While most were winding down their weekend, the party was only getting started at Cheder Chabad in Upper Park Heights. On Feb. 25, the school hosted its first annual Kosher Cooking Competition, turning the historic former Beth Jacob synagogue into a loud, colorful and aromatic gathering place for the community to witness more than 30 contestants vie not only for bragging rights, but a kitchen makeover worth an estimated $20,000.
The main purpose of the well-attended event, however, was to raise money for the school.
Rabbi Avrohom Wolowik, the executive director of Cheder Chabad, was enthused by both the size and diversity of the crowd. “Take a look around the room. This is a very eclectic group of people here in the Jewish community. There are a few non-Jews here too,” he said. “This is all focused on one goal: the future of our children.”
The size of the crowd and rambunctious energy of the event caught some attendees by surprise.
“I thought we were just going to sit here and watch it all on-screen,” said attendee Bayla Berkowitz, “but it’s fun walking around, watching them cook. There are a lot of people!”
Rivka Slatkin, who spent about four months planning the event, estimated that it raised close to $34,000 for the school.
“It was better than a dream come true,” said Slatkin. “I had many nightmares, but it was just amazing, and so much better than I ever could have expected.”
The contestants participated in two rounds of cooking: one hot plate and one cold plate. In each round, participants were given a blue bag filled with secret ingredients. The first round’s ingredients included ground beef, spinach, mustard and a can of Coca-Cola.
Once the timer started, each contestant had the opportunity to run to a food pantry and gather additional ingredients. The planning, cooking and presentation of a meal all had to take place within 30 minutes in the first round, and 20 minutes in the second.
Like the event’s attendees, its contestants came from all walks of life. Pikesville resident Chana Pliskin said she loves to cook, and one of her friends sponsored her to be in the competition.
“We had very random ingredients and I wanted to step out of the box. I made a ground beef and mashed potato wonton. I forgot to use the Coca-Cola so I threw it into the dressing. So I made a garlic Coca-Cola balsamic vinaigrette.”
Pliskin described herself as very non-competitive. “I think it went as good as it could. I spilled some oil, but it was more fun than anything else.”
After the second round, six contestants were chosen by a panel of 12 judges to cook in the final dessert round. The bag of secret ingredients provided an equally unusual selection — pasta, blueberries, chocolate syrup and balsamic vinaigrette among them.
With the stylish lighting, atmospheric dance music and emcee Chaim Silverberg hyping the crowd, it would have been easy to mistake the cook-off as a party and not a fundraiser for a noble cause. But according to Slatkin, one does not negate the other.
“I am very committed to my kids’ school. I am in love with it,” said Slatkin. “I would like to see the school be a leader and a pioneer in things that bring the community together. Indeed, that is what transpired. Everyone felt like a million bucks.”
“We are humbled by the support of the entire Jewish community,” said Rabbi Arahon Matusof, principal of Cheder Chabad’s Boys School. “We service a broad spectrum of children. They’re from all over Maryland.”
Chaya Matusof, principal of Cheder Chabad’s Girls School, added that the student body is varied not only by location, but by learning ability. “The Jewels School rents part of our building, so we have inclusion, which means their very high-functioning students join us for parts of our day. In our second-grade classroom, we have a second grader that is a full-time part of our school who has Down syndrome. She is a part of this school in every aspect.”
The evening concluded with team Two and a Half Men — Dr. Kenneth Friedman, Phran Edelman and Eric Reitberger — crowned as the winners. In the final round, they created a crepe dessert that Friedman knew was a risk, given the time constraints.
“For the dessert, while it would’ve been easier to make [something simple], we knew making the crepes from scratch would stand out in appearance, flavor and ingenuity.”
While Friedman was very proud of his team’s efforts, he believed the real winners of the evening were the teachers and students from Cheder Chabad.
“We were all happy to get involved for Cheder Chabad,” said Friedman. “The real purpose in doing it was to do anything we could to bring awareness to a great institution.”
Even after spending the last four months ironing out all the details for a very complicated event, Slatkin said she already plans to expand next year, possibly opening the competition up to out-of-state contestants, and moving to a venue like an arena, which can hold hundreds more people.
“This is definitely going to be bigger and better next year.”