As chicken sizzles on the grill in the Four Seasons Hotel's kosher kitchen, Chef Guillermo Ramerez is chopping parsley and pastry chef Donald Wressell is scooping dairy-free chocolate mousse into terrines. Luncheon menu in hand, Rabbi Binyomin Lisbon, the mashgiach who oversees preparation, is peering into pots and pans, checking carton labels.
In two hours, upstairs in the Wetherly Room, there is to be a bris, the circumcision of an infant with a celebratory meal to follow. The staff is on kosher alert--from the kosher kitchen to the Wetherly pantry where loaves of challah sit on the breadboard.
There will be margarine, not butter, for the challah, Mocha Mix, not cream, for the coffee. And Lisbon and another rabbi will be around from cocktail hour to dessert to make sure everything is strictly acceptable to Orthodox and other Jews who observe kosher law.
The Four Seasons, on the edge of Beverly Hills, is among deluxe area hotels that in recent years have invested in kosher kitchens--kitchens opened only for events where dairy and meat never mingle, where shellfish and broccoli are banned and all processed foods must bear a label proclaiming them kosher.
About 15 four-star L.A. hotels now boast kosher kitchens or will kasher their kitchens for special events.
"It just makes good business sense," says Pini Herman, research coordinator for the Jewish Federation Council, whose events are always kosher. "If it's kosher, everybody can participate without fear. Also, there are many Conservative Jews who observe kashrut."
By federation estimates, the Jewish population of Greater Los Angeles is about 520,000, or 247,000 households, of which only 4.3% are Orthodox. But, Herman says, "Kashrut is often a common denominator at a social event where you want to include a denominational cross-section of the community."
It makes such good business sense that hostelries including Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel, the Bel Age, the Beverly Hills Hotel and the Warner Center Marriott recently installed expensive facilities so as to compete for the Jewish dollar with the Century Plaza and the Beverly Hilton. The Regent Beverly Wilshire, citing demand, is exploring the idea.
Loews catering manager Debra Rosenberg says business has tripled since the hotel put in its $250,000 facility on the fifth floor two years ago. The impetus, she says, came from owner Sidney Caplan, who wanted a kosher kitchen, but there was also "great demand."
Jonathan Reeves, director of special events at the Four Seasons, which opened its kosher kitchen in early 1997, says, "Our sales have increased 200% with the kosher kitchen revenues. I think there's a lot more people more observant." The hotel now hosts three kosher events such as bar and bat mitzvahs and weddings weekly. At a cost of $200,000, Reeves says, the kitchen "paid for itself in the first year."
At the Beverly Hills Hotel, which in mid-1995 dedicated a $500,000 state-of-the-art kosher kitchen a floor below the Polo Lounge, catering director Dianne Greenberg says, "It took off immediately," and today 40% of hotel events are kosher. Lisbon calls this kitchen "a rabbi's dream," totally self-contained from pots to place settings, skillets to spices.
And the cuisine? At the Beverly Hills, Chef Andreas Nieto's choices include pheasant ravioli with wild mushrooms, mesquite grilled salmon, poached pear with vanilla bean sauce. The wine list is varied and sophisticated--and strictly kosher.
"We do a lot of great food here," says Nieto, "tasteful and elegant," sort of kosher meets California meets French, "very modern, very fresh."
Where there is a kosher kitchen, there is a mashgiach to oversee events. For a typical 4 p.m. Sunday wedding and feast, he might arrive at the hotel at 8 a.m. and stay until every pot, pan and dish is put away and the kitchen locked. Not all mashgiachs are rabbis, but all are trained in the kosher life.
Before these hotels installed special kitchens, a kosher caterer had to be brought in and the main kitchen shut down while the ovens were blowtorched to rid them of any particles of nonkosher food. Even with a mashgiach on hand, some observant Jews felt uneasy.
The day before the bris at the Four Seasons, Rabbi Motti Polityko, an assistant to Lisbon, had spent five hours at the hotel, supervising kashering (sterilizing) of the silver and torching of the steel hot boxes that would deliver luncheon entrees to the Wetherly Room.
"Wherever people go to eat, you're the one they rely on," says Lisbon, whose Kehilla Kosher of Los Angeles is one of the two largest agencies providing kashrut supervision. The other is the Rabbinical Council of California. Some hotels use both. Client loyalties are strong.
"The community is definitely split," Rosenberg says.