First, spritz the kitchen’s stainless steel counters with disinfectant. Scrub vigorously.
Next, wrap counters in tinfoil, tight, tight, tight.
Now stretch plastic wrap over the foil and seal with masking tape.
Then repeat for every surface that could possibly come into contact with food — yes, even the hanging pot rack.
And so began the fastidious frenzy to make the White House’s kitchen kosher last week, a nearly four-hour drill that started at 10 p.m. Wednesday. A deadline approached: a truckload of kosher food was due Thursday at 10 a.m.
The Obama administration’s holiday reception season was in full swing. Leftovers from a party earlier Wednesday evening had already been removed.
The following night would bring the Hanukkah party for 550 guests, politicians and Supreme Court justices among them. Rigorous koshering (sometimes called kashering) would ensure that the kitchen would be in compliance with Jewish dietary laws. Guests could eat without qualms, knowing their religious commitment had been respected.
“We do the basic cleaning,” says the White House’s executive sous-chef, Tommy Kurpradit, as he directs five workers (he learned about koshering from Bush White House Hanukkah celebrations). “Then the rabbis do the super-cleaning.”
Imagine the earnest anxiety of non-Jews eager to please the observant; the exacting scrutiny of the observant, dedicated to ancient laws; a ticking clock; and a soupçon of Marx Brothers.
Into the kitchen rushes a Lubavitch SWAT team of three rabbis and an intern. Three men, wearing aprons and industrial-strength rubber gloves, take on the ovens and burners. The fourth, in a suit and a black hat, is Rabbi Levi Shemtov, director of the American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad). He is the supervisor-in-chief.
He takes a long look around. He frowns.
“Who opened the brazier?” he asks, referring to the lidded counter-high vat, like a giant stainless steel pot, used for searing, reducing stock and braising meats. “The rabbi?” he asks, pointing to a colleague.
“No,” replies Chef Tommy, as his staff calls him.
“You’re kidding me,” Rabbi Shemtov says.
They huddle by the brazier. Rabbi Shemtov issues orders. The rabbis spring into action.
What happened, Chef Tommy?
“I’m a Buddhist,” he says, acknowledging that some of the finer points elude him. “But whatever he wants me to do, I’ll do.”
Rabbi Shemtov explains his concern. For a kitchen to be prepared for kosher cooking, any taste or aroma of nonkosher food has to be expunged. Utensils for cooking, serving and eating must be set aside for 24 hours before being cleansed by dipping them in boiling water. The day before, Rabbi Shemtov had overseen the sealing of flatware, utensils and the brazier, where they would be dipped tonight.
So why, Rabbi Shemtov wants to know, is the brazier open and filled with cool water?
Chef Tommy had merely poured water into it to be boiled for the dipping.
Rabbi Shemtov probes: “I have to know whether the water came from the tap or a bucket.” (The latter could have been compromised by food.)
It was tap water. But “just to make sure,” Rabbi Shemtov wants the brazier cleaned.
The job falls to Rabbi Binyamin Steinmetz, a Caracas-born mashgiach, or supervisor, who has been joking in Spanish with a Coast Guard prep cook, among the military personnel who help during party season. Now Rabbi Steinmetz pours boiling water into the brazier, adding ammonia. After the soaking, he dumps out the solution and rinses the brazier with boiled water. A third time, he dumps, rinses and dumps.
Rabbi Shemtov says his approach is so strict that no one can take issue. “We are very careful, we are meticulous but we are not O.C.D.,” he says. “Otherwise, no one would ever get to eat.”
He peers at a countertop. “Why so loose, the Saran wrap?”
Will this affect the first family’s meals? A White House aide explains that the Obamas rely primarily on a personal kitchen in the residence upstairs. Even so, a refrigerator has a sign on it that says “Family,” indicating it must remain shut.