Arts & Culture

Bravo Goes Kosher : Natalie Portman Swaps Prosciutto for Polenta

I am a huge fan of all things Bravo, but as a diehard foodie I cannot resist Top Chef. For its first couple of seasons, I sat on the couch in my parents’ Kosher home and imagined how buttery scallops … Read More

By / November 2, 2009

I am a huge fan of all things Bravo, but as a diehard foodie I cannot resist Top Chef. For its first couple of seasons, I sat on the couch in my parents’ Kosher home and imagined how buttery scallops probably tasted and how decadent a slice of kobe beef must be for one who gets to savor each bite alongside a creamy risotto. I pretended to understand the slimy texture of an oyster and fabricated a childhood Hawaiian vacation to relate to Padma’s insistence that the back of her throat itched due to uncooked taro in Season Two. I blindly chose chefs to root for and never took the judges’ words with a grain of salt. Not knowing what most of the ingredients tasted like with an upbringing of cholent and bagel brunches, I watched in awe as none of the contestants acted like using monkfish, alligator, or bull’s testicles in their cuisine was an oddity. In fact, Padma proudly admitted to having tried bull’s testicles a couple of episodes ago – nobody was surprised.

Talk at the dining table turned to nether regions once again this past Wednesday night when Natalie Portman joined the cast as a guest judge for this week’s elimination challenge. The chefs were told that they would be cooking for an elite table of eaters at Chef Tom Collichio’s Craft Steak. Then, Tom dropped the inevitable twist – the chefs would be cooking for Natalie and her friends with her dietary restrictions in mind, parameters which the chefs treated like a gastronomical catastrophe. No she is not lactose-intolerant nor is she a celiac – Natalie Portman is a vegetarian. Yes, kosher Jews – Natalie is just like you, my parents and almost thirty million other Americans; when she goes out to eat she spends more time searching the menu for an item she can eat rather than enjoying her meal. As a viewer, I thoroughly enjoyed the judges and Natalie’s herbivore-inspired dinner complete with phallic references, common ingredients and downrightgirl talk. Unfortunately, it seemed as though the majority of the Top Chef contestants had never encountered vegetarianism before as most of them struggled to cook sans meat. In fact, the chef who claimed he knew the most about vegetarian dining was the one sent home for his insistence that a leek could imitate the consistency of a scallop.

Some, like kosher-keeping JDub Records CEO Aaron Bisman, questioned why the chefs chose to focus mostly on vegetables rather than utilizing more hearty grains and soy proteins like seitan and tempeh in their dishes. I assumed there was more to this than the fact that the first elimination this season was due to the use of seitan in a dish. I consulted food blogger and Top Chef connoisseur Erin Phraner of FoodnFemininity.blogspot.com to understand the episode’s lack of tofu. She explained that part of the challenge was to cook using only what was in the Craft Steak kitchen; in other words, what would soy be doing in a steakhouse?! This may also be the reason behind why contestant Eli, the show’s resident Jew, was the only one to get close to using meaty veggies in his use of lentils. Erin was dead on – the Craft Steak menu features a variety of vegetables but barely any grain dishes and no soy products, Eli may have been the first to find and finish the lentils which left the challenge loser, Mike Isabella, and runner-up Jennifer some leeks and baby eggplants to work with.

Natalie’s visit to the Top Chef kitchen may have been a feat in honor of veggies across the nation, but it definitely was for kosher viewers who could identify every ingredient and imagine the taste of every plate for the first time in the show’s history. Being Jewish herself, Natalie Portman was the first to succeed in getting the chefs to compete in a challenge analogous to the Project Runway unconventional material challenges. Thanks, Natalie – while designers on Project Runway have forever been constructing dresses out of car parts and cornhusks, we needed you to get acclaimed chefs to leave their shellfish in the kitchen and serve up some dishes that any mashgiach would deem parve.