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“Rabbi, I need two more leeks cleaned!”
At this request, Joseph Pinto disappears into the walk-in refrigerator.
Pinto isn’t a rabbi. He’s a mashgiakh—supervisor of kashrut—but everybody at the Red Heifer in Bethesda, a kosher steakhouse, calls him rabbi anyway. The seminary-trained Pinto can, if called upon, dissect entire tractates of the Talmud, but these days this self-described kitchen cop is just as likely to disassemble a head of lettuce.
“All the green stuff goes through me first,” says Pinto, standing over a sink and methodically peeling away layers from the leeks.
It’s an hour before the restaurant opens for dinner, and the kitchen is a blur of activity. New general manager John Welfeld took over three weeks ago, and a new menu from a new chef will be making its debut tonight. Meanwhile, Daniel Oran waits for Pinto to finish so he can begin a batch of potato-leek soup.
“I’ve got to make sure they’re bug-free,” Pinto explains, as water sluices onto his wrists. “As Jews, we cannot eat any insect—there are no provisions for that in the Old Testament.”
Igal Sasanfar, another mashgiakh, has a rule: If, after five washings, the greens won’t come clean—hydroponic Bibb lettuce is particularly obstinate—the produce is “red-flagged”: thrown out “for the sake of security.”
Pinto and Sasanfar are two of three kitchen cops who rotate shifts at the restaurant. The position necessitates a tricky diplomatic dance. They answer not to Welfeld, nor to the restaurant’s investors, but to a higher authority: the Rabbinical Council of Greater Washington—the vaad, or certifying authority that determines whether the restaurant can call itself glatt kosher.
The designation is crucial to the success of the 6-month-old restaurant. The Orthodox Jewish customers who are the Red Heifer’s target audience will show up only if they can be absolutely, positively sure that everything they put into their mouths—from the mammoth, dry-aged buffalo chops to the Baron Herzog wines—has come under strict rabbinical supervision.
Even so, says Welfeld, there is no guarantee of patronage. The Orthodox, he explains, are “not used to eating out.”
And, though the restaurant might appear to have secured itself a niche in the highly competitive Bethesda market, the reality is that keeping kosher can be a burden. Costs are prohibitively high, owing partly to the expense of ritually slaughtered meat and partly to the cost of keeping a mashgiakh on duty at all times. And because it must shutter its doors from Friday night until 8 p.m. Saturday, in observance of the sabbath, the Red Heifer loses out on the single most profitable time of the week. The last three kosher restaurants in the D.C. area—Archives, Stacks deli, and L’Etoile—all failed spectacularly.
The difficulty of his task has been preying upon Welfeld, a well-groomed, fast-talking former gala coordinator who, by his own admission, “never wanted to run a restaurant. Never.” But he’s attracted to challenges, he says, and bringing “the service side, the food side, and the religious side” into alignment is “as big a challenge as I’ve ever had.”
No one, so far, has lasted long in the job. Welfeld is the third manager. The chef, Barry Fleischmann, is the fourth chef. “This is,” Welfeld confides, “the last chance to get this place run right.”
The note of desperation dissipates as the first customers of the night arrive: Joe and Hadassah Lieberman and their daughter. The senator, all smiles, tells Welfeld that he’s asked his rabbi at Kesher Israel to talk up the restaurant to his congregation. Welfeld’s mood picks up. He instructs his assistant, Lester Kasten, to seize upon the photo op; he even offers a high-five.
But what should be a piece of unequivocally good news is also cause for panic. A VIP is here, and the new menus are not ready.
“I’ve gotta have ’em,” Kasten says.
“Give me a minute.”
Welfeld huddles over the computer, frantically pecking out corrections. Now the printer is acting up—the copies are coming out smudgy. Pinto, who studies computer science, is summoned from the kitchen to work out the kinks. Meantime, Welfeld pores over a printout: grammatical and typographical errors, layout problems, inconsistencies.
“Now?” It’s Kasten again.
“Just read ’em what we have.”
“The whole menu? I can’t do that. Why don’t we just go with the old menus for tonight?”
“Because they’re making different stuff. No.”
Pinto has cleared up the printing problem, and, working feverishly, Welfeld slides the pages of the new menu into their binders, typos and all. He spreads the binders out across the bar, above which he has hung a picture of himself with Newt Gingrich. Nearby sits a book written by his father, Irving Welfeld, titled Why Kosher?
The son, just now, seems to be asking himself that very question. Last week, the vaad pulled Worcestershire sauce from his approved ingredient list—it contains anchovies.
“Everything kosher,” Welfeld sighs, “is blown out of perspective.”
Realizing, perhaps, that this sounds a touch heretical, he adds that he has nothing but the deepest respect for the vaad as “another line of protection” for the customer—“added eyes and a higher level of authority.”
But still. “I gotta maximize everything. I gotta worry about the cost of having a rabbi touch every piece of lettuce at $16.50 an hour. I gotta keep 20 investors happy.”
If the restaurant is going to make it, Welfeld has concluded, then it will to have to become more than a kosher restaurant. He’s toyed with the idea of hosting private parties for karaoke, or maybe dancing.
But not, he is quick to add, ever mindful of the vaad, during regular business hours.
The Red Heifer, 4844 Cordell Ave., Bethesda, (301) 951-5115.—Todd Kliman
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