DC is quickly becoming an “it” city (I’m sure you saw the Forbes piece about DC being at the top of the list of “coolest cities” in America), and one of the major factors is the food scene. I cranked up my “Jew-dar” and put together a list of Jewish chefs dishing out meals that are keeping us Beltway insiders well fed and propelling our city further into coolness.
Debbie Amster, Nourishing Possibilities
Holistic nutritionist and sassy Jewish mom, Debbie Amster is cooking up healthy and delicious Jewish classics.
Over lunch at the Lebanese Taverna in Bethesda (Debbie loves the falafel there), we chatted Jewish food and DC coolness. “The one place that comes to mind is DGS Delicatessen,” says Amster. “I really applaud them for what they’re doing—it’s not kosher, but it’s Jewish. They are managing to combine the new trends in food with the traditional. It is really exciting, and I love going there!”
When I asked about the evolution of the food scene in the District, I heard the classic DC foodie refrain: “I first moved here in 1972. There was nowhere to eat. It was bad. Now, there are a gazillion amazing choices, both upscale and reasonable. DC is filled with young people rather than just stogy old men—that is helping, too.” Yes, she really said “gazillion.”
It is around Amster’s Passover table where I first experienced haroset starring avocado, which is somewhat symbolic of what Chef Debbie is doing with food in general. “I think we can just use our own creativity to move beyond what’s traditional. Brisket with beer instead of onion soup mix, for example. Updating recipes that [our grandparents] used to make with canned vegetables with fresh vegetables.” Amster’s love of fresh, local, healthy ingredients is certainly part of a generational shift she’s seeing, too. “My grandmother used one seasoning: George Washington Broth. It was all salt and MSG. Now we have a plethora of really great herbs and spices available to us!”
Don’t miss Amster’s seasonal cooking classes in conjunction with yoga and meditation workshops. She promises no onion soup mix will be present.
Danny Bortnick, Firefly
Full disclosure: Danny and I went to the same high school. I only discovered this midway through a photo session with Chef Bortnick and his signature matzah ball soup (which is available for all your Jewish penicillin needs on the menu at Firefly). When he’s not playing Jewish geography with me, Chef B is the Senior Director of Restaurant Concepts and Development for Kimpton.
“DC will always be at the crossroads of what is cool, what is prudent, what is left and what is right because of the make-up of the people; the diversity, the blending of transients, generational Washingtonians and foreign nationals,” says Bortnick. He went on to give a shot out to DC’s historic roots: “In DC, the fact that history is preserved, displayed and celebrated is cool on its own.”
I asked about Jewish food being hip again, and Chef Bortnick came back with a strong statement: “I don’t think that Jewish food ever became passé for Jews.” These days, he’s concentrating on how Jewish food has crossed cultures. “Food culture is always in an evolution, and the fact that some traditional Jewish (or Jewish-American) foods are now in vogue is freakin’ awesome.”
Chef Bortnick is challenging DC to amp up our collective sandwich standards: “Too bad 99 out of 100 places that serve pastrami on rye give the sandwich a poor reputation. We need the 1 out of 100 to go beyond cult status and help the various delis out there realize that Boar’s Head does not equal quality fresh roasted meats.”
I can taste a pastrami throwdown in our future…
Sara Fatell, Grassroots Gourmet
A pastry bag, rolling pin and whisk are just three of the baking-themed tattoos adorning Chef Fatell’s upper arm. Grassroots Gourmet, her neighborhood bakery, is more like 90210’s Peach Pit or maybe Cheers (if Cheers had a wide variety of seasonal cupcake flavors and the most adorable mini cherry pies).
Fatell’s answer to my question about the hipness of Jewish food was inspiring: “If Jewish food is now hitting it big on the market, I think it’s because more Jewish chefs and cooks are leaning on tradition to create their menus.” Hallelujah! Nothing tastes better than a generations-old recipe handed down from Bubbe to entrepreneur.
Fatell’s advice for aspiring chefs and foodpreneurs? “Start from what you know, the recipes you were taught or you ate as a child.” Clearly she practices what she preaches since two starring Grassroots Gourmet menu items are the apple cake and rugelach!
When you visit Grassroots, you’ll be greeted with a big hello before being hit with refined sugar-related decision paralysis: nutella rugelach or s’mores cupcakes? Let us know what you choose!
Nick Wiseman, DGS Delicatessen
Things I love about Nick Wiseman: his fourth-generation Washingtonian status, the pierogies he seems to have perfected and the fact that he really loves our shared hometown.
We chatted about DC’s hipness and Nick gives a nod to his neighborhood (16th Street) and “Upshur and the 11th Street Corridor coming to life…so much of it driven by new restaurants and bars.” He was shepping nachas about the food transformation in DC, proclaiming, “I’ve always thought DC is the coolest city. It is awesome to see independent restaurants popping up and driving the evolution new exciting neighborhoods making the city a better place.” I agree, Chef Nick, DC is so the coolest city!
Wiseman’s answer to my questions about the Jewish food scene were inspiring. He takes a “we’re all in the same hustle” approach. “[Local chefs] are taking cues from each other. There is lots of learning happening within the city—all our smoking and brining and curing. These techniques have been a part of the delicatessen since Jewish cooking began in Eastern Europe. It is cool to see the old-world techniques so present around the city today.”
Wiseman believes people are probably happy they can finally get a good pastrami sandwich in the District, so stop by DGS Delicatessen in Dupont Circle to do some preliminary research for the aforementioned pastrami throwdown (or try the pierogies and a whole bunch of other divine upscale delicatessen fare).
Top photo: Stuffed cabbage at DGS Delicatessen.
All photos by Emily Goodstein.
Note: The establishments mentioned are not kosher.