David Mitnick, Star-K Mashgiach
The world of Kashrus is exciting, stressful, and always a challenge for a Mashgiach. Changes in product certification, facility protocol, and current events, in addition to a working knowledge of Kashrus, are items in which every Mashgiach must be well-versed to be a powerful player in any kitchen. The role of the Mashgiach, once typecast as that of an old man with a white beard sitting on a chair, has changed. Not only does the Mashgiach need to know to keep dairy and meat separate, the “new-age” Mashgiach must relate to the kitchen and serving staff with diplomacy and grace in order to be a respected member of the team.
When you sit down to eat at a Wedding, Bar/Bas Mitzvah, or Bris, how do you know that you are eating Kosher? The sign with a Star-K is a good clue, but, what do you know about what goes on behind closed doors? It takes very little effort to maintain a Kosher home. How much thought do you give when pouring milk into a bowl of cereal? You know where the Milchig dishes are located. What about in a hotel? Does the average Simcha attendee believe that a working knowledge of Kashrus comes as easily to the non-Jewish chef who may have prepared your meal? How does the non-Jewish purchasing agent know the difference between a reliable OU or a plain K that may not be reliable? Does he even know how to find a Hechsher? Often, the Mashgiach is the one who catches mistakes, prevents catastrophes, and mends hurt feelings that may be the result of a misunderstanding of a dedicated worker trying to make the customer happy.
So what happens before you arrive at the catering hall? Usually, before the Mashgiach is brought in, the food has been ordered and delivered. The Mashgiach then checks each product; if there are any questions, the Star-K office is consulted. Often, even with a competent purchasing department, food distributors substitute comparable products if the ones ordered are out of stock. Of course, those substituted items may or may not be acceptable from the Kashrus angle. Because purveying may occur two or three days before the actual function, substituted products, on a 1 to 10 scale of problem severity would only rate a 1. There is still time to reorder, or even go to the store.
Depending on the number of attendees, cooking may begin three days before the function. The first day is often setup day. Cooks ascertain that the kitchen is in working order and that the raw ingredients meet their specifications. If the function will take place on Shabbos, the Mashgiach will have to review a checklist with the chef so that there is no confusion about prohibited activities once “the sun sets.”
On this first day of preparation, I find that I do more talking about Kosher regulations than anything else. If there is a new chef, he/she may be unfamiliar with Kashrus and may need to be oriented with the specific Star-K policies. At one hotel, I spent four hours trying to get the chef to understand why he could not bring his coffee cup with cream into “my” kitchen. This was a totally foreign idea to him. I, then, gave him the general rules of Kashrus and went through the schedule of how the function, in this case a wedding, would proceed. He wanted to know each step of the ceremony and was so interested that on the day of the wedding, he had someone work for him in the kitchen so he could dress in a suit and tie, pretend he was a guest, and watch the Chuppah. I’m not sure, but I think I saw him dancing at one point.
No matter how much you enjoy taking part in the actual Mitzvah of Kashrus, when presented with 75 heads of lettuce to check for insects, anyone’s heart would palpitate. Depending on how far in advance a Mashgiach is presented with lettuce for checking will affect his/her mood for the rest of the function. The earlier the better. Once this task is completed, the Mashgiach has more peace of mind to concentrate on other aspects of the Hashgacha. Another “fun” aspect of the job is lighting pilot lights and turning on fires to satisfy Bishul Yisroel requirements. At home, finding the pilot light is not a difficult task, however, at a hotel or restaurant, where the equipment gets used and abused, just finding the pilot light can be a long process. At one caterer’s commissary, I was unsure as to how the piece of equipment worked and tried to light it. For the sake of brevity, let it suffice to say that my eyebrows and eyelashes did grow back, but the jacket I was wearing had to be replaced.
Often, the Mashgiach is put into a very uncomfortable situation. Once, there was a convention of 1,500 young people at a hotel. They stayed in the hotel for one week. That created its own problems for a hotel, but for the crew of Mashgichim that were staying in the hotel, the challenge was enormous. The kitchen used for Kosher functions at this hotel was a bit small, so the hotel decided to use an adjacent room for cold food preparation. When salads were being assembled in the adjacent room I went in to have a look. Upon returning to the main kitchen, I saw fifty cases of french fries, a teenager’s staple of life, on the table next to the fryer ready to be fried for the next meal.
I was livid. First of all, there is a standing rule that before any food gets taken into the kitchen, it must be checked by the Mashgiach. The chef, who hated the fact that I was telling him how to run the kitchen, had gone to the general freezer located in the basement of the hotel and brought up these french fries. The Star-K had given the hotel a specific list of products and brand names that would be acceptable for this Kosher convention. It is true that this brand name product was on the list, but there was no Hechsher and I refused to allow it. The chef, at that point, was next to me screaming, “Waddaya mean I can’t use this?! Your Rabbis blessed it and even put it on the list and I’m gonna use it!!”
In retrospect, this is where diplomacy on my part should have come in. Instead, I blurted out, “Oh no you’re not!!” This hulking chef then went to one of the cases, opened it up, grabbed a huge handful of frozen fries, and began to walk to the fryer. I positioned myself between the fryer and the chef and refused to move, while yelling, “Don’t do it! I’m going to have to shut down the kitchen if you do it!” He got right in front of me, when, B”H, the head chef came in and asked what was going on. Simultaneously we told him our stories. The head chef had the fries put away, and then gathered the entire kitchen staff to lecture them on the importance of “maintaining a Kosher environment,” this aspect of catering, “…and the thousands of dollars of revenue it meant to our hotel. If the guest wants it Kosher, then we’ll give them Kosher. If they want us to stir with our feet, we’ll stir with our feet.” After I assured all fifty people that were standing there that using their feet as spoons was not necessary, we worked together to find a viable french fry option. In the end, the chef drove to the local Kosher restaurant and bought thirty cases of fries, and the kitchen staff cut up potatoes to make up the difference. Dinner was a bit late, but they got their Kosher fries. In fact, the frozen french fries brought up by the chef were not Kosher! The problem was that the Kosher company was also making the product in another facility that did not have Kosher certification. So, although the company name was on the Star-K list, this product was still not acceptable.
I wrote previously that a Mashgiach may have to mend hurt feelings. At one event, a waitress was wearing clothes that were not considered suitable for that event. Someone from the party told the staff supervisor that she should change into something more appropriate. When I found her, she was outside close to tears. The server had put a lot of effort into her appearance and thought that someone had been displeased with the look. When I explained the reason for the request that a different outfit be worn stemmed from a modesty concern, not an aesthetic one, the server was more respectful and even curious about the Jewish religion.
Sometimes the role of the Mashgiach goes beyond that of food supervisor. At one Wedding, just before the doors to the banquet room were opened, I noticed that all the benchers, which had been neatly placed at each table setting, were upside down. “Y’all read this stuff backwards?” was the response from one of the servers.
Overall, I find that non-Jewish staff love working at Kosher functions. They get a thrill out of seeing a respectable party, and, overall, regard Jews very highly. The kitchen staff also likes the strictness of the kitchen. People still offer me bacon as a joke; they like to see me react. One cook came up to me, as I was explaining the kitchen to a fellow Mashgiach, and said, “David, is this Fleishig or Pareve?” The other Mashgiach, who was almost speechless, said to the chef, “Are you Jewish?” “No,” was the response, “but this Kosher thing is fun.”
I don’t think I could have put it better myself.