Let's Eat

Getting the best out of their gefilte

New Yorker Liz Alpern, co-founder of the Gefilteria, will be sharing her passion for Old World Jewish foods at this year's Limmud


Gefilte fish is a Marmite dish with image problems. Its shortcomings in the looks and flavour departments mean it would by no stretch of the imagination ever be termed "gourmet".

That was before New Yorkers Liz Alpern, Jeffrey Yoskowitz and Jackie Lilinshtein founded catering company the Gefilteria in 2012.

The trio, who also produce artisanal gefilte fish sold online and in shops in the New York City area, have been plying New Yorkers with their Old World Jewish cuisine ever since.

Alpern's commercial engagement with Ashkenazi cuisine began when she was 15 - working behind the counter in a kosher bakery. "I begged to help in the kitchen and sometimes got to dip strawberries in chocolate or ice cookies."

From there she moved on to baking and selling her own challah while at McGill University in Quebec.

"There wasn't a kosher bakery near the campus so it was filling a need. I had no idea what I was doing, but the challah baking lit an entrepreneurial fire in me."

After graduating in 2006, she put the food world on the back burner for a few years, working for a Jewish magazine; but with her next employer - America's doyenne of Jewish food, Joan Nathan - Alpern helped test recipes for Nathan's cookery book Quiches, Kugels and Couscous.

"I got a window into the Jewish food world and started making a lot of Jewish food from scratch. It was a sort of Jewish cooking immersion time of my life. I learned a lot about food, cooking and chefs - it was a great time."

A stint at a non-profit organisation called Fair Food Network gave Alpern an insight into sustainability and "food justice", and it was while she was there that she and Yoskowitz decided to work together.

"Spiritually, we shared similar interests and a passion for Jewish food," said Alpern.

Both were disappointed to see foods like gefilte fish being neglected. To them, its demise was a sign of the times. Like many of her US contemporaries Alpern had grown up eating many of the foods we term Jewish only on Jewish holidays.

"Unless your parents were immigrants, most of us ate American food like macaroni and cheese, salads and pizza - the rest of the time."

And when they did eat traditional Jewish food, it was more often than not, pre-prepared.

"We didn't see people applying foodie passions to Jewish food. The festival table no longer had the same cultural implications. You couldn't be a foodie and traditional - the choice was between gefilte fish or Wild Alaskan salmon for example. You don't have to choose between Jewish food and your taste buds."

The pair started cooking together and decided they would make gefilte fish look good. Alpern says their efforts were about breathing new life into Ashkenazi cuisine.

"We wondered how it would look today and experimented with it, turning it into a loaf, baked like a terrine with lots of flavour. It just needed fresh ingredients and a different look, and to be made with loving care.

They gave their new version to people to taste and got a great reaction.

"They would say 'it tastes like fish' and 'it tastes like my Grandma's recipe' or 'it tastes like the Old World - in a good way!'"

Based on the successful reaction, they started producing their gefilte fish terrines on a small scale, then selling it in food markets in New York, eventually upscaling their operation and selling it to food stores. At the same time they taught cookery classes and did some event catering.

"We ended up developing and doing so many different foods - always looking backwards at what Ashkenazi food looked like in the past. We made borscht with roasted beets, crème fraîche and fresh dill, matzah balls with home made matzah and pickles in the old fashioned way, with salt water and spices and no vinegar."

Next month, Alpern will be sharing her passion for Old World grub at Limmud.

"I'm really excited about it," enthuses the 30-year old, who together with Yoskowitz was last year listed as one of Forbes' 30 under 30 to watch in the world of food and drink.

"I'll be doing four sessions. One will be a talk on breathing new life into Ashkenazi cuisine. Not redoing the recipes, but going back to sources and getting inspiration from the original techniques."

She explains that she will be talking about her journey with the Gefilteria. "The idea is to engage people in the food."

Alpern will also be hosting three more sessions where participants can get their hands dirty: "Whenever you talk to Jews about food, everyone likes to get involved," she laughs.

One of those sessions will be cocktail making. "We make syrups and cocktails flavoured with Ashkenazi-inspired spices and flavours, like caraway, and pair them with liquors they go well with. I'll make three and everyone will make their own." There will also be information on how to make the syrups at home.

"It will be a great opportunity to connect with the people from Gefiltefest. My dream was to come to Limmud UK and collaborate with local foodie people."

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