Hotel Kashrus on the Front Lines

Rabbi Mayer Kurcfeld, Star-K Kashrus Administrator

Published Summer 2007


The world of hotel kashrus is exciting, stressful and always a challenge.  Effective hotel
kashrus demands a keen understanding of modern equipment and complex facility
dynamics, along with an excellent mastery of the hotel food and beverage industry.  These
criteria are essential in facilitating the role of the administrator and mashgiach as respected members and powerful presence in the hotel 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 that dairy and meat must be kept separate, the “new-age” mashgiach must relate to the kitchen and serving staff with diplomacy and grace.

When you sit down to eat at a wedding, Bar/Bas Mitzvah, or bris, how do you knowthat you are eating kosher?  The Star-K sign is a good clue.  But how do you know what goes on behind closed doors?  It takes very little effort to maintain a kosher home in contrast to a hotel.  How much thought do you give when pouring milk into a bowl of cereal, when you already know where the milchig dishes are located?  Does the average simcha attendee believe that 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 certification or one that may not be reliable?  Does he even know how to find a hechsher?

The Start Up

To ensure a successful event, careful planning has to take place well ahead of time.  There should be a meeting with the kashrus administrator, the food and beverage departments, as well as the caterer—if an outside kosher caterer is being used.  It is vital to have an on-site assessment of the premises to achieve a good courteous and harmonious relationship with all of the key players of the team: certification agency, hotel management, caterer and kitchen staff.  Strategies have to be outlined and the menu reviewed.  If the hotel kitchen has to be kosherized, processes and procedures of kosherization must be reviewed so that kosherization will be conducted in accordance with the standard of certification.  There should be ample time to kasher the kitchen, for there is no difference between kashering a kitchen from treif to kosher or from kosher to Kosher for Pesach.  There is a famous kosherization joke, the hotel kitchen that needs a week to kasher for Pesach is done in three hours by the caterer during the year. Why?  Because that’s all the time allotted to the caterer.  The best standard for a hotel that caters in-house is to maintain an exclusive kosher kitchen that is gated and padlocked, with the keys in the mashgiach’s possession.

If the event is being catered by an off-site caterer, other strategies must be planned.  What will be prepared at the commissary and what will be done on the premises?  Where will the hot boxes be staged and the meals plated?  How will the waiters carry out the individual portions so that the kosher event will remain separate if a non-kosher event being held at the same time?  What hotel kitchen equipment e.g. sinks, counters, cutlery and oven need to be kashered?

Other critical issues that need to be discussed prior to the event include products
and ingredients.  What meat and poultry hechsherim are acceptable and what purveyors
can be used for fresh fish? Is the event yoshon?  What bakeries provide pas Yisroel and yoshon bakery goods?  Do all the oils, shortenings, margarine, liquid eggs, seasonings and
canned goods that are supplied by the hotel’s commissary, bear reliable kosher certification?

The Set Up

Designing the set up for the event is of utmost importance.  Where will the fish and meat be served at the smorgasbord? If there is bread at the carving table, is there a place provided for Netilas Yadayim?  How about the bar?  Are all the liquors, liqueurs and mixes approved?  Will there be enough time to check all of these products before the event?  Most critical of all: if a non-kosher event is going on at the same time, careful maneuvering must be mapped out so that both events will remain separate and equal.  All too often, time is of the essence and important details may not be carried out in a timely manner.  Good communication,  understanding and preplanning are the key ingredients for success.

There is nothing worse than a misunderstanding, especially in the middle of an event.  The best insurance policy to ensure that all of the plans are carried out is to have a hashgacha team comprised of well-trained professional mashgichim.  The mashgiach is the liaison between kashrus and the kitchen.  Today’s professional mashgiach fills many roles and wears many hats, including that of policeman, advisor, teacher and diplomat.  The mashgiach is the kashrus administrator’s eyes and ears.  He is the one who implements the standards of the certifying agency.

Once the standards are set, the work begins.  Depending upon 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 rawingredients meet their specifications.  The mashgiach checks each product; if there are any questions, the certification’s home office is consulted.  Often, even with a competent purchasing department, food distributors may substitute comparable products if the brands that were ordered are out of stock.  Of course, those substituted items may or may not be acceptable from a kashrus standpoint.  Because purveying may occur two or three days before the actual function, there may still be time to re-order or even go to the store.

The Prep Up

Preparation now gets underway, transforming raw ingredients into culinary masterpieces. Salads, garnishes and side dishes which consist of a vast array of leafy and green
vegetables must be inspected for toloyim.  It is the mashgiach’s duty to make sure that all
vegetables are insect-free; a tedious, time consuming and challenging job.  Due to time
constraints and various issues requiring the mashgiach’s attention, all leafy vegetables,
including broccoli and asparagus, must be checked the day before the event.

Other duties include making sure that fresh eggs are checked for bloodspots.  If some dishes are prepared and stored until a later time, the mashgiach must make sure that everything is sealed and locked in a refrigerator, and that the keys are safely kept in his possession.  Knives and other utensils that were kashered should be kept separate and apart from the rest of the non-kosher equipment.  Burners, grills, ovens and steamers must be turned on by the mashgiach to avoid problems of bishul akum; he must constantly check that no burners have beeninadvertently closed.  Meat and poultry should be inspected for proper simanim to avoid problems of bosor shenisalem min hoayin.If fish is on the menu, did the fish arrive with its skin intact?  If the fish is filleted off the premises, did it arrive properly doubled sealed?  Furthermore, fish must be prepared using separate utensils to avoid the intermingling of fish and meat.  More importantly, if fish is to be substituted for meat as the maincourse, are the side dishes suitable for this change?  If the side dishes are pareve and seasoned or cooked with meat ingredients, they may not be served with fish.

As the cooking preparation comes to a close, last minute deliveries have to be checked by the mashgiach.  Are the delivered bakery goods pas Yisroel or yoshon, and are they properly marked?  All too often, the bakery delivers items in unmarked boxes.  As the chafing dishes are set out for the smorgasbord, have the sternos been lit by the mashgiach?  Have the fish platters been properly marked?  Has the bar been double checked for any last minute changes?  Has the mashgiach’s system of checks and balances been put into motion to ensure that the correct dishes are being brought to the reception area?  Are there washing stations?  Did the mashgiach place supervision cards on the tables indicating that the event is being supervised by a reliable hashgacha?

The Mess Up

Much care must be taken to avoid the recurrence of the following scenario.  A hotel was hosting multiple events simultaneously.  A waiter from a kosher event was winding his
way through the hotel’s labyrinthine hallways while carrying a tray of kosher turkey sandwiches.  He was met by the head waiter of a non-kosher event, who felt the sandwiches
were too bare and proceeded to dress them up with slices of Swiss cheese!  The mashgiachcaught these sandwiches before they were served, and a potential crisis was averted.

And how can there be a simcha without wine to make a l’chaim?  What about the great
challenges to the kashrus supervisor when the ba’al simcha insists on serving non-mevushal
wine and hiring non-Shomer Shabbos bartenders?  The ba’al simcha did not take into
account that during the dancing at the chasuna, the waiters come back to the table.  They
straighten the napkins, dinnerware and wine goblets–and disqualify all of the wine on the
table, unbeknownst to the guests.  For this reason, it is the Star-K policy to serve only
mevushal wines at all events.

All too often, the mashgiach plays the role of diplomat, both in and out of the kitchen.  If the hashgacha standard forbids bringing outside food or beverages into the event or simcha, it is the mashgiach’s uncomfortable task of informing the baal simcha.  For example, he cannot serve that particular expensive scotch for a l’chaim; the baalas simcha must remove boxed candy gifts from the table; and a guest cannot feed her baby yogurt at the dinner table
or use his/her own sweetener.  Mix-ups and accidents do occur in the kitchen, even with the
best of intentions. In the heat of the event, deadlines are tight and nerves are worn thin.
The mashgiach must step up to the plate to prevent the serving of dairy mashed potatoes,
non-certified french fries or non-Pesachdik stuffed cabbage mixed into the Passover order
of stuffed cabbage, whose packaging looks exactly like their Pesachdik stuffed cabbage

The Clean Up

After a successful event, the mashgiach’s job doesn’t end with the completion of bentching.
Chinaware, silverware, pots/pans and trays must be washed, dried, boxed and placed safely
behind the padlocked gate.  If the event is being catered by an outside caterer, the equipment, hot boxes, dishes and leftovers have to be loaded onto trucks – locked and sealed by the weary mashgiach.  These items then make their way back to the commissary where they are dealt with the next day under the watchful eye of – you guessed it – the dedicated mashgiach.

Hotel kashrus is quite a challenge, but with careful planning and a well developed harmonious relationship with the hotel staff, most problems can be avoided or amicably resolved. In the end, the mashgiach will succeed if he has the staff’s cooperation, trust and respect. The hotel will be satisfied and the client will be provided with a truly
uncompromising quality kosher event.