Have you ever savored kugel finished off with a blowtorch? Or enjoyed potato kugel dumplings with Korean pepper paste and Japanese mayonnaise? If not, you missed two of the best kugels DC has seen in a long time. In any event, you can replicate them at home with the recipes that have now been added to the JFE® Recipe Collection.

Those two delicacies were the winners in the first annual Eat Well, Do Justice Celebrity Cook-off, kugel edition, hosted by Tzedek DC.

Over 300 supporters of Tzedek DC packed the new UDC Student Center for the September 25th event. They devoured those treats and others, while raising over $100,000 to fund work advocating for low-income DC residents facing debt-related crises.

The idea for the kugel contest came from the grandmother of co-chair Courtney Weiner. The event’s honorary chair, Washington Post Deputy Food Editor Bonnie Benwick, put together a stellar roster of participating celebrity chefs, and Tzedek DC president and director-counsel Ariel Levinson-Waldman created an informative program, featuring a short documentary video on how Tzedek DC helps low income residents.

The chefs for the event, all of whom come from the DC restaurant community, donated their time, creativity and the ingredients for their entries.

(Unfortunately the fifth chef scheduled to participate, Pati Jinich of Pati’s Mexican Table, had to miss the event because she flew to Mexico City to be with her family dealing with the tragic effects of the earthquakes that struck just before the event. We are told she will be invited for the 2018 Eat Well event.)

Each one of the four kugels was amazing in its own way. Bailey, making his first-ever kugel, did a blueberry and goat cheese version. Friedman and Levin went back to their childhoods for inspiration with kugels based on family recipes. Lee, another kugel novice, took a totally different approach, with individual deep-fried, Asian-inspired potato “kugelettes.”

The Cook-Off featured two votes: a popular one by event attendees and the other by a four-judge panel featuring luminaries from the worlds of food, media and the law. The judges were:

  • David Gregory, Emmy-winning television journalist and author;
  • Joan Nathan, James Beard Award-winning cookbook author;
  • Annamaria Steward, former DC Bar president and associate dean of students at UDC David A. Clarke School of Law, and now the DC Bar director of leadership and strategic development; and
  • Marna Tucker, founding partner, Feldesman, Tucker, Leifer and Fidell, and former DC Bar president.

All four judges provided commentary as they gave their verdict. Their remarks elicited laughter and knowing sighs as they regaled the audience with tales of kugel tastings past and present. Marna Tucker noted that, although she appreciated all of the entries, none could hold a candle to her very own kugel.

While three judges were well acquainted with this Jewish comfort food, one, Annamaria Steward bravely admitted that it was her first encounter with kugel. She seemed quite taken with the concept and happy to have so many versions to try. Joan Nathan dissected the entries with knowledge befitting a Jewish food expert. David Gregory used humor to deliver his verdict, harkening back to his LA youth and kugels he has known and loved.

Once tallied, the judges went for Chef Lee’s potato version. However, their votes were split, with Steward and Tucker choosing Chef Lee’s creative offering, while Nathan preferred Chef Levin’s classic and Gregory chose Chef Friedman’s as his favorite.

The popular vote went for Levin’s blowtorch-finished, traditionally inspired kugel. In a nod to his grandmother, whose recipe he had tweaked, Levin named his winning treat “Savta’s Kugel.”

The winning recipes are provided here, courtesy of Chefs Lee and Levin, the Washington Post and Bonnie Benwick.

Stay tuned for next year’s Tzedek DC Eat Well, Do Justice event, which promises to be just as much (and maybe more) fun and successful as this inaugural celebration.

Top photo (from left): Judges and chefs Joan Nathan, winner Alex Levin, David Gregory, Marna Tucker, Mike Friedman, Kyle Bailey, Danny Lee and Annamaria Steward. All photos: jdbaker photography.