Chef Adam Greenberg likes Jewish food despite the fact that he and his family have always joked about how ugly it is. “It’s monochromatic…all brown on brown,” he muses. Greenberg, who was most recently the executive chef at Barcelona Wine Bar and is a four-time champion of Chopped on the Food Network, has a point.
Brisket, latkes, bagels, kugel, matzah—they’re all various shades of brown. But all you have to do is converse with Greenberg, or even to watch him on Chopped, and you’ll recognize a deep affinity for his heritage. His latest appearance was on the recent “Grand Holiday“ special, where he had to conceive dishes that incorporated Chanukah gelt, brisket and kugel.
“I ate Chanukah gelt as a kid, so I know how bad these are,“ he jokes. He transforms brisket and kugel into brisket ragù over kugel polenta with pastrami spicing “to make it Jewish.” Greenberg emerged as the grand winner and donated his $10,000 winnings to the Mowat-Wilson Syndrome Foundation in honor of his niece Zoe.
Greenberg is preparing to open a restaurant near DC’s Union Market called Coconut Club, which he hopes will be ready this summer. “My wife and I were in Hawaii sitting in a pool thinking, ‘This is the life.’ How do we recreate this paradise in a restaurant?”
His primary goal is to get diners around the table enjoying themselves. “It’s funny that now, at 38, I’m about to open Coconut Club and do this restaurant that speaks to my personality, because it’s going to be a casual, fun place, and it’s meant to be [the experience I had with] my family growing up. We used to go to islands for vacation.”
Greenberg hails from Hartford, Connecticut, which has a sizeable Jewish population. His family also had a vacation home on the ocean in New London, Connecticut. His uncles would go blue fishing and his grandmother would smoke the fish they caught, make dip and serve it with Ritz crackers. “That is the nostalgia of my family.”
Don’t look for Jewish influences on the dinner menu at Coconut Club, which will feature Hawaiian-inspired shared plates. But brunch is another story. He plans to offer bagels with smoked opa or mahi, in addition to the more traditional sable and whitefish. “There’s definitely going to be those influences, because I want people to feel the same way I did at the brunch table as a kid.” Sunday brunches were significant to his family.” That was the moment we all came together to laugh, talk, tell stories and jokes,” he recalls. “That’s rooting back to Judaism and what it makes me feel,” he says.
A Jewish-themed restaurant could be in the cards someday. “I want a place where I can put pictures of my Jewish grandparents on the wall. My grandfather was my best friend. He passed away about 20 years ago. If I had to think about a concept, my grandfather is it for me. I want to pay homage to their generation because when I watch movies or anything from that time it makes me feel really nostalgic to a point where I never thought I’d feel that way about Judaism or Jewish food,” muses the chef.
Many chefs are cooking food that reflects their heritage, which appeals to Greenberg. “I’m getting further from Jewish food now, but I think that a lot of chefs are cooking food that their grandparents made for them. DC restaurants like Bad Saint or Thip Khao, or some of the Italian or Indian places are getting accolades because they are making comforting food.” He hopes that, similarly, Coconut Club will infuse diners with a sense of nostalgia by stirring up memories of vacations, Sunday brunches or spirited gatherings with family and friends.
Greenberg displays an infectious exuberance for his profession, whether he’s cooking on a television competition or serving up details about the upcoming Coconut Club. While a restaurant with Jewish food isn’t on the table for now, perhaps the chef will consider adding pineapple kugel to his menu in the interim.