April 18, 2011

How To Celebrate Easter 2011

Passover is a universal holiday. You know it's almost here when every supermarket adds the section filled with matzah and gefilte fish at the front of the store. So many of my friends regardless of their religion are all going to seders and they all have matzah in their homes. The holiday starts Monday the 18th at sunset and goes through April 26th. Recently, I sat down with Prime Grill owner Joey Allaham to discuss the complex process of making his restaurant kosher for Passover. Prime Grill, which is located in Midtown on 49th between Park and Madison Avenues, is one of the few kosher restaurants open during Passover and for the seders. People are familiar with preparing their home kitchen, but getting a restaurant ready is a whole different process that involves lots of blow torching and rabbinical supervision.

Jordana Zizmor: Do you make your restaurants kosher for Passover every year?

Joey Allaham: Yes we have made Prime Grill kosher for Passover every year since it opened. We would make the other restaurant kosher for Passover based on how the holiday falls out during the 8 days. If we have more that 3 working days then I would kasher the other restaurants. This year we only have one full day on Thursday that we can do lunch and dinner.
JZ: Is Prime Grill booked up for the Seders?
JA: The first night is always booked. The second night is not as busy. During Passover every non-kosher restaurant advertises a Seder. It's become more a name of a meal than something that's just focused on Judaism.
JZ: How do you make the restaurant kosher for Passover?
JA: It's a nightmare. It's like opening a completely new restaurant in 48 hours. We have a steaming company come in and they steam and clean every single piece of equipment and corner of the restaurant. Then we torch and really burn everything so there is no chance of any leftover bread or anything. We blowtorch every surface and the inside of all the ovens. There is not even a crumb in the whole restaurant. The third step involves cleaning the whole restaurant with hoses and hot water. When we finish that, all the Passover equipment comes in. We have machines and china that we only use for Passover and are in storage for the rest of the year. The Rabbi has to open the sealed boxes of the equipment himself. The OU has a full staff the does the koshering.
JZ: Do you have to be certified Kosher for Passover?
JA: I don't know if we get a certificate but the OU has to supervise the whole process. The OU is the strictest supervision and they know exactly what to do.
JZ: How much does the whole process cost?
JA: Everything from soup to nuts is probably about $25,000.
JZ: Do you drastically change the menu?
JA: Changing the food and the menu is the easy part. Everything you eat on Passover is very fresh and prepared right before we serve it. We are a busy restaurant and everything is always fresh but even more so on Passover because it's takes 48 hours for the restaurant to be open and then we have to cook right away. People are running everywhere and it's a mess. I literally run away and get out of town. It's a hassle. It's takes a lot of work and the first couple of years were much harder and took much more time. This year we are already used to it.
JZ: What do you learn every year that you wish you had known before?
JA: Every year I look at the cost of running it and I say next year I'm not going to do it. Then next year comes and it's a must do. We have to do it out of loyalty to our customers. Not many places are open for Passover and our customers and people in the area need to eat.
JZ: Does your clientele change during Passover?
JA: Yes we get a lot of non-religious Jews who usually don't observe kashrut in general meaning they eat out. On Passover they have to have a kosher meal.
JZ: Why do you think that is?
JA: It's a conscious thing. People know when they come to us that we are 100% kosher for Passover. It's not just going to a regular restaurant that advertises Seder meals and matzah.
JZ: What would people be surprised to know about Prime Grill during Passover?
JA: We get extremely busy but we try to accommodate everyone. The menu is different as well because we can't serve sushi with rice. There is such a great energy and holiness in the restaurant during Passover.
Z: Do you sell more steaks because you can't sell sushi?
JA: Definitely, but we do sell sashimi. I have been trying to use quinoa instead of rice but the OU won't let me. We could only use it if it was checked piece by piece so we passed on it. That would take so long you would get your sushi order by next Passover.
JZ: Any favorite items on the menu?
JA: I like the original stuff like chicken soup with matzah balls that we don't serve during the year.
JZ: Prime Grill is kosher year round. Is Passover that much different?
JA: You can't even compare. It's like Prime Grill goes on vacation those days. It's a completely different restaurant. It's a very difficult process. Even all the hotels and programs that people go on most are not certified by the OU. There are so many rules to handle.
JZ: Do you have any advice for someone who wants to open a kosher restaurant?
JA: You have to make your business with the understanding that you are only open 5 days a week. Friday and Saturday don't count. It's a thin line and everything has to be closely monitored. I never cut any corners and I only buy the best. If it's not good enough for me it's not good enough for my customers.

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