Much like Chef Rossi’s Israeli salad, she is bold, raw and full of flavor. Chef Rossi (yes, she only has one name) has been the food writer of the “Eat Me” column for Bust magazine since 1998, hosts her own hit radio show on WOMR and WFMR in Cape Cod called “Bite This,” now in its twelfth season, has been featured on Food Network and NPR and is a popular blogger for the Huffington Post. As the owner and executive chef of The Raging Skillet, a cutting-edge catering company known for breaking any and all rules, she has a swag all her own of doing it her way. The New York Times called The Raging Skillet “a new breed of rebel anti-caterer.”
I had the opportunity to talk with the self-described Jewish mother of the catering business about her upcoming book event on June 12, during Pride Week, at Kramerbooks and Afterwords Cafe, where she will be reading and signing Raging Skillet: The True Life Story of Chef Rossi, which has received rave reviews. We chatted about her journey to finding her Judaism and the chutzpah she’s needed to become a successful female chef.
Jewish Food Experience®: How have your Jewish roots inspired your cooking?
Chef Rossi: Well, the way my mother brought us up and she was Hungarian. So we were always eating stuff like kishka (very Ashkenazi), but when we ate anything else, it was always Italian. I remember growing up, thinking basically that Italian food was Jewish food. Pizza and pasta—that’s what we lived for. I never had any rules about blending cuisines. I found out from a young age that wacky and fun was the way to go.
JFE®: What inspired you to do your book reading in DC during Pride Week?
CR: The book event was actually my idea from the beginning. Instead of Kramerbooks approaching me, I approached them. First off, I knew I was already coming to DC to do the Equality March, but it wasn’t enough. I knew I wanted to do something else. I felt very strongly that I wanted all the profits from the event to go to a wonderful charity. In this case, it’s going to the Trevor project, which is very dear to me. I’m thrilled that GLOE is sponsoring the event because GLOE is a both gay and Jewish organization, which is all me. I’m like the gay Jew.
JFE®: What does “pride” mean to you?
CR: I’ve been “out” since I was 18 years old, marching and fighting for AIDS funding. There’s so much hate right now. I want my event at Kramerbooks to celebrate our equality. You don’t have to be gay to come to the event, but you have to love the gays.
JFE®: As a New Yorker, what do you like better: pizza or bagels?
CR: Well, as a New Yorker, I like pizza bagels. I’ve been a New Yorker since I was 16 years old. So I consider myself a New Yorker, although I’m originally from the Jersey Shore. However, I came of age in New York.
JFE®: Would you tell me more about your “coming of age” in New York?
CR: I basically ran away from home and had a party. The police busted my party, and my parents picked me up at the police station and delivered me to a rabbi in Crowns Heights, Brooklyn, who specialized in turning around troubled Jewish girls. That’s how I wound up in New York. The rabbis just wanted to get me to the point where I was as religious as they were. Although I’ve always been a feminist, I just didn’t know the word. When I was living in Crown Heights, they wanted the women to cover themselves up and not raise their voices, and that entire idea wasn’t really jiving with my feminism. So I lived with the Hasids until I turned 18 years old and moved to Manhattan and never turned back. Interestingly enough, I’m currently writing my second book about my experiences with the Hasids.
JFE®: How did your experience in Crown Heights affect your Judaism?
CR: Eventually, I found a shul lead by a female rabbi where women could raise their voices in song and were celebrated (not based on their gender). Since then, I’ve been about as Jewish as you could be, but I had to find Judaism that fit my sense of morals.
JFE®: What challenges have you found as a female chef in the male-dominated career of cooking and catering?
CR: Well when I got into the business during the 1980s, women were just not welcomed in professional kitchens. The male chefs would really try anything to make me quit. But I was blessed with the chutzpah I got from surviving Crown Heights. The two things they respected though were filthy mouths and chutzpah, both of which I have after a ton of years of really suffering. By hanging in there, I was able to become a successful chef myself and eventually open my own company, The Raging Skillet. My kitchen has become known as the “zen kitchen.” There isn’t any yelling aloud in my kitchen. I make sure my chefs are taken care of. Self-care is important even in the kitchen. I guess you could say I’m a “Jewish mother,” and that’s how I run my catering business.
JFE®: What cuisines most inspire your cooking?
R: We might get a call to mix Mexican and Jamaican cuisines together. We’re the catering company that can do it at the same time. We have two Israeli chefs who got nuts whenever babaganoosh is on the menu, which is often. We also end up making Israeli and Moroccan cuisines. We mix it up, which is why we’re known as the multiethnic caters. But if I had to say my own favorite, I think I would say West Indian cooking. However, I honestly can’t say I have a favorite because it’s usually whatever I’m doing that week.
Meet Chef Ross, get a signed copy of her book and sample some of her noshes on June 12 at Kramersbooks & Afterwords Cafe. Profits from the event will be donated to the Trevor Project. Find more information here.
Photos courtesy of Chef Rossi.