Levana Tells It Like It Is: A Conversation with a Kosher Cooking Pioneer
Say the name Levana’s and you instantly conjure up the heyday of the growth of gourmet kosher cuisine in New York City. Levana’s was the place that served duck, venison, bison, and other specialties for 30 years, back in the days before people instagrammed their food and restaurants catering to kosher foodies were de rigueur. Levana’s was a trailblazer and an enjoyable experience for many, but it closed in 2008 after a citywide rent hike, to the disappointment of its fans.
Levana Kirschenbaum herself has kept busy since her restaurant’s closure – no leisurely retirement for her, but this energy-packed powerhouse is not one to sit on her laurels. Starting a business, running cooking demos all over the country, writing multiple cookbooks and a recipe blog, sharing her cooking philosophy with the world, and, of course, her family and grandchildren keep her fully occupied.
How do you follow up something like Levana’s with a second act? Levana has turned her focus to healthy, wholesome, natural ingredients, without compromise on flavor or interest.
When her husband was suffering from cancer and was unable to eat normally, Levana took it as a personal challenge as a chef to keep him fed and healthy. She was horrified at the sugary, non-natural “nutritional” supplement drinks available at the hospital and was convinced there had to be a better way.
After some tinkering in the kitchen, working together with a nutritionist, and a lot of hard work, she came up with Levana’s Meal Replacement – a powder that can be mixed with liquid or incorporated into recipes to raise the food’s nutritional content.
Although originally created for hospital patients, these unassuming little pouches can be used for so much more. Levana uses them in her regular cooking to raise the nutritional profile of any dish. The sweet varieties add flavor to smoothies or muffins, and the savory varieties make great soups. She’s currently selling them on her website and on Amazon, to great reviews.
I sat down with Levana to learn more about her views on food, nutrition, meal replacements, and so much more.
Leah: What influences most shaped your cooking style?
Levana: My mother. After all these years, I still think it was my mother who most influenced my cooking.
Seeing her in action – what a utilitarian, how resourceful she was, how she turned such simple ingredients, using simple cooking methods, into a feast. She cooked everything in a wide-bottomed pot on the stovetop and she accomplished wonders. Not everyone had an oven in Morocco. There was a municipal oven people shared.
We didn’t have a choice between healthy and unhealthy, good food or bad food, it was all good. Take tomatoes, blanch, dice – you didn’t have the option to open a can. In Italy and Morocco even now, compare a simple pasta dish to what we do here – it doesn’t even compare. How come it’s so fantastic – chicken and tomato, chicken and garlic – it’s just amazing. When you keep it simple, fantastic comes out.
The limited ingredients, that’s actually the secret. Cook without interference and do nothing to ruin it. Skip the duck sauce and teriyaki. When I first met my husband’s family and made chicken and corn, my husband loved it. He was so happy.
Simplify your food. Don’t make a simplified version of something that’s supposed to be complicated. Rather, make something that was simple all along, and let it showcase its maximum flavor.
Can you tell me some examples of what you mean?
Yes – a great sauce for fish or chicken is lemon, capers, and mustard.
For pasta: sundried tomatoes, olives, and roasted garlic.
Shakshuka on a bed of white beans and potatoes, with a runny yolk on top.
You hear the difference? Every dish was always integrated, never a side dish or afterthought. Having a good flavor combination base allows you to simplify with confidence. A confident cook is a good cook. It also saves your budget. You can buy a few great things instead of many low-quality items.
Brunch for dear friends today. Tofu, portobello, baby bok choy, and spicy chickpea sauté. Took dinnertime up a notch for these guys. . . . . . #tofu #portobello #babybokchoy #bokchoy #spicychickpeas #saute #onions #weakintheknees #eatright #cleaneating #healthyliving #healthyeating #dinnertime @thefeedfeed @thefeedfeed.vegan #veggiepower #plantpower #plantprotein #veganeats #vegetariandinner #noanimalsharmed
I think the American culture does not empower the cook. I think you can do it better, cheaper, and healthier on your own. Prepared foods don’t hold a candle to what my mother would serve.
With this way of cooking, you never find yourself asking, what do I serve with the chicken, but rather, what did I cook with the chicken. Then it’s dinner, and you’re done! That’s why I can cook so much faster and not feel like I have to slave away in the kitchen when I have company coming.
It’s not only easier, it also tastes better. What you want is to create something that together is better than the sum of its parts.
What are your five go-to ingredients?
Lettuce, turmeric, olive oil, kabocha squash (it always comes out good!) and frozen berries.
What is your favorite sweetener?
Date paste and coconut nectar – better than just buying silan! Ideal texture, low glycemic index, less sugar than honey, straight from the fruit. Small amounts are even safe for a diabetic.
What about cooking for your grandchildren, you often talk about them. What do you do that’s special for them?
I like giving them something fun that’s actually nutritious. A cookie made from healthy, wholesome ingredients, hot chocolate with very low sugar, so I have a clear conscience, you know?
What’s new in the kosher food space that you think is exciting? Any new trends you’re keeping an eye on?
Tehina and chocolate spread as a lower-sugar alternative to Nutella-like spreads. Try it with coconut milk and the cocoa-coffee flavor of Levana’s Meal Replacement.
Beets are the new rockstar! They were always a good option but they can be a pain to cook. The new precooked beet options make it easier! Combine with gourmet goat cheese, and there you go. And that brings me to all the great new cheeses now available kosher – even chalav Yisrael – I love what the Cheese Guy is doing, and Benz Gourmet in Crown Heights.
I also love what new restaurants like Alenbi are doing – each dish tells a story, the ingredients work together instead of just being a protein and a starch stuck next to each other on a plate with the connection and vibrancy lacking. Each ingredient in the dish fits with the others and works together to create a great flavor combo.
When you have a sushi burger, sourdough bread with gravlax, and other wonderful treats, you’re also showing that people aren’t limited by being kosher. Sometimes it’s an asset to the chef; you have to be more creative because of it and success comes from the restriction. The same way for my mother and her cooking under very limited conditions.
There are talented and creative chefs here, and even more of them in Israel that Americans don’t even know about yet. They make the entire Jewish public proud. In Israel, you can have a delicious meal without breaking the bank. In America, especially due to the high cost of kosher meat, very few restaurants are dedicated to creating excellent food while also keeping it affordable.
There’s a growing divide between fast food, and super high end restaurants. There are also not enough kosher places taking vegetables seriously, in my opinion.
What did you learn from the experience of creating your Meal Replacement product?
After a lot of work, I find it became something beyond what I created it for. I worked hard to get 100% nutritionally correct combinations in every flavor, and it became a base for so much more, maximizing health and nutrition for many more people. All those things I was tinkering with for fun became useful and in-demand ways to add time-saving, healthy flavor.
My Levana’s Meal Replacement is easy to serve by mixing with milk or juice, but there’s so much more you can do! You can add to a batch of cookies or a smoothie or a dessert to make it more nutritious. Spreads, jams, condiments, for the vanilla, chocolate, and berry, and for the savory flavors, they make an amazing soup – just add to boiling water and done.
People are using it in such creative ways. Think of it in a hotel for travel when you’re on vacation! It delivers a big reward after removing all your prep work, don’t have to cut and mince, it’s all there!
You started your Meal Replacements as a substitute for a lot of the diet drinks and shakes on the market that you thought missed the whole point of nutrition. Why do you think those dietary products, and diets in general, are going wrong?
So many people these days are on diets and don’t ever learn how to really deal with food – they go on short term fad diets that don’t teach them how to eat, then even if they lose weight then they gain it back. Don’t be a slave to fads! More than half the world lives on bread and they look wonderful, that can’t be the solution. You can’t make food into the enemy, you need to have a healthy relationship with it.
What does a healthy relationship look like? Think of marriage – if you and your husband never have fun together, you won’t have a very good marriage! Same with food – you have to learn to have fun with it. Enjoy a sandwich! Don’t beat yourself up because you had a cookie. You need to find the harmony that good, healthy food can bring.
You see people who write on Instagram, “I made this delicious dinner – for my kids; for myself, I’ll just have this carb-free seaweed for dinner.”
Weightwatchers outlasted all the other fad diets, and I’ll tell you what they do that works. They do the math. Have a glass of wine, but in moderation. Exceed it one day in one area – be more careful in the next. They give you a path to get back on track, without giving up on the whole thing. Slipping up is not the end of the world, you can still do it, tomorrow is another day.
I work with food and I don’t weigh 500 pounds! You can do it even if you are tempted.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts with me, Levana! I’m actually hosting a large number of people this Shabbos, and I don’t have a lot of time to cook, so I’m going to take advantage of talking to you – can you tell me what I should make?
Of course! Keep it simple like I said – combine chicken with vegetables, cook things together. Chicken and broccoli and garlic. Look in my Whole Foods cookbook at the chicken recipes and get some ideas. Enjoy and have a good Shabbos.
Thanks, Levana, you too!