Ben Rubin was a self-professed quintessential “frat guy” when he started attending the University of Pittsburgh, but after studying abroad in Madrid for several months, his attitude on culture, art and food changed.
“I went to Spain and I was surrounded by all these brilliant people, and if you couldn’t keep up with [everyone else], then you were behind” said Rubin, 29, who added that he dreams about the smell of garlic that emanated from the restaurants he would walk by in Madrid on his way to school.
As a direct result of his traveling, he applied to culinary school immediately after graduating from the University of Pittsburgh. In the meantime, Rubin started working at different kitchens and picking up the skills and techniques he’d use to start his catering business, Columbia’s AllSpice Hospitality. But what has brought Rubin a lot of success is his ability to redesign classic foods that have remained unchanged from tradition.
“I am trying to bring a diversity of spices, textures and flavors to the traditional Chanukah celebration,” said Rubin. “By waking up the palate to new tastes I am helping people to re-experience this holiday for the first time.”
After Rubin was accepted to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., he would eventually board a cruise ship as a part of his externship. The position didn’t sit well with him because he was kept at the same station for several weeks due to the ship’s shorthanded staff.
“The goal [of an externship] is to go on site and get moved around to different spaces so you can learn where you want to fall [after you graduate culinary school],” said Rubin. “They didn’t move me; I stayed in [in the same place] for the first six weeks.”
The decision to jump ship and fly home ended up being a good one. Rubin packed his bags, headed to Atlanta — where many of his mother’s relatives lived — and found a job at a Greek restaurant. Atlanta also ended up being where Rubin met his wife at a local bar.
“[Rubin] heard me talk to my friends in Portuguese and he thought I was speaking Spanish, so he came over to talk to us,” said Luana Rubin, who is from Brazil, but was in the U.S. studying. “By the end of the night, he jokingly proposed to me, because I told him I would move back to Brazil. He said, ‘Let’s get married and you can stay in the country.’ Two and a half years later, we got married.”
Once he finished culinary school, Rubin moved to Brazil to live with Luana. It was there that his religious identity and passion for food merged into an act of generosity.
“I made hamantaschen for Purim and I did mishloach manot,” said Rubin.
Rubin explained that Jews have always excelled at continuing their traditions, even if it means they need to be creative with the items they use. Since he couldn’t find any orange marmalade or strawberry jam to stuff into his hamantaschen, he used guava jelly and made a paste from dried fruits. He also made a beloved Brazilian milk chocolate candy, which is usually very expensive.
“I was the only Jew in the town, so I put [a basket of food] in the seat of my wife’s scooter and I delivered them to people,” said Rubin. “It’s not something that would fly in Judaism, because it’s chocolate inside of something that needs to be pareve, but where I was, and the audience I was playing to, it was a perfect entrance into Purim.”
Since the people in the town had very little exposure to Judaism, he used his “broken Portuguese” to explain the story of Purim.
Rubin demonstrated some of his ability to diversify classic foods during the interview, specifically his personal favorite: latkes. He made ginger sweet potato latkes; a traditional fritter latke, which he calls a 50/50 because of the way it is prepared; a zucchini and feta latke and a yucca latke.
For sauce, Rubin made a Greek fava spread, whipped pecan maple cream cheese, red salsa, green salsa, tzatziki, pickled onions, a proprietary ginger ponzu sauce and pico de gallo.
He didn’t ignore tradition either; Rubin prepared applesauce, but used a French technique (brunoise) to cut the apple in tiny pieces and then mixed it with syrup and other ingredients to make it “eat just like apple sauce.” He also emphasized that any of the different kinds of latkes could be eaten with any of the sauces.
After Rubin and Launa moved back to the United States due to rough economic times in Brazil, they both became involved in the Jewish community by hosting Shabbat dinners. Luana, who was raised Christian, decided to convert. However, she is from a poorer region of Brazil and grew up eating parts of animals that were less expensive. This made keeping kosher particularly difficult.
“I had a very difficult time not eating [certain foods], because it’s difficult to live in a country that isn’t yours,” said Luana, who is also an admittedly picky eater. “The first step people take to minimize [homesickness] is making comfort foods, and I didn’t have that option because I couldn’t eat things that weren’t kosher.”
Luana said she thinks one of the reasons Rubin loves making latkes is because of a tradition the two have started since she became religiously observant.
“We started what I call the ‘Rubin annual Chanukah party’ and last year, he made all kinds of latkes,” said Luana. “He had 10 different kinds of latkes and everyone is better than the other.”
“I don’t mind standing there doing it for hours,” said Rubin. “These are labors of love, each little bite. You’re taking on thousands of years of history, putting it into a pan and doing what they’ve been doing for thousands of years. At the end everyone gets to enjoy and have a party.”