The Nawlins Way to Feed an Army

Exchange program brings Creole kitchen celebrities to Golan base.

The four New Orleans chefs were crammed into a commander's office on an Israel Defense Forces base in the Golan Heights last Wednesday. They were decked out in kitchen whites, their names in Hebrew embroidered on the jacket.

Well-known chefs back home - John Besh was voted one of the Ten Best New Chefs in America by Food & Wine magazine in 1999 and has appeared on shows including "Top Chef"; Alon Shaya is Besh's partner at their Italian restaurant, Domenica; Jacques Leonardi runs the Nawlins-style Jacques-Imo's Cafe, and David Slater is chef de cuisine at celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse's Emeril's New Orleans - their mission that night was to prepare a four-course Creole dinner for several hundred soldiers from the Namer battalion, with the help of three Israeli chefs and the base's kitchen staff.

New Orleans - Liz Steinberg - July 6 2011
Liz Steinberg

But this wasn't the food they were used to cooking at home. There would be no ham or shrimp, and certainly no alligator cheesecake - a Leonardi specialty. This meal would be strictly kosher, and made from the available ingredients on a far-flung army base.

Chef Gilad Dolev, a culinary consultant and one of the organizers of the event, sternly called the chefs to order. It was 3 P.M., and they were starting an hour behind schedule. Their deadline was 8 P.M. He apologized: Due to kashrut limitations, they'd be lacking some of the kitchen tools and spices they had asked for. He requested their patience.

But the chefs were cool as cucumbers. After Hurricane Katrina, they cooked for 20,000 people at a time, said Shaya.

"This is what we do. It's certainly not the food we cook in our restaurants, but that's okay. It doesn't need to be," Besh said.

Evidently it wasn't the physical task that challenged them - that was all in a day' work. It was the significance of what they were doing, said Besh, who had served in Operation Desert Storm as a member of the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve. Leonardi, too, is a former military man. He graduated from the Coast Guard Academy and served in New Orleans in the 1980s.

"This is exciting. I've always dreamed of coming here," Besh said as he put on his shoes and apron; visiting Israel has helped him better understand his Christian faith, he said. "I respect that all these people are protecting their home. I think it's a very noble thing to give back to those who are giving so much."

The four chefs were in Israel last week as part of Partnership 2Gether, a Jewish Agency program coordinated by volunteers in Rosh Ha'ayin and New Orleans. During their one-week trip they had helped prepare Shabbat dinner at a home in Rosh Ha'ayin, visited tourist sites including Masada and Jerusalem's Old City, met with local chefs and dined at an array of top-rated restaurants.

The next morning they were scheduled to rise at 4 A.M. to see an artillery demonstration. Danny Shani, the Rosh Ha'ayin chairman of the twinned-city partnership, arranged the visit to the army base, where his brother-in-law was the commander.

New Orleans - Liz Steinberg - July 6 2011
Liz Steinberg

Meanwhile, the chefs checked out the mise-en-place. There was a side room filled with large metal trays of chopped vegetables, prepared a few hours before by the soldiers. There was chicken in the fridge, and a large vat of chicken stock simmering one of the eight commercial burners in the middle of the kitchen. Spices were laid out on a table to the side.

Soldiers bustled about. On an ordinary day, five army cooks made dinner; today there were 15, not including the soldier prep cooks and the visiting chefs.

Charged with preparing dessert that evening, Shaya stepped into a separate room with Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, president of the U.S.-based Clal, The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. The chefs affectionately referred to Hirschfield as "the rabbi." Shaya was born in Israel but left when he was 4. He said that as a child in the United States he had rejected his Israeli identity, but was now trying to relearn Hebrew and make up for lost time. He and Besh had even discussed launching a restaurant in Israel; they simply weren't sure they could do it well, Shaya said.

Shaya was making individual-sized almond cakes, a dish he served at his restaurant for Passover. But it wouldn't be exactly the same; he didn't have half the ingredients he had requested. He would substitute flour for the almond meal, white sugar for brown, and bread crumbs for the matza meal.

Soldiers helped him with prep work. Two were tasked with separating 210 eggs, while others had greased hundreds of baking tins earlier that afternoon. But the oil had dripped to the bottom of the wells, and the cups needed to be greased again.

"You want me to redo them?" Hirschfield asked Shaya.

Back in the main kitchen, several dented, cauldron-sized pots were simmering on the commercial range. Slater, who has cousins in Israel, inspected one 44-liter pot. "We might need a bigger pot," he said. One that was nearly twice as big replaced it on the burner.

Besh took his place over a large, rectangular metal basin he would use for his jambalaya. "It's New Orleans paella," he explained to a soldier chopping up chicken.

How would this jambalaya differ from his usual? I asked him. "Well, the root of jambalaya is jambon," he said, laughing. This would use kosher sausage instead.

"It's gonna taste great," Besh said, tasting the work in progress. "It already does."

By 4 P.M., the kitchen was buzzing. Peppers and tomatoes were frying in one large pot for Couvillion, a Cajun fish stew that Slater was preparing with assistance from Israeli caterer Avigail Aharon. In another, even bigger, pot, eggplant was stewing with spices. A soldier strained stock into a large tray and handed it to Besh to add to his jambalaya. Shaya was toasting nuts in the commercial oven. The rabbi was still greasing tins.

"What makes this is a challenge is we have to work with what we're given today. We usually work with what we want to," Shaya explained. "We have to improvise, which usually is very easy. Except when it comes to baking."

In another room Ruhama Ben-David, the mother of one of the officers, had arrived to make sfinge, Moroccan yeast doughnuts. She, too was unfazed by quantity - she occasionally caters weddings and other events, and with 10 children, 32 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren even her own family celebrations can draw more than 100 people, she said.

The chefs raved over Ben-David's work as she dropped rings of dough into the fryer. "That is totally cool," one exclaimed.

"Children who come out of culinary school need to be able to embrace that," said Shaya, referring to traditional dishes like sfinge. "More and more they don't, they want to invent."

By 5 P.M., the chefs were looking relaxed. Besh's jambalaya was done, and had been moved into the oven to keep warm. Besh had taken out his camera, a digital SLR, and was wandering around the kitchen taking photos. "Just like our kitchens in New Orleans," he said jokingly, pointing at a rack of rifles chained in the corner. The room was filling up with curious soldiers.

Yet for all their professional calm, there was still some stress over the results. "We're just so trained not to let anybody down," Shaya commented.

In the pastry room, the rabbi had finished oiling the cups. "Are you having fun?" Shaya asked me.

"Are you having fun?" I responded.

"It depends," he said. "I'm going to have to see what they look like when they come out of the oven," he said, later adding, "Thank God we have doughnuts as a backup."

An hour later, the 210 egg whites had been frothed into stiff, white peaks in a commercial mixer, while the 210 yolks had been beaten with the dry ingredients. It took three men to lift each bowl. A dozen people crammed into the little room to watch French-Israeli chef Didier Lehmann fold beat the whites into the batter by hand, squatting on the floor and plunging his arm into the mixture up to his elbow.

By 6:30, the sun was getting lower. Soldiers were cleaning up and snacking on the chicken from Leonardi's stew. The chefs gave the simmering pots an occasional stir with a shovel-sized spatula.

This hadn't been a hard day for the chefs, who were used to working 10- to 12-hour days. Not so for Yehuda, the kashrut supervisor. He'd been on his toes all afternoon, chasing after people who were unfamiliar with Jewish dietary laws and making sure the dairy pots didn't wind up getting used for meat-based dishes. But he'd had a great time, he said, as he stirred nine kilograms of sizzling rice. "It was a different atmosphere. New people. Top-class people. This doesn't happen every day in the army," Yehuda said.

Food began leaving the kitchen at 8 P.M. sharp. All hands were on deck: Hundreds of plates were laid out on a table, and the New Orleans chefs and their Israeli partners bent over them, wheeling carts of food down the line and quickly and quietly arranging individual servings on each one. A line of soldiers waited to carry the plates out the door, two at a time.

"This is beautiful," Shaya said, surveying the dining tables outside.

"And you made it," I said.

"I just made some cakes," said Shaya.