by Joan Nathan
Manna Catering of New York City may be the only kosher caterer who refuses to cook "the traditional Jewish 'k' foods - kugel, knishes, kreplach and kasha." "They have become kosher catering cliches," explains Dan Lenchner, 42, owner/chef. Lenchner sees these dishes as family fare for the holidays, not fancy foods for kosher events. "I love cholent and tcimmes but they do not present well," he says. And for the new brand of jewish chefs, presentation is almost as important as taste.
"We do work with Jewish symbols," Lenchner adds. "We like to work with food that has traditional meaning like apples, honey and pomegranates. But instead of drawing on recipes from old-time Jewish cookbooks, Lenchner takes his inspiration from the latest gourmet magazines and books. He is in the vanguard of contemporary kosher cuisine. And all their recipes are adapted to be strictly kosher.
Lenchner will not use traditional kosher imitations, such as "milk" sauces or desserts made of soy products. Nondairy coffee creamer is the only ersatz product he will use at a fleishig (meat) function. "If we are making a fleishig meal we stick to fruit, chocolate and fruit sorbets for desserts. Our choices are limited. "His milchig (dairy) meals, however, are often capped with buttery pastries. The result: Manna Catering's menu reads like the latest American chef 's: sushi, wild mushroom ravioli with a chardonnay shallot sauce, tuna and salmon medallions, radicchio and sun-dried tomatoes, passion fruit custard with fresh berries and chocolate pate with hazelnut cream sauce.
Lenchner, like many of the new breed of Jewish chefs, didn't start out to become a caterer. In 1979, he moved to New York after receiving a master's degree in comparative literature from the University of California. A talented amateur chef, he was a wholesale food supplier to food shops when a friend asked him to cater a kosher bar mitzvah. Word spread and in 1982 he started his business. Since then Lenchner has fed such people as President Clinton, Steven Spielberg, Yizhak Rabin and King Hussein.
Using the foods of the season, he adds symbolic touches during the holidays. For Rosh Hashana and Sukkot, he suggests modern recipes using ancient symbols: cauliflower with a tart-tasting pomegranate hollandaise sauce, trout wrapped in grape leaves and, for dessert, fig souflle. "According to legend, there are 613 seeds in a pomegranate to symbolize the 613 Jewish commandments," says Lenchner. A fish head represents the wish that you be a success in the year to come." As for the fig souffle, Lenchner explains that in addition to the fruit's Biblical mention, there is a tradition of eating a new fruit for the new year. On the East Coast, he points out, fresh figs are available in the fall.