Piled on dishes atop a long table against a wall: bourekas and potato salad and sushi.
Shown on a large television screen in the room next door: grilled lamb and quince and multigrain Ezekiel bread.
In both culinary settings: a young, bearded rabbi in a bright maroon kipa.
In the second floor of Manhattan’s Broadway District Edison Ballroom, Rabbi Hanoch Hecht hosted a reception Tuesday night for more than five dozen people who came to watch a screening of him competing in “Chopped,” the top-ranked reality cooking show on cable television’s Food Network.
The rabbi, a 32-year-old Lubavitcher chasid who is spiritual leader of the Rhinebeck Jewish Center in upstate Dutchess County, participated in the culinary competition against three fellow members of the clergy — a Benedictine monk, a pastor and a nun-in-training.
The show, “Leap of Faith,” was the first one that “Chopped” had done in its seven years with clergy members facing off against each other. The network had announced that it was looking for “religious leaders of all faiths … who have a passion for food and cooking and who possibly use food and cooking to nourish their communities and congregations.”
Rabbi Hecht was, he said, the first Orthodox rabbi — “the first rabbi” of any type — to appear on “Chopped.”
“I am representing Judaism” to the show’s 3 to 4 million viewers who are largely unfamiliar with Jewish practices, he said.
The rabbi’s guests — family and friends and supporters, both members of his Orthodox community and less-observant Members of the Tribe — snacked before the premiere of Tuesday’s episode on some standard, catered kosher fare, then sat in rows of chairs, on padded stools and at booths alongside to cheer on Rabbi Hecht.
In the “Chopped” head-to-head format, each budding gourmet makes three dishes — an appetizer (in this case, something centered around salmon), an entrée (shoulder of lamb) and a dessert (figs and hamantaschen this week) — with a basketful of sometimes-obscure ingredients revealed immediately before each of the three 30-minute creation periods. After each dish is finished, one competitor is eliminated by a panel of three professional chef judges who taste and critique and rank the plates in front of them. After two rounds, only two men or women are left standing – or baking.
Rabbi Hecht, whose claim to fame is the “Six-Minute Rabbi” classes he offers once a week in Manhattan, survived the first cut. Loud applause in the room — under the show’s rules, contestants are not allowed to tell anyone the results of the competition, which had taken place a half year earlier. He didn’t tell a soul.
He survived the second cut. Louder applause.
In the final, dessert round, he lost to, Areli Biggers, family life pastor at The Vineyard Church in Hopkinton, Mass. The crowd offered more applause, out of affection for the rabbi and respect for his second-place showing.
“You were robbed,” one friend good-naturedly shouted, as everyone filed out, hugging the rabbi and shaking his hand.
Pastor Biggers took home a $10,000 prize.
Rabbi Hecht said he earned bragging rights.
“I won — I got to talk about kosher. I got to represent Judaism,” he said. “I just didn’t leave with the check.”
On the show, wearing the required black apron and the Hecht family’s distinctive colorful kipa, the rabbi bantered with the judges and host Ted Allen, threw in some Yiddish expressions, sang Hebrew songs as he prepared each dish, talked about his rabbinical background, pranced around the Food Network’s kitchen as he fetched spices, bowed to the female clergy instead of shaking their hands (as an Orthodox Jew, he tries to avoid touching women outside of his immediate family) and explained the details and spiritual significance of the biblical and Talmudic kashrut rules.
His message — Jewish tradition welcomes innovation; Jewish cuisine is more than baked chicken. “Just because it is done in a certain way for a long time doesn’t mean it has to be done in the same way.”
“He was a total Kiddush Hashem [a sanctification of God’s name – in other words, a good representative of the Jewish religion],” said Jack Koschitzki, a nursing home owner from Dutchess County who made the two-hour drive to support his friend. “He showed that no matter what religion you come from, we’re regular people. He showed that he” — a chasidic rabbi — “is normal.”
The invitation for a chasidic rabbi to appear on such a reality show “speaks to the American embrace of diversity,” said Jeffrey Gurock, professor of American Jewish history at Yeshiva University.
Rabbi Hecht, a native of Brooklyn who has lived in Rhinebeck with his wife Tzivie and the couple’s growing family for nine years, is a self-taught gourmet who now lectures at the nearby Culinary Institute of America about the intricacies of kashrut. He liked to “hang out in the kitchen” as a kid, but became interested in advanced cooking — and baking, and basting, etc. — when he got married. “We live in a modern world,” he said. “Fathers are more involved than ever” in running a household. In other words, in the Hecht home, he and Tzivie prepare meals. “From day one I offered.”
Chicken is his specialty. And fish — “any fish but gefilte I do.” And vegetarian cholent. And his grandmother’s kugel recipe. He’s become a maven at spices and herbs.
Who’s the better cook in the Hecht family? Tzivie offered a diplomatic answer. “I’m definitely the better baker.”
Rabbi Hecht, recommended to the show’s producers by a friend and accepted after a lengthy interview process, found himself with a culinary handicap while on the “Chopped” set. While the producers were “very accommodating” providing him with a complete set of new — i.e., kosher — pots and pans and cutlery, and a new untreif oven, as well as kosher ingredients for the dishes he would prepare, he did not taste what he was making, for fear it may become “contaminated” by the non-kosher food his clergy neighbors on the show were making. “I observe the highest level of kashrut,” he said.
Cooking without tasting is “a very difficult challenge,” Rabbi Hecht said.
He explained during the show that kosher is a matter of more than just ingredients.
To compensate, he relied on experience. And on his sense of smell. And on Pastor Biggers, who tasted what he made. “The competition was intense, but it was done with respect.”
The competition was not cut-throat. While not taping during the December day that began at 6 in the morning and ended “late at night” the four religious cooks sat together and discussed their respective theological traditions, Rabbi Hecht said.
Were some of his guests on Tuesday disappointed that the night’s snacks, typical Jewish food, came from a local restaurant, not from his own kitchen?
Possibly, Rabbi Hecht said. To taste his fare, “They’ll have to come to Rhinebeck for Shabbos.”
“Leaps of Faith” will be rebroadcast on the Food Channel on June 30 and July 1 and 2.