CHICAGO—Being in the right place at the right time as a key to creating success is a well-worn axiom but, in today’s competitive hotel environment, it sometimes also takes the right person to make sure things align, well, just right.
Such is the case at the Fairmont Chicago, Millennium Park where Director of Food and Beverage David Sher last month opened a dedicated, on-premises kosher kitchen, making the hotel one of only three in the Windy City to have such a facility.
Sher, a native of Israel and 15-year industry veteran, made a lateral move to the Fairmont two years ago from Ottawa’s Fairmont Château Laurier in Canada and realized the opportunity being missed by not having an in-house kosher kitchen to serve the area’s Jewish community, as well as meet the needs of Jewish guests who require kosher fare for banquet events such as weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs and other social gatherings.
“When I arrived, I attended a couple of kosher events [done via catering]and I realized very quickly that the quality in the city was somewhat low and the competition was very minimal. With my Israeli background and my experience with kosher food, I really saw an opportunity to elevate the kosher food in the city and deliver a much higher-quality product to the Jewish community,” said Sher.
Located on the third floor, the Fairmont Chicago’s kosher kitchen is under the direct supervision of the Chicago Rabbinical Council to ensure that Orthodox traditions are upheld during food preparation. The kitchen may not be open unless a rabbi is present to supervise all the preparations, and the equipment may not be used for any other food preparation.
The staff of the kosher kitchen is drawn from the hotel and understands and strictly adheres to the dietary laws that govern the preparation of kosher food.
“They’re very excited about it,” said Sher. “It gives them more work and more hours; the same thing for the servers. The addition; it’s all incremental.”
The menus are extensive and in keeping with contemporary food trends. For examples, canapés range from smoked salmon tandoori coconut pinwheels, to hoisin beef ginger and green onion with filo crisp, to apple and potato latke with chives and honey. Hors d’oeuvres offerings include coconut- and macadamia nut-crusted lamb chops; green asparagus tempura with white miso vinaigrette; and caramelized onion and potato-puff knish.
Event stations include sushi, mu shu, taste of Asia, carving and pasta stations, Latin, Middle Eastern, a deli stand and a risotto bar.
Traditional sit-down dinners include soup, salad, entrée and dessert (or a custom dessert buffet for an additional $15 per person).
“When we spoke with our chef, we told him we wanted a lot of fresh and local ingredients included on the menus; presentations of items that we do in the restaurant, and putting them in a banquet setting. Doing banquet food, but with a lot of finesse and attention to detail,” said Sher.
He noted having highly trained staff in the “amazing” sushi bar and a full-time pastry department in the hotel adds to the level of quality.
The executive said the kosher kitchen menus run at a premium of 5% to 10% over non-kosher banquet menus, “primarily due to the fact that the cost of the kosher food is a bit higher.”
Open since mid-February, the kosher kitchen already has handled a 200-guest wedding and a 500-person fundraiser for a Jewish school. Sher said both events received “rave reviews about the quality of the food, the experience and the overall option of having great kosher food in the city of Chicago.”
Right now, the focus is on kosher events, noted Sher, with six more on the books, including a large convention. However, he did not rule out diverse opportunities in the future, including providing kosher room service for the 687-room Fairmont Chicago.
Toward this, Sher and the staff of the kosher kitchen are planning a pop-up kosher restaurant that will emerge once a month in the hotel’s former supper club, a 5,000-sq.-ft. showroom decorated in reds and taupes that features a stage.
The executive and his staff are preparing for 150 guests to attend a buffet dinner on March 29 between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m.
“We have a beautiful room on the lobby level called the Rouge. We’ll feature an array of different stations, carving stations, pasta stations and desserts. We’ll also have entertainment. Hopefully, we’ll start from there to offer [kosher food]to the public in Chicago,” said Sher. “We’re very excited about this opportunity and to become the leader in the market. That’s really our vision when it comes to kosher food.”
—Stefani C. O’Connor