No Bread for Obama: Presidential Fare to Be Kosher for Passover

The entire King David Hotel, where he’ll be staying with an entourage that will fill all 233 rooms from Wednesday March 20 to Friday March 22, will be made kosher for Passover (Pesach) ahead of his visit.

Ilene Prusher
Ilene Prusher
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Ilene Prusher
Ilene Prusher

The King David will roll out the carpet, but hold the rolls. With the hotel in a security lockdown, all the food necessary for the trip and the prosperous Pesach crowd to follow is being stored in containers out back.

When U.S. President Barack Obama said yes to a long-overdue visit next week, his first since becoming president in 2008, it’s not clear that he knew what he was getting himself into. Gastronomically, anyway. The entire King David Hotel, where he’ll be staying with an entourage that will fill all 233 rooms from Wednesday March 20 to Friday March 22, will be made kosher for Passover (Pesach) ahead of his visit.

Were the staff of Israel’s most famous hotel to have waited until Obama and his team departs next Friday, it simply wouldn’t have left the King David enough time to get ready for the holiday, which is an enormously important time for nearly every hotel in the Jewish state – especially in Jerusalem.

“We’re used to hosting heads of state and also American presidents, but this situation is very special for us because it’s so close to Pesach,” says hotel manager Dror Danino. “For us it will be double the preparations.” The additional security necessary for ensuring the president’s safety means that the entire hotel will be “under siege,” as he put it, meaning that everything necessary for servicing the hotel during the president’s visit must be there in advance of his arrival – from food to linens. As such, the hotel had to rent out huge refrigerated containers and park them out back, just to accommodate all the food and drink that won’t be able to be delivered during the visit – and which will be needed for the well-heeled Passover guests who will arrive straight after Obama and stay through the following week.

Danino, who at 36 looks a bit fresh-faced for someone charged with the coordination of such a presidential visit, says he’s confident that the long experience of the staff, who’ll be working overtime, will ensure the visit goes smoothly. Among the things that they anticipate will be more intense during Obama’s visit is room service, which will be open 24 hours and is expected to be used by hungry staffers holding late-night sessions.

Hopefully, someone will have warned them in advance not to expect cheeseburgers or club sandwiches. On top of the normal kashrut limitations, bread, pasta and pizza will all be missed among those looking for a carb fix – alongside those tasty muffins and pastries served at breakfast. Given that this has been the most foodie-focused White House to date, with the first lady declaring war on junk food and childhood obesity, it’s not clear whether this will be good for Obama’s impression of Israel or not.

For those who need a reminder, Passover commemorates the exodus of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. In recalling the story of the haste in which their ancestors left their enslavement, Jews avoid all “leavened” foods, including bread. But every Jew from a more observant background knows that bread just scratches the surface of the things we are commanded not to touch – or even own in the deep depths of our freezers. For many, the holiday entails expunging from the kitchen every trace of grain and legume, scouring the house into an almost sterile state, covering any surface that cannot be “kashered” with sheets of plastic or aluminum foil, and – most outstanding for the uninitiated – switching out one’s usual dishes, glasses and utensils for a set that only makes an appearance once a year, on Passover.

All of which becomes almost as onerous as slavery, particularly if one is trying to do it for a few thousand guests. Executive Chef Michel Nabet acknowledges that this presents some special challenges, but says the key is to come up with alternative dishes, rather than try to make some kind of imitation panini that just isn’t up to scratch.

“Today, there are replacements – we can do a decent roll that will taste a lot like brioche,” says Nabet, a native of France who’s been the chief chef here for seven years. “But I prevent my staff from working with a pasta that is not so good. So, we won’t eat pasta and Obama won’t either, it’s not so bad. We’ll eat more fresh vegetables – we have no shortage of ingredients.”

He declines to reveal the menu, but says he doesn’t like to pander to politicians' palates.

“I’m not trying to find out what he likes and recreate it here. We have very good food here and we’ll serve it well, in the best possible way. Whatever he’s used to eating there, well, it just can’t be translated into a menu here,” he adds.

Nabet has actually met Obama once before. The wall of his modest office is adorned with photos of some of the famous guests he’s cooked for at the hotel, and one includes a snapshot with him shaking hands with Obama when the president was just a senator from Illinois – and presidential hopeful.

The King David Hotel in Jerusalem ahead of U.S. President Barack Obama's visit in March.
The King David Hotel in Jerusalem ahead of U.S. President Barack Obama's visit in March.
The King David Hotel in Jerusalem ahead of U.S. President Barack Obama's visit in March.
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The King David Hotel in Jerusalem ahead of U.S. President Barack Obama's visit in March. Credit: Emil Salman
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The King David Hotel in Jerusalem ahead of U.S. President Barack Obama's visit in March. Credit: Emil Salman
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The King David Hotel in Jerusalem ahead of U.S. President Barack Obama's visit in March. Credit: Emil Salman
The King David Hotel in Jerusalem ahead of U.S. President Barack Obama's visit in March.

The employee who has probably served more presidents and prime ministers than anyone else at the storied hotel is Morris Omezguine, the restaurant’s head waiter. He’s been working here for 45 years, he says with pride, and has served Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Menachem Begin, and when he was brand-new on the job, David Ben-Gurion. The idea of another U.S. president arriving makes him glad, but not nervous.

“I only got nervous once,” he recalls. [Anwar] Sadat and Begin were meeting, and they sent me up to serve tea. My hands were shaking and some of it spilled. Begin said, ‘What’s gotten into you?’ And I had to admit, I was too in awe to pour the tea. It was a moment in history. Now, nothing fazes me.”

King David Hotel's Executive Chef Michel Nabet.Credit: Emil Salman
The King David Hotel's manager Dror Danino.Credit: Emil Salman
Dan Hotel's flagship King David Hotel in Jerusalem.Credit: Emil Salman

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