Ilan Hall, best known as last year’s winner of Bravo TV’s highly rated show, “Top Chef,” was put to the ultimate challenge last weekend — prepare a breakfast dish using the seven species (grains and fruit) associated in the Torah with the Land of Israel.
The event, a pre-Tu b’Shevat fundraising dinner, was sponsored by SAJES, the central agency for Jewish education in Suffolk County. Event organizers made no secret of the fact that asking Hall to use the seven species in preparing the dish was simply a way to add an educational element to an entertaining evening.
The seven species mentioned in Deuteronomy and that Hall used were pomegranates, barley, grapes, olives, dates, figs and wheat (Hall used whole wheat bread).
Many of the 125 dinner guests stood around Hall as he prepared his dish in the middle of the ballroom floor at Temple Judea in Manhasset, and laughter broke out after Hall cut the pomegranate in half and then began striking one of the halves to knock the seeds out.
“So that’s how you do it,” someone said.
“Never soak the pomegranates in water,” Hall told them.
With the help of Mollie Spevack, a guest who acted as his assistant, Hall made a hole in the center of two slices of whole wheat bread, then cracked open an egg and poured it in. He then cooked the bread and egg over a small burner, and the result, according to those who ate it, tasted like French toast. All of the seven species were used, primarily as garnishes and side dishes.
Hall, 25, grew up in Great Neck. The program pointed out that he “attended the religious school at Temple Israel of Great Neck.” It then added in parenthesis, “We HAD to put that in.”
Although he has been cooking professionally for only four years, Hall received his training upstate at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park and at Lorenzo de Medici in Italy. He now works as a chef at a Manhattan restaurant and plans soon to open his own restaurant in the city.
Spevack told Hall that she is a big fan of “Top Chef” and that he was “always [her] favorite” on the show, which pitted Hall against 15 other contestants.
“One of the challenges around Christmas was to make a holiday dish,” she recalled. “Everybody else made a Christmas dish. He made latkes. … He was the best chef [on the show]. You could tell that from the judge’s reactions.”
The evening also pitted Hall in a cooking contest against one of the guests, Daniel Kasle. Both men were given the same ingredients and asked to come up with a fish dish in 20 minutes. Rabbi Todd Chizner, the synagogue’s spiritual leader, was one of three judges. The others were SAJES’ president, Craig Padover, and its immediate past president, David Rosenberg.
As he began preparing his dish, Kasle, a chief financial officer of a nonprofit, stopped for a moment to watch Hall and then observed, “I have wine older than him.”
Hall then showed the guests another trick — he used matzah meal instead of breadcrumbs to bread the fish.
As the judges prepared to crown Hall the winner of the cooking contest, Hall quipped: “This was amazing. I never had such a blast.”
Spevack said she learned not only how to remove pomegranate seeds, but to “cook on my feet and to use my hands. … You can’t e afraid to get messy.”