Keeping It Kosher

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Two weeks ago, a new kind of kosher restaurant opened on Wall St. with a bell-ringing ceremony along with free cookies and coffee. Since I work only a few blocks away, I was there for the opening and have eaten from there a few times since. Milk St. Cafe is a dairy-meat-pareve restaurant with delicious food and a complex kosher setup. Tonight, the head mashgi’ach (kosher supervisor), R. Mordechai Okolica, gave me a tour of the restaurant, taking me behind the scenes to the three kitchens. (Disclaimer: I also got a little free food, a mug and some branded post-it notes.)

Milk, Meat and Pareve

Milk St. Cafe serves hot and cold dishes that are either meat, dairy or pareve. The challenge R. Okolica and his staff of mashgichim face is ensuring that all three remain separate. He explained to me the strategies that he and the OU (where I used to work) use to separate the kitchens. No two adjoining kitchens have the same color floor tiles and all workers wear different color aprons in the kitchens (I believe black is for meat and white is for pareve, I’m not sure what color is for dairy). Utensils are tagged with colors, as are employees by the colored aprons, so they are easily identified if brought into the wrong kitchen.

Food that the restaurant packages in plastic containers are sealed with “kosher tape” labeled either meat, dairy or pareve. All food is served in individual containers so people can eat together at a table, each eating whatever he wants from the menu (placemats are available for customers who want to distinguish between their table settings and others — you should use one if you can although R. Yisroel Belsky rules that containers with labeled tape are sufficient bedi’eved).

As skeptics will rightly tell you, no system is foolproof. However, Milk St. Cafe and the OU have put a lot of thought into keeping the kitchens separate. A mashgi’ach is on premises 24 hours a day during the week. The night mashgi’ach checks vegetables while the baker works through the night.

Out in the restaurant, food is served in different stations, thereby enabling separation (there is no table service). There are two salad stations — one meat and one dairy — separated by a large plastic barrier so workers cannot walk from one to the other. In multiple places in the restaurant, pre-packaged food is available for purchase. Although everything pre-packaged is in a sealed container, the meat and dairy are still kept on separate shelves.

Kosher Details

Here are some important kosher details: Meat and poultry come from a variety of slaughterhouses but are all certified by (at least) the OU. Not everything is Chalav Yisrael or Pas Yisrael so ask one of the rabbis there for guidance if you are concerned. Bishul Yisrael is used on items that require it but only vegetables that can be eaten raw are stir fried. Use a placemat if you are eating at the same table as someone eating the opposite (dairy/meat).

Food

I am no foodie, even though I eat it often. But here are the evaluations of someone with an unsophisticated palate. This is the food that I’ve eaten from the restaurant on a number of occasions: The plain coffee is pretty good but not great. I also had a mocha coffee which was great. The cookie they gave at the opening was amazing and huge. I had a smoked turkey sandwich on whole wheat bread. What really made the sandwich work was the crunchy lettuce and juicy tomato. I had a tossed do-it-yourself salad which was just OK. Maybe it was the french dressing that just didn’t seem right. The chocolate smoothie wasn’t as sweet as a chocolate shake. But the tomato basil mozzarella panini was simply the best panini I have ever had.

My main complaint is the limited soda choice. The restaurant is back in the 90’s, with just has the basic Coke, Diet Coke, Sprite selection. None of the Cherries, Zeroes or other kinds, which I prefer.

Prices

Milk St. Cafe isn’t cheap. It is toward the high end of the range but still in it. You can still get a lunch for less than $10 but most dishes cost more. Most of the food I mentioned above is less than $10.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. He also serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

47 comments

  1. Can you get us a Hirhurim discount? 🙂

  2. Halevai

  3. MiMedinat HaYam

    what does “(where I used to work)” mean?

    2. igrot moshe tshuva on milk and meat served in a (soccer, i presume) stadium in mexico city (late 60s / early 70s). perhaps contrast and compare.

    3. if its under $10, who needs a discount?

    4. address? phone #?

  4. 1. I used to work at the OU, although not technically in a kashrus function
    2. Not familiar
    3. So it’s under $5
    4. http://www.milkstreetcafe.com

  5. The original Milk Street Cafe is one of the things I miss about Boston. Cheap, ample portions, and the most fabulous baked goods. B’teyavon, Wall Street!

  6. Gil,
    I’m sure MMhY knows that you worked at the OU. What he was getting at, I’m sure, is that he (and many of us) want to know where you are now (and why you left), but we are all too polite to ask. (Note that even here I am not asking, but simply explicating the comment of someone else who was too polite to ask).

  7. loving this place. i’ve enjoyed everything i’ve ordered (especially the fresh hot pastrami sandwich and the hi-quality though expensive sushi).
    I’m happy with the soda selection because they have Barq’s root beer, which usually is har dto find at kosher restaurants.

  8. My career is in finance/insurance. I could only afford to stay in non-profit work for two years but with a stay-at-home wife and a bunch of kids in yeshiva, I had to get back to the corporate world.

  9. So, even Hirhurim is doing restaurant reviews? What would the 2008 Gil think? Next thing you”ll be hosting KCC.

  10. Gil – So who is running OU Press now?

  11. I never ran it. R. Menachem Genack is the General Editor and R. Simon Posner is the Executive Editor.

  12. this comment is not intended as a critique of this post: Can you do a post on hilchos loshon hara in reviews/critiques of various establishments, the chofetz chaim’s views and others’?

  13. Israel Fathers Rights Advocacy Council

    With all due respect, this has been the practice in Israel in literally thousands of restaurants under Rabbanut for decades, as well as Paris, Antwerp and London. The question generally raised is why the Americans took so long to permit this. After all, it is standard procedure in every hotel worldwide.

  14. My career is in finance/insurance. I could only afford to stay in non-profit work for two years but with a stay-at-home wife and a bunch of kids in yeshiva, I had to get back to the corporate world.

    It’s a sad comment on the Orthodoxy in the US if someone with Gil’s abilities cannot support himself with a nonprofit job.

  15. “Israel Fathers Rights Advocacy Council” – Are you the guy who advertise your cause by means of grafitti on every wall in the Tel Aviv area? 🙂

  16. Rafael Araujo

    There used to be a Milk Street Cafe here in Toronto.

    “I’m happy with the soda selection because they have Barq’s root beer, which usually is har dto find at kosher restaurants.”

    In Toronto, Barq’s is available at most establishments. However, I prepare A&W Root Beer, or Hires a”h.

  17. On R’Gil: I am sorry to hear about you leaving OU Press. I continue to be impressed by the quality of the product. It is indeed a sad commentary, and one that I can empathize with as I am in the same situation. What have we done to Judaism in this country when even a low six figure job means barely getting by (not suggesting R’Gil’s salary, just a general comment)?

    On Milk Street: When I was living in Boston, this was an amazing place. I wish Chicago would be their next expansion site. Downtown Chicago now has only two options: a legitimate restaruant which is only open for weekday lunches and a shul that sells packaged meals from a restaurant up in Skokie. We need a Milk Street experience!

  18. On the other hand, the very fact that someone like Gil can ‘achieve’ so much in Torah whilst holding down a proper job serves as an example to others who are perhaps slightly lacking in the work ethic, using the need to ‘learn’ as an excuse for their limited secular educations, low rates of employment and reliance on ‘public funding’.

  19. R. Mordechai–he’s also a very good Torah reader.

  20. With the goal of saving money, my wife doesn’t let me eat out – have to bring lunch from home to the office.

  21. With all the trouble they went to in order to serve all three categories of food, seems odd they named it “Milk.”

  22. Why isn’t their kosher information listed on their website?

  23. Larry Lennhoff

    Davidwag – the original restaurant was located on Milk Street in Boston.

  24. Eli: Why isn’t their kosher information listed on their website?

    Because the key to Milk Street in Boston was always to hide the fact that it was kosher. Most of their business was with non-Jews, either eating lunch or doing catering business. So I assume they are also hiding that aspect of their business in NY too.

  25. Israel Fathers Rights Advocacy Council

    Shlomo – no, but that guy is a wild man indeed. He has actually formed a political party to run for the Knesset. Only in Israel. Most unfortunately, none of us are of an age or athleticism any longer to climb to some of the places he has managed to graffiti. היו זמנים

  26. Israel Fathers Rights Advocacy Council

    Shlomo – no, but that guy is a wild man indeed. He has actually formed a political party to run for the Knesset. Only in Israel. Most unfortunately, none of us are of an age or athleticism any longer to climb to some of the places he has managed to graffiti. Ah, youth is wasted on the young.

  27. MiMedinat HaYam

    1. to ifrac — what is the decades old practice you refer to?

    2. if its located at 40 wall street, you should have mentioned the buildings historical context, and its current owner (donald trump.)

    3. delete 1 above. i just realized what the decades old practice is. but i attribute it to (perceived) limited market and other factors.

    though i find it hard to believe the o-u would allow such a restaurant, for policy reasons.

    comment from anyone at the o-u, please?

    4. and perhaps a post on the halachic aspects, by our friend in bet shemesh (or other poster)?

  28. Curious – thanks, got it. So the nonjews come because they don’t think it’s kosher, and the jews can eat kosher without people thinking they’re jews

  29. “Curious – thanks, got it. So the nonjews come because they don’t think it’s kosher, and the jews can eat kosher without people thinking they’re jews”

    I don’t know that it’s that simple, and especially not the latter half of that sentence. I do think that something advertising itself as “kosher” is perceived as having worse food than other places (there’s a particular place on Broadway in the mid-30s I’m thinking of). For the sake of everyone’s palates and for sustainable businesses, we need more restaurants that happen to be kosher and fewer restaurants that exist solely because they’re kosher.

  30. Gil –

    I’ve noticed a change in your posts and tweets on Twitter since you have left OU Press.

    I guess you don’t have to be on your best behavior anymore…

  31. “What have we done to Judaism in this country when even a low six figure job means barely getting by”

    Wich BTW since we are scheduled to have the last Shuttle Launch this morning is all that astronauts earn. I believe the maximum that a shuttle commander can earn is about 130K-a skilled job that has danger. Obviously, most astronauts earn less and the vast majority of people earn less.

  32. “I do think that something advertising itself as “kosher” is perceived as having worse food than other places (there’s a particular place on Broadway in the mid-30s I’m thinking of).”
    Sadly-I ‘m not sure which particular place you are thinking of.

  33. Frummie: One week does not a trend make, especially when I was away for Shabbos and exceedingly busy during the week. The OU did not exert any pressure on my blogging whatsoever. However, it did allow me to discuss issues with very intelligent and knowledgable colleagues. It’s amazing the intellectual powerhouse OU Kosher has in terms of halakhic, historical, philological and textual knowledge. I regularly had a PhD in Jewish history come into my office to discuss prior posts and with whom I could bounce ideas of new posts. Not to mention all the other fine rabbis on whom I could bounce ideas and ask for sources.

  34. JLan: A “kosher deli” does better when it is considered kosher. Most other kinds of restaurant don’t.

  35. MiMedinat HaYam

    i once invested in a kosher deli with a full menu. since it was located 1-1/2 hrs from nyc (in an active but quiet jewish community), the business plan was not to advertise it was kosher.

    it didnt succeed, even though half our clientele wasnt jewish, and the half that was, didnt care for the “jewish style”, they just thought it was a “jewish thing to do.”

    and to those that wanted a cheeseburger, we pointed to the retail section, where we had packaged sliced cheeses. interestingly, many took the toffutti (type) cheese, since it was packaged to indicate “health”ier. (we never got involved in soy based cheese dribbling on the cold cuts. for which, see http://www.queensvaad.org/ upper right “news” posting.)

    2. i dont know which store on broadway mycroft is refering to, but i recall a fast food type restaurant on 30 or 32 cor bway in the early 70s that had all types of fake meat (made from alfalfa and other (wierd) (supposedly healthy) vegetables). name kosher world or similar. it was pareve / dairy. it lasted figure two years, till the lease prob ran out. (a common failing of restaurants — the lease runs out; thinking over the business plan, many restaurateurs (kosher and non kosher) close up.)

    and (i heard) that the major vaadim decided not to allow such restaurateurs in the future. perhaps you can sneak into your old office and verify.

  36. Israel Fathers Rights Advocacy Council

    It has been routine for decades in Israel for restaurants to have both meat and dairy hechsherim. Israeli Rabbanut never comprehended why this remained a taboo Stateside, and always noted that there was never a problem giving meat/dairy hechsherim in the States to hotels, which is far more problematic to police.

  37. ““What have we done to Judaism in this country when even a low six figure job means barely getting by””

    Which is one of the reasons that the day school movement may have been a negative for the survival of Yiddishkeit-once one does not admit those who can’t afford the admission. The other reason is of course-the day schools elite focus-they are plain and simple not interested in the average student.

  38. A few notes from my wife: Astronauts send their kids to public schools. Without discussing our personal details, most people who work for non-profits do not make six figures. Thank you, Anon.

  39. “Hirhurim on July 10, 2011 at 12:10 pm
    A few notes from my wife: Astronauts send their kids to public schools.”
    WO knowing I assume they do too-but the relevant information is that even a frum astronaut who has way above average skills and responsibilities and has a job with way above average danger could not afford to raise an Orthodox family.

    “Without discussing our personal details, most people who work for non-profits do not make six figures.”
    Of course as the vast majority of people in the UNited States earn nowhere near 100k a year
    see eg

    Median household income for selected countries is shown in the table below. The data for each country has been converted to U.S. dollars using purchasing power parity (PPP) (obtained from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development).[3]

    Annual median equivalised disposable household income
    This is what a household in the middle of the income distribution earns in a year, adjusted for household size.

    Data are in United States dollars at current prices and current PPPs for the reference year.

    Rank Country 2007[4]
    1 Luxembourg 34,407
    2 United States 31,111
    3 Norway 31,011

    Clearly, Orthodoxy has become a religion for at least the way above average income.

  40. ““I do think that something advertising itself as “kosher” is perceived as having worse food than other places (there’s a particular place on Broadway in the mid-30s I’m thinking of).”
    Sadly-I ‘m not sure which particular place you are thinking of.”

    Sorry, I was thinking of the one with “Kosher” in the name. But if you want a good comparison, try comparing J2 with the new Mike’s Pizzeria on 36th between 5th and 6th. Reasonably similar prices, both in midtown, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a non-Jew or non-observant Jew in the former. The latter, though, definitely gets something of a business crowd, both Jewish and non-Jewish…and one has eminently better food.

  41. Mycroft: An astronaut could easily make it in the Orthodox community if his wife (or her husband) worked as well.

  42. “Mycroft on July 10, 2011 at 7:53 am
    ““What have we done to Judaism in this country when even a low six figure job means barely getting by””

    Which is one of the reasons that the day school movement may have been a negative for the survival of Yiddishkeit”

    for starters lets count number of Jews attending Orthodox schules in 1940 before Torah umesorah and the amount today.
    In the old days a public school attendee was welcome to be aprt of the community-how many bloggers would encourage their children to become friendly with aJew who attends public school.

  43. “Hirhurim on July 10, 2011 at 4:41 pm
    Mycroft: An astronaut could easily make it in the Orthodox community if his wife (or her husband) worked as well.”
    Perhaps depending on the income of his wife-obviously a commander of a shuttle whose wife earned a Congresswomans salary could make it in the Orthodox community.
    Of course, Gil both spouses would have to earn an above average salary to even pay for the legally required childcare-one can’t legally leave a child unattended.
    There was I believe a blog from Bergen County dealing with tuition issues.
    I just was scanning from Guidestar some of the most recent RIETS and YUHS 990s-what is interesting is the very high percentage of nontaxable income of the employees-I suspect that YU since it discloses the amounts is relatively clean compared to other mosdos. To effectively require one to attend day schools to be Orthodox has been just another example of my way or the highway.

  44. “It has been routine for decades in Israel for restaurants to have both meat and dairy hechsherim.”

    Routine_I am not an expert on Israeli restaurants but it seems to me that the vast majority are one or the other.

  45. “It’s amazing the intellectual powerhouse OU Kosher has in terms of halakhic, historical, philological and textual knowledge. I regularly had a PhD in Jewish history come into my office to discuss prior posts and with whom I could bounce ideas of new posts.”

    And all that in one (amazing) person. 🙂

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