Yochanan Lambiase, founder of the Jerusalem Culinary Institute (JCI) is on a mission to improve the quality and reputation of kosher cookery. "We've got so many ways of being able to play with food to make it just as good as non-kosher," he explains. "I see no reason in the world why kosher food couldn't be up to Michelin standard."
British-born Lambiase comes from a long line of chefs, but his path to opening a Mehadrin (strictly kosher) cookery school is an unlikely one. Lambiase, born Jon Renee, had a Jewish mother but his family was not observant.
He studied catering at what is nowWestminster Kingsway College, worked with Raymond Blanc and Jamie Oliver and spent three years in France with culinary greats like Paul Bocuse, Roger Vergé, and Michel Guérard, before working at London's King David Suite. "That was my first experience with kosher cooking and it blew me away" recalls Lambiase. "It was this amazing challenge."
He became interested in Judaism, and in 1994 moved to Israel where he was disappointed in the level of culinary instruction and creativity. Even today with the incredible array of Israeli products, "there's very little imagination in terms of plating and presentationt," he laments.
In 2002, struck with the number and quality of kosher products at New York's Kosherfest, Lambiase says, "I started looking for a Israeli kosher cooking school that could train Jewish men and women to be chefs… The only places that come close are Tel Aviv's Tadmor or Jerusalem's Hadassah, but those programmes are government-run and pretty behind the times." So Lambiase set out to open a culinary school.
He made it Mehadrin because: "I wanted to give an opportunity to everybody, from ultra-orthodox all the way down to 'kosher is important to you, you don't mix at home', or whatever." He prefers students to be Jewish, but the extent of their observance is irrelevant. "We're not a yeshivah. We're a cooking school," says Lambiase with a smile. Students have tattoos as well as payot, piercings as well as long skirts.
Kosher culinary schools are rare (the only one outside Israel is The Center for Kosher Culinary Arts in Brooklyn, New York), but demand is rising. "The Charedi world over the last few years is huge in terms of wanting to learn gourmet cooking," says Lambiase. "They are really into it." The school has also been approached by the Ministry of Labour to develop a 10-month professional programme to prepare religious Jews for the workforce. "We're fulfilling a need for people who love to cook and for people who need to work."
The JCI offers recreational and professional courses. Many of the classes separate men and women and are limited to about 20 per class. Graduates of the professional programme do internships in restaurants, hotels, or in catering in Israel or abroad, either kosher or not kosher according to their preference.
The JCI is still working to make an international reputation and shake off the stigma of kosher cooking. The market is growing - within Israel and internationally - but it remains to be seen whether the reputation of kosher cookery can rise to the Michelin level that Lambiase is shooting for.