Without the presence of a mashgiach, or rabbinic supervisor, no one can enter the kitchens of the kosher catering firm Basel & Balfour--not even its president, Daniel Nack. "It's my business, and I don't have the keys," he says cheerfully.
Restricted kitchen access is one of the requirements of Organized Kashrus Laboratories, aka OK Labs, of Crown Heights, New York, the organization Nack has hired to monitor Basel & Balfour's adherence to kosher standards. Rabbi Mordechai Sofovich, the OK Labs-approved mashgiach, holds the only keys to Basel & Balfour's kitchen, and only he and his assistant know the alarm code. They're on the premises during all business hours to inspect incoming food supplies and guard against accidents that would render food or equipment trayf, or nonkosher. Meat and dairy products can't be prepared or eaten together, for instance, and shellfish and pork are completely forbidden. The rules, collectively called kashrut, stem from biblical proscriptions against cooking the meat of a calf in the milk of its mother and eating sea creatures without scales or fins as well as land animals that don't chew their cud or have cloven hooves. Kashrut applies not only to food, but also to the dishes and utensils used to cook it: if you melt butter in a skillet, you can't sear a lamb chop in it next time. Rabbis at OK Labs can also scrutinize the catering company's kitchens 24 hours a day via webcam to make sure no work is performed on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, and "just as an extra safeguard," says Nack. The camera's fine with him. "Let it be on, let it stay on," he says. "In kosher cuisine, every aspect has to be supervised."
As part of his commitment to kosher food, Nack wants to change its less-than-stellar culinary reputation. Often, he says, people assume it's going to be overcooked and drowned in gravy. He got the idea for Basel & Balfour at a Center for Jewish Life gala at the Art Institute last September (where Nack, former manager of the Salvatore Ferragamo store on North Michigan and a member of the board of governors of the School of the Art Institute, received a community service award). The dinner was cooked by caterer George Jewell, whose business is not kosher but who will prepare kosher food on request. The food at the gala was reportedly so delicious that attendees told the presiding rabbi they couldn't believe it was kosher. Why, thought Nack, couldn't the quality of all catered kosher dinners be this high? He enlisted Jewell and local entrepreneur Velvel Tokarskiy as partners and founded Basel & Balfour two months later. (Nack came up with the name after looking at maps of European cities--it's a combination of two street names that struck his fancy.)
Its current LaSalle Street kitchen has two entirely separate rooms, one for meat and one for dairy, each on a different floor. The company plans to move to a larger West Loop facility with three kitchens in the near future; the additional one will be used for pareve, or neutral, foods such as fruits, vegetables, and fish that qualify as neither meat nor dairy. When preparing food off-site, the company uses portable cooking equipment in order to avoid the time-consuming process of making each client's kitchen kosher. The only other thing that's required is a side room to cook in. "We don't even need running water," Nack says. "We could go to the Aragon Ballroom. We could go to Union Station."
Finding kosher food suppliers can be tricky in the midwest. Kosher beef and chicken are relatively easy to find, but specialty meats must be ordered weeks in advance. Veal in particular is scarce: in a kosher slaughterhouse, an animal is rejected if it shows signs of disease, and because calves are usually kept in pens and have weaker immune systems than adult cows, they're more susceptible to illnesses. The failure rate for veal is about 85 percent. Since they're pareve, fruits and vegetables are easier to come by, but they must undergo rigorous inspection by the mashgiach, who washes the produce himself and uses a light box to look for traces of insects (which aren't kosher). "It's frightening what falls out," Nack says. "We don't serve artichoke because we can't really inspect it"--too many little crannies where bugs can hide.
Despite such restrictions, Basel & Balfour offers an admirable range of dishes. Appetizers include figs with whiskey-cured salmon, crepe sachets accompanied by sweet lamb wurst, and petite moo shu pancakes with Szechuan duck. Entrees range from sweet-and-sour cabbage knishes to noisette of lamb filled with walnuts, dates, and rosemary. Many of the dishes have been artfully altered to comply with kashrut, such as the herb-crusted baron of beef. Traditionally it's made with two sirloins attached to the backbone, but kosher rules forbid consuming the hindquarters of an animal, so Basel & Balfour's version uses prime rib. And so that it can be offered at dinners where meat is served, the company's proprietary version of creme fraiche is pareve, though Nack won't reveal how (he'll say only that it's all natural). Other dishes require very little tinkering. The only alteration in the canard a l'abricot, for example, is that the duck is kosher.
Some of Basel & Balfour's clients keep strictly kosher at home. Others don't, yet want to have a kosher wedding or funeral. Nack initially worried that OK Labs would frown on supplying kosher food to non- or partially observant Jews. When he met with representatives, "four of the most pious people I know," he asked them about it. They said, "Why is this a problem? We're happy that Jews eat kosher." Nack feels the same way. "If we show how good kosher can be, maybe they'll eat kosher more often," he says.
Basel & Balfour's office is at 980 N. Michigan, 312-787-7085.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eric futran.