a large events space in Brooklyn where many people held events, and I started working there."
Nidam came to the Yankees via Ikey Franco, a minor partner in the group. They met at Avital's home, when Nidam was preparing a Shabbat meal attended by Sharon on his last visit to New York City. Eventually, when the new Yankee Stadium was nearing completion, Franco suggested he apply for the job.
"I didn't know what the Yankees were," says Nidam, "I said I wanted to think about it. He laughed and said, 'What do you mean? Is this something you need to think about? Do you understand what I'm offering you here?' It took me some time until I finally understood that this is the number one team in the world.
"I went to an interview with the directors of Legends, a Texas hospitality company that runs the food concessions at the stadium," he continues.
"I called my mother, with whom I consult all the time. I was nervous, also because of my English. She said, 'What do you have to be afraid of? If in the heavens they want you to get this job, then you'll get it. And if not, then you won't.' At her suggestion, I went alone. The truth is that during the meeting, my English made them laugh. I explained to them that I don't bring in frozen food. Everything is fresh. I don't think they understood half of my English. But in the end I got the franchise."
Nidam rubs shoulders with famous people as a matter of course. "A few weeks ago I got onto the elevator," he says. "The truth is, I'm not very well versed in baseball and the players. And here I am in the elevator and there are two guys in it and I'm trying to have a polite conversation with them. 'Are you enjoying the game', I asked. And they started to laugh. When they got out, the security man asked me, 'Don't you know who they are?' I said no. 'That was Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter, two of the Yankees' biggest stars,' he said."
"They probably thought I was kidding around with them. But then they realized that I was for real."