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Cooking Storm: An Interview with Chef Sandy Stollar

Watching Chef Sandy Stollar cook is kind of like having front row seats at the Daytona 500. Born in Queens to a Colombian-Argentinean Jewish family, Stollar embodies all the fast-paced energy of a native New Yorker, and all the credentials … Read More

By / November 26, 2008

Watching Chef Sandy Stollar cook is kind of like having front row seats at the Daytona 500. Born in Queens to a Colombian-Argentinean Jewish family, Stollar embodies all the fast-paced energy of a native New Yorker, and all the credentials to make it in the big city.

Unlike most (ahem, all?) kosher chefs, Stollar trained at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) and shined her knives at some of the best non-kosher restaurants in New York City (the Russian Tea Room, Osteria del Circo, etc.) More recently, she started her own private chef business called The Kosher Tomato, which caters to Jewish individuals and families across New York and New Jersey. She also teaches cooking classes at the Center for Kosher Culinary Arts in Brooklyn – a school which houses the first accredited kosher culinary training program in America.

Stollar, who was recently featured in the “Heeb 100,” is undoubtedly one to watch in the coming years. Below, she shares which foods she misses most from her pre-kashrut days, her thoughts on why kosher cuisine has such a sketchy reputation, and her favorite ways to make a nice piece of chicken.

You’ve said that you’re so passionate about food that you even get excited about tomatoes. Where does that passion come from for you?

That is really a hard question, believe it or not. I don’t want to say it’s because I am good at it, because in the beginning I probably wasn’t. But as far back as I can remember, I always had an unquenchable thirst for anything food-related. I believe it has to do with the fact that cooking is an art that uses all of our senses. It’s like the old adage "the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach"- I think this applies to anyone.

You got your culinary training at the CIA-essentially the butter and bacon capital of the world. When/why did you decide to go kosher?

CIA is known as the Harvard of culinary schools. At the time, I was not strictly kosher, and I knew I would get the best education there. About 2 years after graduating, I met someone (now an ex-boyfriend) who influenced my thinking about keeping kosher and Judaism. He basically said, “If you’re not even home on Shabbat [to celebrate], how will you continue your traditions and teach them to your children? That was enough to make me want to start changing [and become more observant]. I was really into him and in a way, I suppose, I wanted to do it for him.

I made the transition [into the kosher world] by working at Levana, a kosher restaurant on the Upper West Side of New York, and knew that this is what I needed to continue doing. A couple years down the line, I started The Kosher Tomato, Inc.

What do you miss most from your pre-kosher days?

I miss working with all those great chefs and having the opportunity to learn from them. Not to say that there aren’t any great kosher chefs, but I think that notion is relatively new, now that Jews are becoming more interested gourmet food.I also miss using exotic ingredients from around the world – like Thai fish sauce, sirloin steak, curry pastes without certification, gelatin, etc. – things that we cannot use because of kosher restrictions.

Are there any ingredients that you consistently have a hard time finding with a hekhsher?

I have not found mascarpone cheese yet. Other than that, I do pretty well.

Kosher cuisine has gained a reputation as being sub-par to other cuisines. Why do you think that is? Do you think there is any truth in that critique?

Honestly, somewhat! I believe that as a culture, we have had too much happen in our history to focus on food! Also, as other cultures did, we used ingredients that were abundant where we lived, but we are also limited by that, as well as by our dietary laws. In other words – if you have a lot of potatoes growing nearby, your cuisine will revolve around potatoes. You can only be so creative!

However, I definitely think this is changing with great kosher restaurants opening – places like Prime Grill, Solo, Le Marais, Park East, and Abigael’s in Manhattan – and a growing interest in good, kosher cuisine.

What is your opinion on using standard (but often unhealthy) kosher "substitutes" like margarine and non-dairy whip?

I think there are good reasons why [in the kashrut system] we are meant not to eat certain ingredients, and also certain ingredients together. I think we should keep it that way! Healthy and natural.

Most of my clients do not have a problem with this – in general, they don’t want to mess around with fresh, simple cuisine. In fact, I have a weekly client that I wanted to use soymilk for once for a cream soup (which I don’t personally think is as bad), but she was not into that idea at all.

What is your personal mission/vision as a chef?

I think that it’s pretty simple – I want to offer affordable and practical chef services of all kinds to the Jewish community.

I focus on the Jewish community because I am part of that community – I know the culture and have found my niche. There aren’t many personal chefs focusing only on kosher food preparation, so I think I have an advantage there. Ultimately, I want to [positively] influence the way the Jewish community eats. I’m not sure how that will happen yet – all I know is that I would like to make a difference.

What foods do you personally cook/eat most often? What do you eat most when you’re on the run?

I love chicken, so I eat that a lot – chicken glazed with pomegranate is excellent and coconut lemongrass chicken with citrus dressing and chicken with mango salsa are some of my favorites. When I am on the run, I usually grab either a sandwich, yogurt, a snack bar or fruit.

How is the current economy affecting your business? Are you finding people more reluctant to hire a personal chef? Or are people looking for more opportunities to eat at home?

Ironically, our current economic situation is not impacting me as much as I thought. Maybe it’s like you suggested – people are looking for more opportunities to eat at home. Plus, people always want to eat healthier than they do, and my services help them. Overall, I think people hire me for the practicality.

If you could cook for anyone in the world (past or present) – who would it be and why?

If I could cook for anyone, I think it would be Chef Gray Kunz. He is an amazing chef, mentor, and person in general who I worked with for a short while at Spice Market.

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