Chef Chat: Seth Warshaw of ETC Steakhouse

Restriction is far from the focus of his revolutionary kosher restaurant.

Chef Seth Warshaw

Since February 2009, from the small kitchen of ETC Steakhouse in Teaneck, Seth Warshaw has been quietly revolutionizing what kosher dining means, both for New Jersey and for a nation increasingly interested in exploring its mosaic foodways. Modest to his core, Warshaw won’t credit himself as some kind of kosher culinary trailblazer—more than a few came before him, he insists (and not incorrectly). But whether he admits it or not, the ICE-trained chef, who grew up in a kosher household, is doing something uniquely visionary: deftly and creatively combining the sensory nuance and laser focus of modern fine dining with the time-tested traditions of kosher culinary practices. The results are dishes like king trumpet mushrooms with porcini “soil”; veal sweetbreads with carrots, chanterelles, sweet potatoes and a non-dairy “béchamel” sauce; hanger steak with pumpkin gratin, apple and beet; and filet with sweet potato, parsnip, persillade, chocolate, cranberry and apple.

We recently caught up with Chef Warshaw to ask how he ended up at the helm of a kosher steakhouse, what the future holds for someone with a decade of executive-chef work under his belt, and more.

Table Hopping: You opened ETC in February 2009 after one of your future business partners was inspired by your cooking at a restaurant called Fumio in Livingston. Was it the opportunity alone, or had you always wanted your own place?
Seth Warshaw: There’s no question. I wanted to own my own restaurant. But it was definitely a risk. I was much younger. At that stage the big question was, like, what did I know?

TH: Was a steakhouse also part of the plan?
SW: A steakhouse wasn’t my first choice, but there was a restaurant across the street from us, a kosher dairy restaurant called the Pasta Factory. In kosher, you can do meat or dairy. We were doing meat. But then, right before we opened, they actually changed to meat also. But they weren’t a steakhouse, and since we didn’t want to do the exact same thing, we thought, “Alright, we’ll do a steakhouse.”

TH: The menu doesn’t read “classic steakhouse,” in a good way. It’s leaner, no pun intended—a bit more creatively agile.
SW: Yes, we do things a little differently. We have steaks on our menu, but it’s not your typical a la carte steakhouse. For instance, over the last four seasons last year, we took every season and changed to a new country. We got the idea from Next, Grant Achatz’s restaurant in Chicago. We did Chinese, Mexican, Caribbean and, now, French.

TH: Is that about keeping the menu fresh or giving yourselves some creative playroom, considering other restrictions?
SW: Both. Absolutely. For instance, going from Caribbean to French, there have been huge changes in flavor. And some of the dishes we made I’d never heard of before. Like doubles, puffy flatbread [sandwiches] with curry chickpeas. It was like, “Okay, how do we express this ourselves?”

TH: As for those “restrictions,” what does kosher mean for a steakhouse?
SW: In kosher cooking you can only use the forequarters of the animal. So we have a filet, but not a tenderloin filet—that’s from the hindquarters. But we do filet. We take the rib-eye and peel off the spinalis, the crescent piece that’s the best part of the rib-eye. We’ll clean [off] all the silver skin and excess fat and just get the eye of the rib. We also have hanger steak and skirt steak, and we do a bone-in rib steak. Not always, but sometimes, we’ll do the back ribs.

TH: Kosher guidelines could be interpreted as restrictive, but it seems like they could also fuel your creativity as a chef.
SW: Absolutely. For instance, because of restrictions—like, we can’t use certain cuts of beef—we’ll definitely utilize more of the whole animal. Right now, we have sweetbreads on the menu. They’re a classic Jewish dish. The same thing with tongue. Beef cheek has been on our menu for a long time, before everyone had it. Really, I’ll cook anything if I can get it. And they’re trying to expand what the kosher consumer can get. But yes, there’s a thoroughness to looking to what we can make flavors with.

TH: I know you went to the Institute for Culinary Education. Were you able to remain kosher there?
SW: I grew up in a kosher house, but at ICE I did everything they asked me to do. I just didn’t eat it! But that’s why I went to culinary school—I wanted to see what I’d never seen before. That was the big thing for me about going to school. I wanted to learn about all the things I was never exposed to, and figure out if I could practically adapt any of them.

TH: The menu at ETC reads broadly of “fine dining.” Is that an intentional goal, giving kosher cuisine a broader reception?
SW: We’re absolutely trying to do that. And we’re certainly not the first! There were a lot of chefs before me, really putting this wider kind of kosher cooking on the map. I came in at maybe the second generation of chefs doing it, right around the time this more modern cooking kind of exploded. Now we’re kind of in the middle of it.

TH: You’re also pushing kosher fine dining into new territory—literally—with Rustic Elegance, a company offering outdoor excursion packages. Can you tell us about that?
SW: The last two summers, I took a dive into the deep end of the catering pool with two friends of mine—Jason Greenfest and Yitzi Kessock, whom I’ve known since we were in diapers. Yitzi called me up one day and said, “Seth, I have this idea. I want to make this company where we take kosher people and bring them to national parks, and I want you to do the food.”

TH: That sounds pretty novel. What is the format like?
SW: For the first summer, in 2018, we went to Columbia Falls, Montana, just outside Glacier National Park. My kitchen was the smallest one I’d ever worked with—six burners, two reach-in refrigerators. We actually brought a refrigerator truck. Yitzi, who does the planning, excursions, hiking and photography, took the guests in and out of the park. Jason and I served breakfast and dinner. But we couldn’t possibly do dinner service out of this kitchen—we had maybe 40 people! So we set up two barbecues outside. It was amazing—gorgeous every day. This year we went to Glacier National Park. We were a bit smarter about it—got a 48-foot food truck and upped our game. We had 75 people.

TH: Speaking of upping your game, it’s nearly 2020. In February, ETC will be 11 years old. What’s on tap for the restaurant this coming year?
SW: I think it’s time to reinvent. This past year, like I mentioned, we changed our menu seasonally. We don’t want to reinvent the wheel—I don’t think I’m that special!—but what we’re doing, how we’re doing it. We want to examine that, look at our restaurant—what we’d like to be like, in a certain sense. And we’re trying to push the envelope. That’ what’s on tap for next year.

TH: How about another restaurant? Any plans?
SW: That’s the million-dollar question! I have 30 ideas. But I can’t seem to extricate myself from the line. I hate working, but I love cooking.

If you’re interested in booking an excursion with Rustic Elegance in 2020, check out the website here. (“You can do Sunday through Thursday, Sunday through Sabbath, and Thursday to Thursday,” says Warshaw.) For a non-outdoorsy experience of Seth Warshaw’s exquisite, incidentally kosher cooking, you can find him churning out magic with sous chef Torre Liebchen and pastry chef Michelle Micek in the kitchen at ETC Steakhouse at 1409 Palisade Avenue, Teaneck; 201-357-5677.

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