After years of wandering in the desert of inaccessible kosher steak, American Jews may now rejoice. The time has arrived for exquisite—and yes, kosher—filet mignon, thanks to Atara Foods.
“Last week we just had a filet mignon that was the best—kosher or not—hands down we’ve ever had,” said Mitch Berliner. He, along with his wife Debra Moser, is a cofounder of Central Farm Markets, where Atara Foods has a booth, and is also “Chief Sampling Officer” and founder of Meatcrafters. Clearly a carnivore connoisseur, Berliner knows good meats, and he’s whipped out his finest knives to enjoy the craft of Atara Foods.
Founded just this year, Atara is a Baltimore-based kosher butcher, with a unique model—likely one of the only of its kind in the United States. It offers not only the commonly consumed (on American plates, at least) forequarter cuts of beef, like the famed brisket, but also the hindquarter cuts, which is where the highest-prized cuts, including filet mignon, are located.
Binyomin Ansbacher, who came on at the beginning of the business and works on a portion of the kashrut responsibilities (more on that later), as well as a bit of marketing and operations, explains that Atara opened early in 2017, founded by Jacob Levy, who happens to be a tenth-generation butcher. “Jacob’s passion started the company,” said Ansbacher. “It was because of the lack of easily available high-quality cuts of kosher meats in the US; that was the spark.”
Levy has quite the background in the butcher business, given it seems to run in his blood. His family, originally from Iraq, later moved to Israel, where he grew up. He followed family tradition and became a butcher and an expert in the Sephardic tradition of kosher law. He then moved to the United States, where he continued his craft.
A few years ago, Levy received a large order for filet mignon for a bar mitzvah—and realized that there was no supply, anywhere in the US, for the amount requested. Why?
Hindquarter meat, home of the most prized cuts, has always been more difficult to obtain. Halachically, there’s a specific part in this area of a cow that cannot be eaten. In the Torah, Jacob famously struggled with an angel, who injured Jacob’s sciatic nerve. Thus, it became prohibited to eat that nerve, or anything with which it may have come in contact. Unfortunately, the nerve runs right through these best cuts. In addition, there’s a prohibition on eating kidneys and fat surrounding kidneys, as these areas were reserved for sacrifices.
Sephardic butchers utilize a process called deveining, which carefully and exactingly removes the nerve and the kidney areas, thus rendering the meat usable for consumption. Ashkenazic leaders were less secure regarding the complete removal of such parts and thus implemented a prohibition on consuming the entire hindquarters. Modern Israel generally relies on Sephardic kosher traditions for such activities, and so kosher filet mignon is more widely available, unlike in the US, where most kashrut standards follow Ashkenazic rules.
Hence the predicament Levy found himself in. Levy decided to call his company Atara, after the Hebrew word for crown, in order to restore the glory of delicious hindquarter meat to the American market.
Most fascinatingly, Atara processes both forequarter and hindquarter meat, which is really where Ansbacher comes in. He works for STAR-K, the Ashkenazic kashrut agency, which oversees the forequarter processing and ensures that there’s no crossover between the two parts of the cow. Hindquarter meat is processed separately at a different time, under a different label and different (Sephardic) certification.
In addition to its original model, the company sources its meat locally, from Lancaster, PA. The cattle is grass-fed and corn-finished. Atara also sells veal, turkey and chicken, and in maintenance of its forward-thinking mantras, the chicken is also local and organic. There is also less waste, since it uses the entire cow and does not discard prime cuts.
Right now, the company offers wholesale and retail online. “No order is too big or too small,” says Levy.
Having worked in kosher food industries for more than a decade, Ansbacher is now something of an Atara evangelist, especially at that Bethesda Central Farm Market (Sundays, 9 am–1:30 pm, all year). And Berliner, for one, is a complete convert. “This is truly one of the best steaks I’ve ever had,” he says.
The contemporary kosher palate is becoming much more discerning, Ansbacher notes, so this job is pure joy. He explains to customers that, indeed, the filet mignon is not a figment. It is a true kosher reality.