The London Beth Din (KLBD) has a fearsome reputation. According to one kosher caterer, they trust no one - not even their inspectors, the shomrim. Rabbi Hillel Simon is the Beth Din's Big Brother, the man who looks over the shoulders of the shomrim and ensure kosher is kept.
To the less observant, Orthodox food laws can be intimidating. A visit to the home of Rabbi Simon - who is one the rabbis heading up the kosher division - dispels any fears. Nursing a hot lemon for a heavy cold in his book-lined lounge, the rabbi points out that he combines tradition with a thoroughly modern outlook - he even blogs on his own website.
As Chief Rabbinical Inspector and co-ordinator for catering, he and his team oversee the licensing of more than 100 caterers, bakeries, restaurants, food manufacturers, delis and shops. They are also responsible for the supervision of some 3,000 catered events per year, and the certification of almost 700 factories worldwide. No job is too big - a photograph at KLBD head office shows a shomer travelling to inspect an Egyptian factory by horse, the only way to get there. Rabbi Simon is available night and day to answer questions on halachah, he produces manuals for shomrim and is one of the KLBD's policy makers.
He explains: "The LBD is the most esteemed European hechsher with the most rigorous training programme. A new shomer cannot work alone until he has shadowed a practising one at least seven–15 times".
His role, he says, is at the consumer end, making spot checks, supporting shomrim needing help "correcting their behaviour or staff behaviour", and meeting licensees and manufacturers in connection with their licence applications.
Dill is the most difficult. Strawberries are a big part of the job
Born in Indiana, he was educated in the US and Israel before heading to Leeds to continue his rabbinical studies. His CV is extensive, with several years spent as a rabbi and chaplain around the UK. In Bristol he spent 20-30 days a year visiting factories for the KLBD; as chaplain for the UJS western region, his territory included Cardiff, Reading and Oxford. He says that when his family moved to Finchley to start his job at the London Beth Din in 2005, "my well-travelled children knew a whole lot more than their classmates about English geography".
His religious education and life experience qualified him for his current position. But the job is a hard one, he says. "A shomer works long hours. Days can start before 7am, waiting for chefs to arrive, and finish in the early hours after overseeing a wedding." Checking foods can be very time-consuming - herbs, salads and other fresh produce take between four and eight hours, he says. "Dill is the most difficult and strawberries are a big part of the job. Raspberries and blackberries can be so heavily infested, I just don't eat them any more."
Wearing protective white coat and shoes, the shomer lights ovens, checks meat, fish and dry ingredients; finished dishes are sealed and stamped with the date and the shomer's and caterer's names.
"You must strike a balance between being a mensch and doing your job," Rabbi Simon says. "If there is a problem during a service, a shomer may need to halt proceedings until it is resolved, so good interpersonal skills are an advantage. You also need to be great at multitasking."
The run-up to Passover is one of his busiest periods. Food factories need to be koshered before they start Pesach production. Closer to the festival, restaurants are cleaned by the KLBD after their owners have already cleaned once. "There is traces of chametz absorbed in most materials," he says. "We clean at boiling temperatures to take it out." He himself travels to a Bournemouth hotel to kosher it for Passover.
Unsurprisingly, Rabbi Simon does not eat out much. He spends enough time in restaurants already, and with seven children he is "generally too tired". But even his wife's kitchen is under his watchful eye - "I think about everything I eat", he says.