KEITH BEATY/TORONTO STAR
Chef Eran Marom still has longings. He salivates at the smell of dim sum in Chinatown and the mere thought of oysters evokes bliss.
“There’s nothing like them, the texture, the smell,” lovingly recalls the French-trained chef. “I’ve drunk sea water and eaten seaweed to try to get the flavour.”
Marom, 30, has the taste buds of an epicure, but the new-found soul of an Orthodox Jew. He grew up secular, experiencing and loving all kinds of food. But his rapid rise in the culinary world — training at the renowned Paul Bocuse Institute near Lyons, working with celebrity chef Daniel Boulud in New York — whetted his spiritual appetite. He became more observant, adopting an orthodox lifestyle with kosher dietary restrictions, including no pork or shellfish.
“I was restarting, re-borning,” explains Marom. “I felt I could no longer feed other people nonkosher food.”
In restaurant kitchens across multicultural Toronto, chefs grapple with dueling passions, their love of food and their religious beliefs. Culinary careers are at stake, but so are cultural and spiritual traditions passed on through the centuries.
Some Toronto chefs tread a fine line — they’ll taste taboo foods but not swallow — or limit careers to ethnic eateries or safe specialties. At the Fairmont Royal York Hotel’s large diverse kitchen, some chefs prefer to stick with pastries or salads, areas presenting fewer personal conflicts, says executive chef David Garcelon.
Others try to bridge their two worlds creatively. Marom, who favours a large beret over a yarmulke or chef’s hat, opened Marron, a midtown bistro that serves French kosher, a seemingly-contradictory cuisine. He substitutes ingredients such as apple butter or coconut milk for the cream and butter beloved by the French. (Jewish dietary rules forbid dairy and meat be served, or prepared, together.)
Didier Leroy, a Master Chef of France — one of only three in Canada — is a Buddhist, believing in the eternity of life. He says that’s given him great respect for the produce and meat he cooks. “We become what we eat physically and spiritually,” says the chef. While he serves grass-fed beef at Didier, his midtown French restaurant, he eats mainly vegetables and seafood.
Across religious traditions, extraordinary similarities exist around food, explains Michel Desjardins, professor of religion and culture at Wilfrid Laurier University. He’s researched the emerging academic field of food and religion for six years.
Most of today’s religions date back to ancient societies, where diet restrictions provided a way for one group to separate from another, explains Desjardins. “Food is so primary, so fundamental to everything we do. If I separate my group from your group, food will play a role in that.”
In Christianity, he says, the food restrictions tend to be for limited time periods. For instance, observant Catholics abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
Raised in the Christian Coptic Orthodox Church, Tawfik Shehata couldn’t eat animal products during certain periods, such as Lent and Advent. When he started his career, other kitchen staff tasted his work for him during those times of year. “It was inconvenient. They had to work around me,” remembers Shehata, now executive chef at the club district’s The Ballroom.
He no longer abides by those diet rules. “Life is too busy.”
Desjardins found the fewest restrictions in Protestant forms of Christianity. But for those of other faiths, such as Muslims and Jews, the decision to break from the fold isn’t made lightly. “These aren’t just arcane religious restrictions. They are felt absolutely and deeply,” explains Desjardins.
Yehuda Goldberg will never forget the day in Alsace, France, that he ate pork. “I felt like my parents were looking over my shoulders,” says Goldberg, 25, who was raised in a large Orthodox Jewish family, attended religious schools, and has four older brothers who are rabbis.
As a young chef in Toronto, he cooked pork but refused to taste it, and, as a result, was bypassed for promotion in two restaurants, he says. He went to France to work with a two-Michelin-star-rated chef, who kindly offered to have other cooks taste the pork and seafood dishes. “They understood you don’t make someone do what they’re not comfortable doing,” says Goldberg.
He was struck by the collegial, friendly atmosphere in the kitchen, a sharp contrast to his Toronto jobs where screaming chefs belittled staff. “That ‘my way or the highway’ mentality always left a bad taste in my mouth. Why should I give up something I grew up believing for them? It was all about feeding the chef’s ego,” explains Goldberg.
In France, he felt more open to new experiences. “I made the conscious decision to taste so I’d know what it was about French cuisine I wanted to bring back with me.”
Still, he stresses, it was extremely difficult. “I felt like I was betraying everything I grew up with.”
And pork, as it turned out, was a bit of a letdown. After all the ruckus, he expected a stronger, more distinctive flavour.
Back in Toronto, he keeps kosher at home and practices conservative, not orthodox, Judaism. He’s executive chef at Cabbagetown’s Stout Irish Pub, where double-smoked bacon tops the signature burger. Goldberg enjoys the bacon taste, but wouldn’t consider a meal of it.
Alcohol became the stumbling block for Abderrahman Khallouk, who grew up Muslim in Morocco.
His faith prohibits pork and alcohol, but he worked at restaurants, mainly French and Italian, in England and then in Canada without problems. He’d cook with the banned ingredients, just not taste them. An experienced cook can tell quality by sight and smell, he says. For awhile, he was sous chef to Pasquale Carpino, known as the “Singing Chef” who performed opera as he prepared meals on his TV cooking show.
But as he got older, Khallouk grew more religious. “You start to think, ‘One day I will depart from this life,’ ” explains the 46-year-old chef. “Just as I work hard for this life, I need to work hard for the next life.”
He could no longer justify cooking in a non-halal restaurant, one that didn’t observe Islamic practice. “It was mostly the serving of alcohol that bothered me.”
His solution? Italian halal. Five years ago, he and partner Nadeem Salman Shaikh, an engineer by training, opened Kara Mia, a casual dining restaurant in Vaughan. No vino with the veal there.
Since then, they also started a Kara Mia in Mississauga, where Sanaul Khan, 55, is now the chef. Previously Khan, also Muslim, had always cooked in non-halal eateries. “I’d cook the pork but I’d wash my hands often,” he says.
While he’s happy to be cooking halal, he points to one drawback. Muslims pray five times a day, with the evening prayer falling during a restaurant’s rush period.
“Nobody in the kitchen ever prayed but me,” he says with a laugh. “Now at a halal restaurant it’s harder. We have to take turns.”