Written by William Dobson
Our focus on Sugar Street is obviously the Middle East and it’s important to remember that Israel is, of course, an integral part of the region. So, we’ve interviewed Michael Leventhal, the man behind Gefiltefest, a Jewish food charity that embraces every aspect of Jewish food and its traditions. Most significantly, they run an annual food festival which, this year, made it into the Times’ list of Top 10 Food Festivals in the UK. Leventhal, a former publisher working at Frontline Books, now runs the charity full time and here, he tells us about how it came about, elucidates us on various aspects of Jewish cuisine and explains why he believes food can be a uniting force for everyone.
Sugar Street Review: What was your inspiration behind starting Gefiltefest?
Michael Leventhal: To be honest, Will, there wasn’t any grand vision! Everything happened by accident and developed in an organic way. I started by winning a competition. The prize was a lesson from a cook. I decided to use the cook to give a demonstration for various friends rather than a one-to-one class.
But that grew because more and more people wanted to come and other friends also suggested giving food-related talks…. Within six weeks we had a full food festival! I don’t think that there was any grand inspiration other than my wish to see my friends enjoying food and learning about food in one space together.
SSR: Tell us about some of the aspects of the charity which don’t get as much press?
ML: I’m working on a raft of other projects, including the Rabbi Relay Ride, which sets out on Sunday June 10th. It will see twelve Rabbis cycling 1,200 miles – Lands End to John O’Groats.
I’m also working on various other programmes which include a Jewish version of Masterchef and a challah-baking project which will see people around the country baking the traditional plaited loaves of bread (that we eat on Shabbat). Some of these loaves are going to be redistributed to families that cannot afford to buy food for themselves.
SSR: What do you feel has been achieved thus far and what do you hope to achieve in the future?
ML: That’s a difficult question! I’m very proud to say that many more people are involved in the project than were originally – we had 500 people at this year’s food festival.
Many of those people have never attended any Jewish educational event before – more people from the community are involved, many of whom have never taken any part in any Jewish event before. I’m also very pleased that we’re including people from other charities and beliefs. This year we had Barnet MENCAP, Spice Caravan (Muslim vegetarian caterers) and some great new caterers selling exciting food.
In the future I’d like to continue to build bridges both within the Jewish community and with other faith groups. I think that food is a great focus for people and a great way of building relationships.
SSR: After bagels, challah and cheesecake etc., what do you feel defines Jewish cooking?
ML: That’s a very hard question to answer – there are so many elements of Jewish cuisine depending on where people are from, where their families grew up and what their family traditions are, ranging from wonderful spicy Sephardi dishes that sit alongside traditional Ashkenazi dishes from Eastern Europe like apple strudel. I think it’s probably up to each individual to decide what their own family cooking traditions are and hence what Jewish cooking is. There are foodstuffs that are determined by tradition but there are also personal things that are defined more by family habits.
SSR: What does Jewish food mean to you on a personal level?
ML: Again, that’s a very difficult question to answer, Will! My consumption of food has become more mindful over the last few years. That’s one of the key tenets of Jewish attitude to food. You should be aware of what you’re eating, aware of the provenance, aware of the implications of your actions. So I’m far more conscious about eating meat and the gravity of the actions involved.
SSR: You’re clearly a huge promoter of Jewish cuisine. Are you at the forefront of this or is there already a Jewish food movement in process in the UK?
ML: Well, oddly, there has never been a Jewish food festival in London before! I don’t think anyone else has addressed this interest. In short, yes, we are established as the London Jewish Food Festival but there are lots of opportunities to have similar festivals both across the UK and in other countries. As I’ve said before, food is a great way of bringing people together. Everyone eats. Jews also eat more than most and I think that it’s a perfect focus for people’s energies.
SSR: Is Jewish food becoming more popular outside of the Jewish community?
ML: The combination of Sephardi and Askhenazi food is an irresistible one – the success of new restaurants in central Londnon, like Deli West One, Mishkins and the new Bevis Marks shows the appeal goes beyond the Jewish community. Jewish cuisine is here to stay!
SSR: There’s a certain irony that a Jewish lady, Claudia Roden, who spoke at this year’s festival, is the authority on Middle Eastern food. Do you feel that food can be a uniting force in the region?
Claudia Roden, who is also the founding patron for the charity, is indeed a wonderful uniting force and I could not hope for a better spokesperson than her. I believe that the King of Jordan at one point requested a copy of her book and an audience with her. Food bridges all gaps: we all eat, so it’s a great leveller.
Photos by Chaim Bacon