First, spritz the kitchen’s stainless steel counters with disinfectant. Scrub vigorously.
Next, wrap counters in tinfoil, tight, tight, tight.
Now stretch plastic wrap over the foil and seal with masking tape.
Then repeat for every surface that could possibly come into contact with food — yes, even the hanging pot rack.
And so began the fastidious frenzy to make the White House’s kitchen kosher last week, a nearly four-hour drill that started at 10 p.m. Wednesday. A deadline approached: a truckload of kosher food was due Thursday at 10 a.m.
The Obama administration’s holiday reception season was in full swing. Leftovers from a party earlier Wednesday evening had already been removed.
The following night would bring the Hanukkah party for 550 guests, politicians and Supreme Court justices among them. Rigorous koshering (sometimes called kashering) would ensure that the kitchen would be in compliance with Jewish dietary laws. Guests could eat without qualms, knowing their religious commitment had been respected.
“We do the basic cleaning,” says the White House’s executive sous-chef, Tommy Kurpradit, as he directs five workers (he learned about koshering from Bush White House Hanukkah celebrations). “Then the rabbis do the super-cleaning.”
Imagine the earnest anxiety of non-Jews eager to please the observant; the exacting scrutiny of the observant, dedicated to ancient laws; a ticking clock; and a soupçon of Marx Brothers.
Into the kitchen rushes a Lubavitch SWAT team of three rabbis and an intern. Three men, wearing aprons and industrial-strength rubber gloves, take on the ovens and burners. The fourth, in a suit and a black hat, is Rabbi Levi Shemtov, director of the American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad). He is the supervisor-in-chief.
He takes a long look around. He frowns.
“Who opened the brazier?” he asks, referring to the lidded counter-high vat, like a giant stainless steel pot, used for searing, reducing stock and braising meats. “The rabbi?” he asks, pointing to a colleague.
“No,” replies Chef Tommy, as his staff calls him.
“You’re kidding me,” Rabbi Shemtov says.
They huddle by the brazier. Rabbi Shemtov issues orders. The rabbis spring into action.
What happened, Chef Tommy?
“I’m a Buddhist,” he says, acknowledging that some of the finer points elude him. “But whatever he wants me to do, I’ll do.”
Rabbi Shemtov explains his concern. For a kitchen to be prepared for kosher cooking, any taste or aroma of nonkosher food has to be expunged. Utensils for cooking, serving and eating must be set aside for 24 hours before being cleansed by dipping them in boiling water. The day before, Rabbi Shemtov had overseen the sealing of flatware, utensils and the brazier, where they would be dipped tonight.
So why, Rabbi Shemtov wants to know, is the brazier open and filled with cool water?
Chef Tommy had merely poured water into it to be boiled for the dipping.
Rabbi Shemtov probes: “I have to know whether the water came from the tap or a bucket.” (The latter could have been compromised by food.)
It was tap water. But “just to make sure,” Rabbi Shemtov wants the brazier cleaned.
The job falls to Rabbi Binyamin Steinmetz, a Caracas-born mashgiach, or supervisor, who has been joking in Spanish with a Coast Guard prep cook, among the military personnel who help during party season. Now Rabbi Steinmetz pours boiling water into the brazier, adding ammonia. After the soaking, he dumps out the solution and rinses the brazier with boiled water. A third time, he dumps, rinses and dumps.
Rabbi Shemtov says his approach is so strict that no one can take issue. “We are very careful, we are meticulous but we are not O.C.D.,” he says. “Otherwise, no one would ever get to eat.”
He peers at a countertop. “Why so loose, the Saran wrap?”
Will this affect the first family’s meals? A White House aide explains that the Obamas rely primarily on a personal kitchen in the residence upstairs. Even so, a refrigerator has a sign on it that says “Family,” indicating it must remain shut.
Rabbi Shemtov continues his inspection while talking to Chef Tommy and working his and a BlackBerry. He glances up. Workers are even wrapping lights that dangle over counters. “You don’t have to do that!” he says. “We don’t use lights for cooking.”
It’s 11 p.m. The rabbis start the cleansing by fire, for ovens, racks, stove tops. Rabbi Steinmetz cranks up the heat on the wall ovens to 500 degrees, to burn off impurities.
How long should they remain heated?
The rabbi, who says he turned down a similar job at the Waldorf-Astoria that week for the privilege of working in the White House kitchen, sighs gently. “An hour, minimum,” he says. “Minimum, minimum.”
He covers the stove tops with foil, pokes holes above the burners and turns up the flames. The foil keeps the heat from escaping. Minutes pass. Finally, the metal turns red hot.
“It’s kosher,” Rabbi Shemtov says.
Midnight looms. More White House staff members are helping, at least a dozen people in the kitchen. Daniel Shanks, a White House usher, peeks in, wearing a Christmas tie. He waves at Rabbi Steinmetz, a diminutive man with a silvery beard, standing on a crate next to the brazier.
“You grew since last year!” Mr. Shanks shouts above the din. Laughing, the rabbi waves back.
Mr. Shanks has been on staff for 17 years. He recalled Clinton White House events when kosher meals were brought in for guests, and a time when a separate kosher table was set up.
“To see us evolve to do as much as we do now,” he says, “it’s a great honor.”
Bulging black plastic bags, sealed with masking tape marked with Rabbi Shemtov’s Hebrew signature, are lugged in. Their contents include rented platters and flatware. In assembly-line rhythm, workers unwrap a platter, hand it to Rabbi Steinmetz, who dips it three times and then hands it to Rabbi Hillel Baron, who dips it into cold water and hands it to workers, who dry it off and stack.
That’s at least 90 platters, some 1,000 pieces of flatware (placed in baskets for dipping), plus dozens of silver White House appetizer and pastry stands that had been stored away.
During the tumult, Rabbi Baron reviews a Hebrew passage from Shulchan Aruch, the venerable code of Jewish law. He finds it on his .
The next day, the food would be prepared by a kosher caterer and White House chefs. The party would start at 5:30 p.m.
By Friday morning, the White House staff would rip off the tin foil. They would cook for two parties that day, with an utterly unkosher menu that included oysters and ham.
But at nearly 1 a.m. Thursday, Friday seems a long way off. Chef Tommy scrutinizes his crew, in a fervor to finish. “You do it right the first time, you don’t have to do it again,” he says wearily.
Rabbi Shemtov beams. “Right 100 percent.”
This article, "Overnight Makeover for a Kosher First Kitchen," first appeared in The New York Times.