A Passover Seder With a Power Couple of Jewish Food

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Judy and Marvin Zeidler.Credit: Courtesy

LOS ANGELES — A Passover seder with the Zeidlers. She — an expert in Jewish cooking who wrote five books, hosted a cooking television program and writes weekly recipes for American newspapers. He — a prominent restaurateur in the Los Angeles food scene. Both of them children of the 1930s and in love since age 15. We celebrated Passover, then we drank four cups of wine. On this night, there was a place of honor for matza balls, fish prepared with a champagne-mustard vinaigrette and matza served in the form of lasagna in tomato-basil sauce. A proper seder, what was different was just the menu and the date.

A month before the Jewish festival of freedom, we were at a "pop-up seder" at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. I had gotten to know the Zeidlers for the first time at the beginning of that week. Judy Zeidler, wearing a blue vest and a perpetual smile, gave an opening presentation on Jewish cuisine to participants — 20 young people from throughout the United States and Canada.

She spoke about the major stages in her life and scattered “name-dropping” of favorite foods. The audience melted and competed for her affections as a grandmother. At the end of the speech, a long line of food initiates in their 20s waited for her to sign her books for them. She added "Baci-Baci" ("kisses") and "Buon Appetito" with every autograph and handed out her business card in which she's photographed with Julia Child.

Judy related that as a girl, her grandmother wanted to pamper her with sweets, but she found she was more interested in what was happening in the kitchen than in desserts in the window case. In school, she excelled in home economics, where she learned to prepare a perfect egg, over easy. “But aside from this, I wasn’t a brilliant student,” she said.

She met her husband Marvin at a party when she was 15. He was the president of the Jewish club, and they "went steady” until he was drafted in to the American army. Judy, who was born in California in 1930 to American parents, could not avoid the evil winds blowing in from Europe. “In my youth, teenage boys grabbed me, hit me and called me a dirty Jew. Anti-Semitism caused me to understand that I was a Jew.”

Marvin grew up in East Los Angeles. His father worked in the produce business, and whatever they didn't sell, they ate. His grandmother, who immigrated from Russia, was the cook in the family. His mother distanced herself from the kitchen and led campaigns for women’s rights. “She was before her time and worked during years that women were not yet permitted to fulfill their potential,” Marvin said. When Marvin was drafted and went to serve in the invasion forces of Japan, Judy left college and worked as a secretary. After Martin was discharged, they got married in an event hall that offered a buffet and rented a small apartment in Los Angeles. “Today, everybody boasts about how expensive their apartments are. In our day, we looked for a cheap apartment. We always cooked together, the stove was next to one wall of the kitchen, and the sink was on the opposite wall, and our rear-ends rubbed against each other all the time.”

Marvin grew up in an observant kosher home, and Judy was compelled to adjust herself to new limits. “The world 'kashrut' ['kosher'] was new to me. During the first week of our marriage, I had to struggle against the desire to eat a ‘club sandwich’ — this is a very non-kosher sandwich that contains slices of toasted bread around cheese, mustard, turkey, a slab of ham, lettuce and tomato. To recreate it in kosher form, we prepared a 'fleshic [kosher meat] club sandwich’ with more greens and more turkey or a 'milchic [kosher dairy] club sandwich,’ which contained avocado, tomato, lettuce and cheddar cheese.”

“People think kosher has to be heavy, tasteless," said Marvin. "Today, it's possible to cook light and kosher gourmet food.”

The young couple moved from the cramped apartment in the big city to a 45-acre ranch in nearby Topanga Canyon. There, they raised five children, alongside sheep, chickens, ducks, ponies, dogs and a guard pheasant. To provide for the family during the first years, Marvin delivered newspapers while working in a kiosk and clothing stores. At the end of the 1950s, he found his first destiny.

“My brother and I opened our own store, Zeidler and Zeidler. We sold what was in fashion in those days, at the beginning, mod clothing and then, bell-bottom trousers and finally, elegant Italian clothes. The customers were young and hip, the comedian Steve Martin was a steady customer, for example. In the course of 30 years, the single store sprouted to a chain of 20 stores.”

At that time, Judy gave her first cooking workshop, holding it on the family ranch for the women of their local Jewish congregation. “They needed to prepare the New Year's meal but didn’t know how to cook. I taught them how one prepares a roulade of sole and strudel. That became my expertise.” At that time, Marvin also began to remove himself from the world of fashion and to be drawn to the scents of the kitchen. He became friends with the star chefs of the time and opened one of the best-known culinary institutes on the West Coast.

Hobnobbing in Hollywood

“During the '80s,” Marvin recalled, “I helped Michel Richard open a restaurant in Hollywood. It was called Citrus. With its success, I decided to sell my share in the clothing stores and concentrate on it. In those days, varieties of contemporary American cuisine came into fashion. In spite of the fact that he was a French chef, Richard was creative and prepared California cuisine with a French twist. Citrus was transformed into a place that stirred up inspiration because movie stars spent time there, creators of fashion and artists.” The restaurant expanded for a decade but closed when Richard left Los Angeles.

Next, Marvin opened a delicatessen called “Broadway” in Santa Monica, which he owned for 20 years. There were 200 seats and a bar, bakery and restaurant. At its height, Judy compiled a book of its recipes. “This wasn’t a Jewish delicatessen, it was an all-American deli but with good things in it from the whole world,” Marvin said. Today, he is the owner of a number of restaurants, coffee houses and delicatessens in California, and he never stops searching for the next opportunity.

Marvin describes opening a successful restaurant as a kind of alchemy. “I walk around between the tables, enter and leave the kitchen. The job of the restauranteur is to find the right pieces to build the puzzle. It is impossible to set up a successful restaurant without a good staff. There is no end to concepts. The different elements — what you think suitable for the area, the design and the menu — come together only when the door of the restaurant is opened. I was lucky all the time. Okay, this is a meshing of luck, experience and knowledge," he said.

“Judy is very critical,” he adds. “She isn't satisfied with any restaurant until she meets the kitchen staff. She's always interested in the chefs’ secrets and occasionally friendship sprouts from this.”

Judy picked up where her husband leaves off. “When I go to a restaurant, I still like to go directly to the kitchen. I have no patience for sitting in a chair at a table and eating with a knife and fork. I prefer to see the cooks at work, to speak with them and to hear from them about the food they are cooking — and to taste it. There is nothing as exciting as this. This is the way I met Michael McCarty, Thomas Keller, Nancy Silverton, Robert Bell and the charming French woman Josie Le Balch. I invited them to participate in my cooking program, we cooked together, and from the meetings and the recipes, I created the book 'Master Chefs Cook Kosher.'

"After I thought I had exhausted all the projects — a weekly column, lectures, cooking from the food, writing cookbooks, little radio spots on Jewish cuisine — people from the channel JTN asked me to lead a half-hour weekly cooking program. I felt pressured by the thought of cooking for a half-hour every week in front of television viewers. I was scared I would run out of recipes, that the conversations would be boring, that I would spill boiling soup on myself or that I would host chefs who wouldn’t be able to speak English. The first episode of 'Judy’s Kitchen' was filmed in my private kitchen at home. A number of blunders and kitchen accidents happened there, until on one day of filming, a crew of fireman arrived and shut down the film set because we didn’t have permits. But viewers’ letters proved the program had succeeded. Then we moved to the studio, enlisted a full production crew and thus over the course of 15 years, every week, I hosted famous chefs. In some cases, they had no idea we were cooking kosher cuisine.”

Judy says she hasn't shaken the television bug. “I would die to return to television and to be there with them, to provide examples of some of my recipes for the new chefs," she said. "On The Food Network, the American food channel , there is a certain presenter who makes such mistakes when she roasts peppers that I almost faint during the show and feel the need to create a bond with her and show her my way of roasting peppers.”

Food has been a constant in the Zeidlers lives. “We have always been ‘foodies,’" said Judy. "We were interested in what we ate and what was possible to cook. But at no time did we exaggerate. As a girl, I thought I would become an overweight woman, but I never got fat, and today I’m thinner than ever. Food is something tasty, but there's no need to stuff oneself. I myself never worked in a restaurant, but people count the fact that during the '60s, I supplied strudels to a restaurant in Los Angeles. Since the 70’s, I have preferred to teach, draw people to cooking and search out Jewish cuisine.”

The Italian experience

Judy isn't afraid to weigh in on the Israeli humus debate. "In Israel, everyone thinks his humus is the best, but this is an ancient food that sprouted in the Middle East, and I have prepared it for as long as I can remember. I add tehina, lemon, olive oil, throw it on the food blender and that’s it,” she said.

She says she has seen Jewish cuisine develop in her lifetime. “The different cultures have melded together. And today when you think about kugel, it's difficult not to think about pasta. Obviously, my first recipes were the food grew up on, but very quickly, I took the tastes of the world and I brought them into the Jewish kitchen. For 20 years, I wrote a column for the Los Angeles Times; recently Marvin bound all my articles in six volumes, which are arranged according to holidays. Each one is more that 500 pages. We gave them as a gift to our children at the last holiday. Right now, I’m writing for two Jewish newspapers, Tribe and the Forward,” she said.

Judy says it's a challenge to keep the holidays interesting after all these years, but not an insurmountable one. "For Passover, I wrote how it's possible to arrange a vegetarian seder, a 'green' seder. In spring, the fruit and vegetable produce is wonderful and can be substituted for prepared and frozen foods that are mainly offered for the table. Instead of a shank bone on the seder plate, we serve a roast beet. It's only a small step to insert vegetables in new forms into the holiday, to change up the "charoset" mix or add vegetable broth to the traditional matza ball soup.

Keeping her love life interesting is less of a challenge, she says. “It is still flaming! I think that I am, apparently, the luckiest woman in the world, because Marvin understands me so well and is patient with me, and both of us love to do the same things together. The only thing that we have not done together is play tennis. Oy, Marvino, since we got married we’ve never been apart. Who would have thought then that we would reach our position today? Not only the restaurants, also these comforts — that we are together in a beautiful house, surrounded by good friends whom we host, preparing menus for them, still cooking together. He is always there for me,” she said, adding, “I feel as if we’ve been together for only 5 years.”

“The family is very important to us," said Marvin. "We have five children, and they produced grandchildren for us, and it's very emotional for us to host all of them, from all corners of the state, for a holiday meal. The best thing about Judy is that she never says no. She is always interested and full of life. Both of us love to try new things, and we visit places we’ve never been to. So we travel a lot to new regions and also return to places we love. When I was in the fashion industry, I fell in love with Italy, and since then we spend a month there every year. On the adventures we have had over 40 springs in Italy, Judy has written the book 'Italy Cooks,' in which every chapter focuses on an Italian family that has become like our own flesh and blood.”

Judy said, “When our first daughter Susan was born, we discovered a wonderful Italian restaurant in Los Angeles, which welcomed a few customers with open arms. In those days, it seemed to me that spaghetti with meat balls and tomato sauce was the most authentic Italian cuisine. But when I arrived for the first time in Italy, in 1975, I discovered that it was hard to find spaghetti with meat balls and that Italian food was really varied and not characterized by one dish. Marvin met with fashion designers, travelled between textile factories and businesses. I searched for where to eat and travel, and I became close to our new friends, among them Bettina Rogosky, Franco Colombani, the leader of the new Italian cooking, Romano Levi, producer of the legendary grappa, and Dario Cicchini, the most famous meat supplier in Tuscany. Italy was transformed into our second home. We plowed it from one end to the other, with culinary adventures and family celebrations in villages and farmers’ markets, in farms and restaurants.”

Marvin added, “We have a lot of plans to continue, as long as we have strength in our bodies. I’m not yet worried about aging.”

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