A Supreme Effort for Kashrus
I doubt if any of the 3000 plus attendees at the 2012 Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly (GA) had as great an appreciation as I, of the efforts made to ensure the food they ate met the fod service industry’s highest kosher standards. The premier North American gathering of the Jewish communal world, held in Baltimore, Maryland, November 11-13, took place in two separate STAR-K supervised facilities-the 1,225,000 square foot, four-floor, two-block long Baltimore Convention Center and the adjacent Hyatt Regency, boasting 40,000 square feet of meeting venues.
Had I not had the pleasure of touring the STAR-K supervised operation with STAR-K’s Kashrus Administrator, Rabbi Mayer Kurcfeld, I, too, would not be privy to this gargantuan Kashrus undertaking.
The planning of this all-kosher event started back in April, with an initial meeting between STAR-K, GA officials and Baltimore Convention Center staff members. Although The Hyatt Regency contains a dedicated STAR-K certified kosher kitchen, exclusively used for Kosher events year-round it would be Baltimore Convention Center’s first self-catered kosher event.
“They have kept all their commitments that were agreed upon,” said Rabbi Kurcfeld, about the convention center staff. “We minimized the surprises by doing a lot of the homework up front. They were very cooperative and respectful. I explained to them that although we are of different religions, that it is not about religion, but what the client wants. We have all been trained to be service-oriented. Therefore, it is no different than if a client had required vegan, and should be treated similarly. I asked that they have a heightened seriousness because it is religion-based, and they respect our religion for just a few days. They understood that Kosher is a special diet, but also that it is elevated to a religious purpose.”
After seven months of planning, STAR-K’s prep work began on Wednesday, November 7, five days before the GA began with a crew of thirteen. This was likely the largest Kashrus crew to be utilized in North American kosher catering operations, this year. Normally, STAR-K standards require at least two mashgichim at any hotel event, no matter how small, and as the event grows mashgichim are added to scale to ensure Kashrus integrity every step of the way. For example, if the kitchens are on one floor and the banquet hall is on another, three mashgichim would often be required by STAR-K food service protocols; one for the kitchens, one for the banquet halls and at least one mashigach to monitor food transport. The GA was so big that STAR-K’s Rabbi Kurcfeld required the entire facility to go Kosher over the entire event period. This meant that even the non-Jewish events during the GA week in other parts of the Convention Center were required to be catered kosher! Once the kashering was complete, the event venues were so large and sprawling that thirteen mashgichim were required at all times, to meet the exacting STAR-K food service standards.
First, the Convention Center’s kitchen floor had to be cleared of all the treif keilim (non-kosher utensils) and stored in a separate taped up room, marked “non-kosher”. As Rabbi Kurcfeld put it, you have to take out all the “guts”, removing what you don’t want to use. Next came the formidable task of cleaning and koshering the kitchen equipment that would be used-everything from a pair of tongs to industrial-sized steam kettles and convection ovens. The utensils were first cleaned in a separate dedicated room and then inspected and koshered in the kosher kitchen. On the day of the event, one steam kettle of boiling water was available all day, for last-minute kashering. Color coding each individual serving vessel and speed racks followed: yellow for pareve, red for meat, green for dairy.
When I toured the kitchens of both convention facilities, I was amazed at the calm, order, and well-organized cooperative effort between the culinary staffs and the STAR-K mashgichim who faced the daunting task of feeding thousands of attendees. They were cleaning up from the tail end of lunch, waiting for all the speed racks and sheet pans to return to the kitchen, while preparations for dinner were underway.
Walkie-talkie and Bluetooth communication made the massive effort easier, in coordinating the supervision in the combined three-block long convention facilities. So did the 24-hour spread sheet, explaining each and every one of the multiple, and sometimes simultaneous, food events that Rabbi Kurcfeld held in hand since his 5 a.m. arrival at the Convention Center! Whether it was simply cookies and beverages or a full lunch or dinner on the schedule, it was all documented on that spread sheet-down to a single platter that needed to be checked out before being placed down in a particular meeting room.
Keeping the convention center kosher is not a given even after kashering and removing all non-kosher items. Only a well thought-out system informed by decades of experience set-up and a systemized professional program of Kosher supervision can deal with the myriad challenges that are part and parcel of food service Kosher supervision. When I arrived in the Convention Center’s spacious kitchen, huge steam kettles were cooking the hot dogs that would be served for dinner, at 5:30. It looked easy but that was just an illusion. Only thanks to the carefully designed STAR-K Supervision system overseen and developed by the indefatigable Rabbi Mayer Kurcfeld, and the vigilance of STAR-K mashgichim sticking to that system which provides layers of accountability, can Kosher be assured in such a large venue. For example, the hot dogs delivered that were unacceptable were stopped at the door by the mashgiach dedicated to checking every single package on the way into the catering facility and never made it anywhere near the newly koshered kitchens. They were quickly replaced with ones that were STAR-K approved. A special mashgiach was appointed to make sure that no pareve utensils or food was transferred from the pareve to fleishig stations in this kitchen, and vice versa. Six large hotboxes would ensure that along with the potato knishes, the hot dogs would remain warm until they were served in the exhibition halls. The eagle-eyed ingredient mashgiach also stopped non-mevushal wine that arrived for the event a full two days before it was scheduled to be used. This wine, brought in for a private wine and cheese reception, had to be replaced by mevushal wine, prior to the start of that separate event. This was done personally by Rabbi Kurcfeld with the unapproved wine immediately removed from the hall area.
Rabbi Kurcfeld showed me the dry storage room located within this kitchen, filled with both kosher and non-kosher ingredients, such as canned goods, sugar, and an array of spices. It was under STAR-K lock and key, with a sign on the door stating: “Do Not Enter-Off Limits without Rabbi Permission!! See Chef”. We next entered the big color-coded pareve and meat refrigerated rooms that were also cleaned out for the kosher event. The treif refrigerators were blocked off, to ensure that the staff would not accidentally use the ingredients stored in them.
Next on the tour, was the third floor of the Convention Center. It was staffed by yet another designated mashgiach who didn’t miss a trick! As we came out of the elevator, as per the STAR-K food service supervision system, he was right there with his radio in hand waiting for a forthcoming shipment of food about to enter his “territory”. Fortunately, his job was made possible by the fact that any food traveling down to the exhibit hall could only go down one way–via the single elevator on that floor. Had there been another, STAR-K would have had to require another mashgiach.
We subsequently entered the Pantry, a room exclusively dedicated for coffee and tea brewing and cold beverage-related prep. Again, we were met promptly by the STAR-K mashgiach that was “on guard”, ensuring that what comes in and goes out is kosher.
A look at the Market Fresh Cafe kiosk area, located on the Convention Center’s third floor lobby, followed. This zone was appointed to yet another STAR-K mashgiach. It, too, required supervision since all food served in the Convention Center during the two-day event was required to be kosher. This open cafe kiosk of the Market Fresh area had “Grab and Go” items for sale, such as wraps. We checked out the Market Fresh kiosks and their separate dairy, meat, and pareve stations.
A sure sign of trouble with food service supervision is when the rabbi in charge is not getting questions from his mashgichim. Rabbi Kurcfeld did not have this problem–his STAR-K team was constantly in touch with questions, queries, and requests. Interruptions along my private tour were par for the course, to ensure that the multi-faceted STAR-K certified operation was seamless. Rabbi Kurcfeld stopped, while at the cafe, to answer one of the several timely questions posed to him by his mashgichim. This time, it concerned the cleaning method used for the cafe’s five large Fetco Luxus coffee makers. After making inquiries of the cafe’s staff, it was ascertained that no questionable soap was used to clean them.
Other questions posed to Rabbi Kurcfeld by the event’s STAR-K mashgichim regarded everything from the ideal placement of the mashgichim and ideas for a more efficient supervision plan to determining the kosher status of particular liquors. These questions were intertwined with those posed by Convention Center staff members regarding: the whereabouts of a green speed rack, the need for a food thermometer, the lighting of an oven, and the kosher status of a particular brand of pineapple juice that was to be served. He was also contacted by GA leadership for confirmation that things were moving according to plan. Rabbi Kurcfeld enlisted the help of his Smartphone to research the liquor question on STAR-K website’s up-to-date approved liquor list here.
The next stop on the tour was the exhibition halls, where numerous booths were set up. Full service and “Grab and Go” food items were sold here, earlier in the day; the gratis hot dog dinner would be served here at 5:30.
How can thirteen mashgichim, working on various schedules over a two-day event, sufficiently ensure a gold standard of Kashrus in a setting as large as this, when meat and dairy meals are being served at simultaneous events?
“Clustering is the key,” explains Rabbi Kurcfeld. “The more events we can cluster territorially in one zone, the more efficient the supervision job. This way one mashgiach can properly observe the movement of food of multiple events. In addition, it saves our client more money. But, ultimately, our hashgacha (supervision) is dependent on the management and staff to cooperate in their commitment to kosher. In the end, everyone worked together in an atmosphere of mutual professional courtesy, respect, and cooperation. As a result, it made for a successful ‘kosher convention'”.
The well-deserved kudos received from Jon Greenseid, president of JG Kosher Consulting Group, of Coral Springs, Florida, after working together with Rabbi Kurcfeld and his STAR-K team, is perhaps the best testimonial of STAR-K’s gold standard:
“I would like to thank you for everything you did to make the GA as successful as it was. You and your staff were always available to handle any challenges and were very respectful and understanding when it came to explaining kosher procedures to the staff who had never worked in a kosher environment. Hopefully our paths will cross again.”
The letter written by John Dooley, the Baltimore Convention Center’s Centerplate’s General Manager, moreover, revealed the Kiddush Hashem that was made by Rabbi Kurcfeld and his STAR-K staff:
“It was a real pleasure to work with yourself and the STAR-K supervision to host the Jewish Federation of North America General Assembly this year…..I have a lot of Kosher catering experience but almost no one else on my staff does. You and all your staff were very strict with the Kosher aspect but were very flexible in helping us with when and how we could clean and make ready for Kosher our kitchen and equipment needed, as well as giving great advice whenever it was needed. The confidence STAR-K showed in what they were doing and the easy friendly way they answered any and all questions helped our staff to overcome their worries in hosting a Kosher event for the first time. STAR-K took the attitude that no such thing as a “stupid question” exists and were patient as all of our staff learned how to follow the Rabbi’s instructions correctly. Your entire team of Rabbis was just great and especially Rabbi Isaac Attar was fantastic to work with. Our staff really enjoyed hosting this event and working with STAR-K and we will attempt to host other Kosher events here at the Baltimore Convention Center. When we host future Kosher events STAR-K will be the only Certification we will call for supervision and guidance. Professional, confident and courteous is a great combination to have in partners in any event and STAR-K was all of that.”