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Lexington’s Jewish Food Festival meets Top Chef

bowl with a liquid and solid foods

T’AI meets Top Chef

Food festival to offer a new take on tradition

By Kristina Rosen


One of Lexington’s best kept secrets when it comes to food festivals is returning for its fourth year at Temple Adath Israel.

Think of this year’s Jewish Food Festival as “The Tao of TAI.” Inspired by Top Chef’s season 16 in Kentucky, the festival is using the same matzo ball soup recipe Kentucky chef and runner up Sara Bradley made in the final episodes.

a woman in a maroon apron leaning against an industrial ovenInitially, the festival considered dropping matzo ball soup from their menu lineup, says Mary Engel, who oversees the festival — reasoning, who wants a piping hot bowl of soup in the humid last days of summer? But after Bradley made it to the finals with her version, Engel realized they had to serve this popular new take.

During the final episodes of the season, cheftestants were challenged to make a dish reflective of their heritage, but using Chinese ingredients. In the second to last episode “The Tao of Macau,” Bradley made matzo ball soup using kombu, bok choy, black mushrooms and ginger, along with other more traditional ingredients.

While she was in town for the Railbird Festival last month, Bradley stopped by the temple kitchen to offer a few tips. After the tutorial, Engel says, “Having it at the food festival will be almost as good as eating some that Sara prepared herself.”

Ten years ago, Temple Adath Israel launched their annual pop-up Jewish deli, TAI on Rye. Based on its success (most menu items sell out fast and early), it only made sense for them to broaden their horizons, especially with Lexington’s openness to increasingly diverse food options. The inaugural Jewish Food Festival was launched in 2016.

Engel describes the first year as “ a leap of faith.” She fretted about how much food to make and then worried if anyone would actually eat it. “Would anyone try latkes (potato pancakes), rugelach (rolled pastry filled with nuts, cinnamon and sugar) and knishes (seasoned mashed potatoes encased in dough), much less gefilte fish (do you really want to know)?”

Her fears were baseless as it turns out. She recalls, “when the festival arrived, people were lined up to get in. We were stunned at the turnout. We ended up running out of several foods before the advertised closing time. Afterward, as we took our first break since 8 am that morning, we realized we had a hit on our hands and would be doing it again. Thank goodness we had 10 months to recover!”

For members of the temple, the food festival creates an even stronger sense of community as they get to know one another outside a worship setting. The festival is staffed completely by volunteers who do the cooking, baking, serving, ticketing, greeting and more. For non-members, the event is just as special. Engel says, “Food is nothing if not a great unifier.”

Along with Bradley’s matzo ball soup, new items this year include stuffed cabbage, bourekas and egg creams.

Despite the name, egg creams contain neither eggs nor cream — they were a New York City (and Lexington) staple back when soda fountains were in their prime.

bowl with a liquid and solid foodsAs for the classics, Engel claims, “Some things never change and show up every year, including latkes, knishes, Israeli salad, borscht, corned beef sandwiches, and kosher hot dogs.”

The bake shop will have rugelach, strudel, hamantaschen, challah, macaroons (coconut cookies), apple cake, and matzo toffee (a miraculous confection that turns matzo into dessert).

This year’s food festival features a sampling menu of about a dozen foods. Tickets are $20 and each ticket contains 16 squares. Food is assigned a value of 1-4 squares. “By the time a festival-goer has used up all 16 squares, they have had a good meal and walk away full.”

Recipes for the other dishes come from cookbooks by renowned Jewish cooks like Joan Nathan, as well as two cookbooks produced by TAI: “A Taste of Tradition,” published in the early 1980s, and “Recipes for Life,” which came out in 2001.

“Everything we make is tested beforehand to make sure it’s delicious and can be made easily for a crowd.”

With almost everything being made from scratch, it would be impossible for the temple to make all the food the weekend of the festival. The cooking and baking of items that freeze well begins about eight to ten weeks beforehand. But even with weeks of preparation, the last few days leading up to the food festival consists of hours and hours of last minute cooking, baking, and prepping.

Can’t make it to the food festival this year? In November, the temple is hosting “Top Nosh,” an outreach event for the Jewish community where Bradley will do a cooking demonstration and talk about being raised Jewish in Western Kentucky.

The Jewish Food Festival is on Sunday, September 8 from 11:30 am to 3 pm at Temple Adath Israel, 124 North Ashland Avenue.

We visited the temple kitchen in August for a behind the scenes look at prepping and cooking hamantaschen.



This article also appears on page 12 of the September 2019 print edition of Ace Weekly.

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