By Soll Sussman
Photography by Aimee Wenske
Running just a few minutes late because of a kosher Parmesan cheese emergency, David Kogan settles into a comfortable chair at Texas Hillel to reflect on his life and work as a kosher chef and caterer. In his third year as general manager, executive chef and director of catering and kosher operations for Ecstatic Cuisine, Kogan heads a full-service catering operation out of the commercial kitchen at the Texas Hillel Foundation.
He’s also in charge of the Ecstatic Cuisine café at the Region XIII Education Service Center.
A philosophy major when at the University of Texas, the 30-year-old self-taught chef says his interest in cooking started when he became a fan of TV’s Japanese Iron Chef. “That was my soul and inspiration,” he says. As it turns out, his major wasn’t too far from his new hobby. “I found cooking a lot like philosophy: endless to learn, endless to consider.”
Kogan currently spends his days contentedly preparing food according to Jewish religious practices. Kosher is procedural, he explains—the best-known facet may be the separation of meat and dairy. “Kosher, first of all, involves no blessings or holy water,” he says. “It’s purely an operational method just like cross-contamination or anything. That’s my short answer. Except the procedure is very, very complicated, and it’s entirely based on Jewish law.” Certification and supervision are key to kosher commercial operations, he says. With such rigorous standards, it’s probably no surprise that there are only three certified kosher kitchens in all of Austin (H-E-B Kosher Store and Delicatessen on Village Center Drive, the Madras Pavilion Indian vegetarian restaurant on Research Boulevard and the kitchen at Hillel).
He’s held about a dozen full-time jobs since graduation, but the first opportunity to run a kitchen was at Camp Tel Yehudah, the national teen leadership camp of Young Judaea in Barryville, New York.
“I have put sweat equity into learning what kosher really is,” Kogan says. “At the end of the day, I’m like an operations expert and a logistics expert.” Born in Philadelphia, he spent part of his childhood in Arizona and went to high school in Houston. He had been a camper and a counselor at the Young Judaea camp before the opportunity came to take over the food operations there.
With his well-trimmed beard and crisp green chef’s jacket, Kogan can joke now about the steep learning curve for preparing 2,000 meals a day, seven days a week, at the camp. “I had no idea what I was doing,” he recalls. “My friend gave me an overview and said, ‘Good luck!’” While in a hurry getting ready for a parents-weekend cookout, Kogan called the bakery and ordered “500 ham, 500 hot” for an anticipated total of 1,000 hamburger and hot dog buns—only to find piles of boxes totaling 500 dozen of each at the doorstep the next morning.
“You make big mistakes, you only make them once,” he says. Garlic bread and salads with lots of croutons were featured on the camp menu that summer. He has returned to run the camp kitchen for four summers.
Back in Austin, Kogan was offered a job at H-E-B Kosher Store and Delicatessen and then became director of operations and food services for Hillel shortly after the new building opened on San Antonio Street, near the UT campus, in 2006.
A year and a half later, he went to work for Lowell Michelson’s Dallas-based Simcha Kosher Catering with hopes of developing a full-time kosher operation in Austin. “Lowell was an unbelievable mentor in terms of the business,” says Kogan. “I went to the Sundance Film Festival and catered with him there. I went to San Francisco and Dallas… big stuff, huge stuff. I really learned how to be a caterer. Off-site catering is a science and an art unlike any other.”
However, they concluded that Austin didn’t have the steady demand for kosher weddings and bar mitzvahs that are the heart of a kosher catering company. “He offered me a job in Dallas, but I love Austin and I’m never leaving,” Kogan says.
He found common ground here by providing a kosher component to Ecstatic Cuisine, which he describes as “a multifaceted catering company with a very strong basis in sustainability and green. We do basically every kind of food there is, including kosher.”
And Kogan has made an art out of thinking on his feet. Take the aforementioned Parmesan cheese emergency. The panic happened when a shipment needed for an upcoming event didn’t arrive. Kogan was planning a Parmesan crisp appetizer topped with caramelized onions, Asian pears and a balsamic reduction. So, like any good captain steering a culinary ship, Kogan simply rushed out and purchased all of the kosher Parmesan he could find in Austin. Kosher crisis averted.