When people speak in hushed tones of the myriad ways that being the arts/culture editor of the Jewish Exponent must be awesome, they are likely referring to nights like Dec. 2. That was when I found myself onstage at Vie Ballroom on North Broad Street, seated alongside cookbook author/food personality Hope Cohen, KYW Newsradio reporter Hadas Kuznits, CBS 3 anchor Jessica Dean and chef/latke maven Annie Pierson.
The five of us were asked to be the judges at the 11th annual Latkepalooza, one of the signature fundraising events for the Gershman Y. According to Warren Hoffman, the senior director of programming at the Gershman, having a taste-testing panel was a new wrinkle added to the event, as was the change in location from the Gershman to Vie. “We’ve been sold out every year, so we thought we would try it in a new, larger venue,” Hoffman said.
There was plenty of space for the 270 attendees to mingle and nosh as they migrated from station to station, sampling everything from the “spanolatkes” from Estia (made with spinach, feta, scallions and dill and served with tzatziki) to beet-potato latkes with lemon vodka sour cream and smoked salmon “candy” from Derek’s in Manayunk.
Longtime chef/owner Derek Davis, who described himself as “the Jewish cook in the family,” was only too happy to take part in the event. “I was a member of the Y when I was a kid,” he recalled with a smile during a break in preparations. “I went to Camp Arthur in Zieglersville, and you got a membership to the Gershman when you went to the camp.” For Davis, the competition was a way to stretch his culinary legs; at home, he is a traditionalist, serving the potato classic, albeit fired on a griddle to reduce the oil content. “I love Chanukah – to keep the family together, you gotta eat latkes!”
And eat we did. Volunteers carried a seemingly never-ending parade of potato confections to our table. This year’s event brought together chefs from across the Delaware Valley to try their hand at crafting their own versions of the Chanukah staple, which were judged on appearance, creativity and taste.
There were traditional iterations like the floury pancakes from Jones in Washington Square West and a kartofelpuffer from Frankford Hall in Fishtown. And there were boundary-pushing offerings like a potato latke with fennel and cipollini jam from Dettera in Ambler, and a vegan sweet potato-Yukon Gold latke topped with a streak of chipotle sauce and a dollop of apple-cranberry relish from Miss Rachel’s Pantry in South Philadelphia.
For Rachel Klein, the chef/owner of Miss Rachel’s, cooking latkes — even the vegan ones she has become known for — is second nature at holiday time. She has included them in her vegan/kosher Meals at Home weekly delivery program, as well as at her vegan Passyunk Avenue restaurant, where a recent Saturday night menu included them paired with seitan “cordon bleu” and asparagus. Klein said she developed her love of latkes thanks to her bubbe’s version. “My grandmother always made them with a whole lot of oil,” she remembered. “When I was young, I would mold them, but I was never allowed to put them in the oil. Lately, she has been making them vegan so my husband and I can eat them.”
While her version was delicious — pairing spicy chipotle pepper with sweet/tangy fruits was a brilliant flavor play — the evening’s winning entry was the one that pushed the potato envelope the farthest: a Thai 5-spice latke topped with a citrusy 5-spice apple chutney and a roasted garlic crème fraiche from Circles Thai restaurant in Northern Liberties.
Judging by the depleted chafing dishes around the room, the crowd enjoyed the fried spectacle as much as we did (and I plan to incorporate some of the chefs’ ideas — especially Marshall Green’s use of celery root in his latkes from Jerry’s Bar in Northern Liberties — into my next batch).
Fort Washington resident Andrea Merrick spoke for many attendees when she succinctly broke down the merits of restaurant-quality versus homemade versions, though, when she summed up the whole latke experience thusly: As much as she enjoyed the event, she said, “I like my husband’s version better.”