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EST. 2011 BY LIZ RUEVEN
Is this Kosher Chef the Next Top Chef? Consider this Ceviche.

Is this Kosher Chef the Next Top Chef? Consider this Ceviche.

How does a non-Jewish, half-Mexican, half-Japanese, treyf-loving chef become the first ever kosher “cheftestant” on one of the most popular TV shows in the country?

I didn’t pick kosher, kosher picked me,” he claims.

Chef Katsuji Tanabe of L.A.’s premiere authentic Mexican kosher restaurant, Mexikosher and recent winner of Food Network’s Chopped, made it through the first round of Top Chef last Wednesday eve. 

On the eve of the premiere, I asked him to Tell Me More.

 

First off, why KOSHER?! You are not even Jewish!

I have a famous quote, “I didn’t pick kosher, kosher picked me.” Having a young family now makes it much easier for me to own a kosher business, as I have come to cherish the Sabbath for the time that it allows me to spend with my family and friends.  This luxury is typically non-existent in the restaurant world. As to cooking kosher, it is quite honestly what keeps me interested and challenged on a daily basis.

 

How have the challenges you faced growing up helped shape who you are?

When I lived in Mexico, we enjoyed a very comfortable lifestyle.  When I moved to Los Angeles, I had to work much harder than the average person and dedicate myself to my career, just to once again achieve that status that I enjoyed early in my life.  Just being a cook was never going to be enough.  It forced me to focus upon my craft and culinary technique very early on in my career, rather than chasing television shows.

MexiKosher Chicken burrito, photo: Natalie Woyshner
MexiKosher Chicken burrito, photo: Natalie Woyshner

 

I’m sure you have gotten plenty of interesting reactions when people find out you are half-Japanese, half Mexican, non-Jewish, but kosher. What were some of these reactions?

When I first began cooking kosher, they assigned two Jewish kosher supervisors to watch over me, because they did not believe that I could possibly be adhering strictly to kosher regulations.

People oftentimes think that this is a joke, but the kosher community has pushed me to not only succeed, but to be the best chef that I can be.  It is the loyalty of my regular customers that has kept me cooking for the kosher community, rather than simply taking the simper path of opening a regular restaurant in Los Angeles.

It has become my “calling.”

Tuna and Halibut Ceviche. photo: Natalie Woyshner. Recipe below.
Tuna and Halibut Ceviche. photo: Natalie Woyshner. Recipe below.

 

TOP CHEF -- "Sudden Death" Episode 1201 -- Pictured: Alvara "Katsuji Tanabe" Soto -- (Photo by: David Moir/Bravo)
TOP CHEF — “Sudden Death” Episode 1201 — Pictured: Alvara “Katsuji Tanabe” Soto — (Photo by: David Moir/Bravo)

 

You are about to be the first ever kosher chef on one of the most popular reality TV shows in the US. Tell us what you are thinking! 

 First, it was impossible for me to cook kosher for Top Chef.  I am very proud of my kosher status and I speak of it often on the show, but the show was not equipped for this.  And honestly, it is my lifetime of playing hockey, not another cooking competitions, that gave me a competitive edge for these shows.

TOP CHEF -- "Boston's Bravest and Finest" Episode 1202 -- Pictured: (l-r) Greogry Gourdet, Dougie Adams, Keriann Von Raesfeld, Katsuji Tanabe, Joy Crump -- (Photo by: David Moir/Bravo)
TOP CHEF — “Boston’s Bravest and Finest” Episode 1202 — Pictured: (l-r) Greogry Gourdet, Dougie Adams, Keriann Von Raesfeld, Katsuji Tanabe, Joy Crump — (Photo by: David Moir/Bravo)

Much of the success on these shows depends as much upon mental strength as culinary talent, and I thrive in competitive environments.

Pictured: (l-r) Katsuji Tanabe, Todd English, Padma Lakshmi -- (Photo by: David Moir/Bravo)
Pictured: (l-r) Katsuji Tanabe, Todd English, Padma Lakshmi — (Photo by: David Moir/Bravo)

Can you tell us a little about your involvement with the Jewish Big Brothers and Sisters of Los Angeles?

I have a young daughter and another on the way, and I wanted the focus of my charitable affiliation to include children in some way.

JBBSLA offered me the chance to work directly with the kids with healthy cooking classes, and it was good chance to offer them some much needed attention in the kosher community.   They are an amazing organization that happens to be celebrating their 100th Anniversary this year. The timing couldn’t have been better for us to form a partnership, so that I could use my fifteen minutes from Top Chef to benefit our community.

 

TOP CHEF -- "Boston's Bravest and Finest" Episode 1202 -- Pictured: Katsuji Tanabe -- (Photo by: David Moir/Bravo)
TOP CHEF — “Boston’s Bravest and Finest” Episode 1202 — Pictured: Katsuji Tanabe — (Photo by: David Moir/Bravo)

How do your kosher customers respond when using unusual, authentic ingredients like cactus leaves?

The kosher community, especially the younger generation, is watching all of this food on television now, and they are demanding that they be able to enjoy these food items as well, while remaining kosher.  In my experience, our customers have been very open and receptive to anything new and interesting that we’ve offered, including recently brain, tripe, and other ingredients that you would normally never see in the typical kosher restaurant.

 

We’ve seen that in kosher restaurants, chefs tend to go either meat or dairy – but often times Mexican food is thought to necessitate both. How have you gone about exploring non-dairy substitutes?

Interestingly, there is a big difference between authentic Mexican cooking and Tex Mex.  In our traditional cooking in Mexico, we use very little cheese or dairy, so the provided a natural extension to then make this authentic cuisine kosher. I do use a good soy cheese on my burger, and sometimes, thanks to molecular gastronomy, I can re-create cream based items that are kosher, but never to use in my own Mexican foods.

 

Backstage pass to MexiKosher's salsas.
Backstage pass to MexiKosher’s salsas.

You seem to put your salsas front and center. Which is your favorite?

Salsa could be considered a “mother sauce” in Mexican cooking; and Chile Guajillo is the mother of all salsas. Fifty percent of a classic taco is the salsa, so it is not just out front in my restaurant, it is very much in the forefront of the cuisine.  We are always experimenting with friends and family to come up with new flavors.

 

TOP CHEF -- "Sudden Death" Episode 1201 -- Pictured: (l-r) Ron Eyester, Adam Harvey, Melissa King, Mei Lin, Gregory Gourdet, Stacey Cogswell, Mikhail "Mike" Patlazhan, Rebecca LaMalfa, Keriann Von Raesfeld, Joy Crump, Dougie Adams, James Rigato, Alvara "Katsuji Tanabe" Soto -- (Photo by: David Moir/Bravo)
TOP CHEF — “Sudden Death” Episode 1201 — Pictured: (l-r) Ron Eyester, Adam Harvey, Melissa King, Mei Lin, Gregory Gourdet, Stacey Cogswell, Mikhail “Mike” Patlazhan, Rebecca LaMalfa, Keriann Von Raesfeld, Joy Crump, Dougie Adams, James Rigato, Alvara “Katsuji Tanabe” Soto — (Photo by: David Moir/Bravo)

 

Be sure to tune into Bravo’s Top Chef Season 12 on Wednesdays at 10pm ET/PST to follow Chef Katsuji Tanabe in this addicting competition for culinary victory. We wish Katsuji all the best!

 

Thank you to the Top Chef contestant, Katsuji Tanabe, for sharing this Tuna and Halibut Ceviche recipe that proved a success in the show’s audition.

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