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A Chef Learns His Colors

In Jerusalem hotel, staff keeps the kitchen kosher with red, white, and blue marks. FOOD: ISRAEL

By John Edward YoungSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / July 5, 1989



JERUSALEM

MARC COSYNS knew his pots and pans. Or so he thought. After studying the culinary arts in his native Brussels, he worked as a chef there for seven and a half years. Later he spent several years cooking in Tunisia, and another year in Zaire.

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So it was with experience, a dog-eared passport, and some confidence that he flew off to Israel to don the executive chef's toque at Jerusalem's new five-star deluxe Hyatt Regency Hotel.

But pots and pans are a different matter in the religious state of Israel, he explained, as we moved through the busy kitchens in the depths of the Hyatt Regency.

Down here, you'd better know your primary colors. The Hyatt - and every hotel and restaurant I happened to visit in Israel - keeps a kosher kitchen. Kosher is a Hebrew term meaning ``proper'' and based on traditional dietary laws.

``Every cooking utensil here in the dairy kitchen is marked with a blue dot,'' Mr. Cosyns said, holding up a large stainless-steel stockpot bearing a large spot of blue paint.

Kosher law dictates that fleishig (meat) and milchig (dairy) not be served at the same meal. Even silver and dinnerware is kept and used separately. To avoid any mix-up in the hotel's several dining rooms, all china for meat meals is round, and that for non-meat meals is octagon shaped. So you get a clue as to what you'll be having for dinner even before you see the menu.

``Everything - even knives, forks, and ladles we cook with - is marked with blue on this side of the kitchen. And everything over here,'' he continued as we moved into an adjoining kitchen, ``is painted with a red spot for meat.''

Then there are pareve foods. ``Those are the neutral foods that go with either meat or dairy meals. Things like vegetables, fruit, and fish.'' Cosyns said that in many kosher kitchens, pareve utensils are often marked with a white dot.

Cosyns admitted he knew ``a little'' about kosher cooking before moving to Jerusalem, adding that, ``It took about three months before I was really into it.''

And it wasn't easy at first. He gave an example:

``Israel produces some of the best foi gras in the world,'' he said, hefting an enormous fresh goose liver. ``But the first time I saw a rabbi come into my kitchen, poke holes in the liver, salt it, then heat it in a hot oven, I thought, `I can't do this!'''

This method, said Cosyns, is a koshering process - done by a rabbi - to draw out any blood that may remain in the meat. Fresh beef is ``koshered'' in a somewhat similar fashion.

``Then there are these,'' Cosyns said pulling out a 10-pound box of ``shrimp'' from the walk-in freezer. ``Shellfish is considered unclean, so of course it's not kosher,'' he said. ``But these are imitation shrimp, made of pollock, similar to the imitation'' crab and shrimp found in the United States. Just to make sure the chief, cooks, and bottle washers keep the kitchen kosher, the hotel employs four rabbis who share a small office with large glass windows that look out on the kitchens. One bearded rabbi dressed in black is always on patrol moving among the white-frocked kitchen staff. To an outsider it looks like a kind of cat-and-mouse game, but keeping kosher is serious stuff, said Cosyns.

So what happens if one of the kitchen staff - who, ironically, are invariably young Arab men - slips up and mistakenly stirs a blue-spotted pot with a red-spotted spoon?

``Well,'' said Cosyns with a shrug, ``if he's caught, he's fired. That's it. There's nothing I can do.''

Preparing meals on Jewish holy days in a kosher kitchen presents another set of challenges. Strict Hebrew law demands that one doesn't ``work'' on the Shabbat - the weekly holy day from sunset Friday night to sunset Saturday evening. And lighting a fire, or even the flame on a gas stove - is considered work.

So how do you keep a thousand hungry guests in a five-star hotel who don't want cold cuts and salad on the Sabbath from mutiny?

Cosyns walked over to an enormous, seven-foot-high electric oven.

Inside, a series of racks are arranged on a conveyer belt to hold the pre-prepared meals. On the side of the oven is a large timer set by the rabbi on duty to correspond with the weekly holy day. As sunset changes from week to week, the oven timer is reset each week.

``All meals eaten on the Sabbath are prepared ahead and heated in here.'' Cosyns said that because electricity has no flame, it is not in violation of the Sabbath.

Although it doesn't happen often, Cosyns did relate a recent incident: ``We were setting up a buffet in the dining room on the Shabbat,'' he recalled. ``One of the waiters - without thinking - lit a sterno under one of the buffet dishes. That was it. He was let go.''

Despite Cosyns's initial reservations, and the rare firing of a kitchen worker, he now finds working in a kosher kitchen interesting and a challenge. ``Since the Jews came to Israel from all over the world - eastern Europe, northern Africa, America, as well as the Middle East - there has been no real Israeli cuisine. So I'm always adapting recipes. And that forces me to think creatively.''

Adaptions may be as simple as saut'eing a meat patty in the traditional schmaltz (chicken fat), or as sophisticated as frying thinly sliced, smoked breast of goose where a bacon flavor is desired.