The Rosh Hashanah menu at Aba, a restaurant with locations in Bal Harbour, Austin and Chicago that's steered by "Top Chef" alum CJ Jacobson, is certainly rooted in tradition — but you can tell that Jacobson takes delight in subverting holiday expectations just a little bit.
This may be largely attributed to the path that he's taken in his culinary career; Jacobson didn't grow up dreaming of becoming a chef. Born in Orange County, California, he was actually a professional volleyball player who traveled internationally and ended up spending some time playing in Israel, which is where he realized that food had a certain kaleidoscopic appeal for him.
It's where he tried foie gras, sliced and served on a kebab, for the first time. "It was just one of those culinary moments for me," he told The Nosher in 2018 amid the buzz of Aba Chicago's opening. "I remember thinking, 'I can't believe I've never had this flavor before. It's like seeing a new color!'"
That's when he got serious about cooking.
Jacobson returned to Los Angeles and promptly enrolled in the Le Cordon Bleu-affiliated College of Culinary Arts in Pasadena. Following his graduation in 2004, he moved through some of California's most innovative and ingredient-driven kitchens, including Axe and Nancy Silverton's Campanile. He took a brief intermission to compete on the 2007 season of "Top Chef," coming in fifth place, before eventually taking a position at The Yard, a buzzy gastropub in Santa Monica where he worked as the executive chef.
However, Jacobson wasn't done sharpening his skills.
In 2012, Jacobson staged —originating from the French word stagiaire meaning trainee, this is the industry term for a short internship to gain experience — at the prestigious three Michelin-starred NOMA, which was led by René Redzepi and widely regarded as the best restaurant in the world. (If you watched FX's "The Bear," star chef Carmy Berzatto, played by Jeremy Allen White, was said to have worked there and went on to send his pastry chef, Marcus, to stage at a Copenhagen restaurant that was likely meant to be a stand-in for NOMA).
"It was an exciting opportunity because it was a restaurant that shifted the way we looked at food," Jacobson told Salon Food. "NOMA gave Scandinavian countries a real voice. It was also really special because they weren't working solely on trends – they only focused, and still do, on the best flavor and best expression of what time and place offered within the whole Scandinavian diaspora."
For example, when Jacobson was there, it was January and it was a particularly cold part of the season known locally as "Siberian winter."
"So all the ingredients we got were based on what was available and what had been fermented or preserved from last season's harvest — working within those ideas allowed for hyper-regional food and recipes," he said.
According to Jacobson, it was a truly transformative experience which continues to serve as a touchstone for his daily work at Aba and its sister restaurant named Ema, which mean, respectively "father" and "mother" in Hebrew.
Every recipe he builds for his team includes a note that says: "Taste, taste, taste!"
"I was lucky enough to work directly with René in the test kitchen so every day we were
trying new things," he said. "My biggest takeaway was how much I had to repeatedly taste over and over and over again to recognize little nuances until it got to perfection. For me, it was a hyper- acceleration for my palette and a discovery of the amount of levels of cooking there are, which is something I use in my cooking and tasting today."
Now, every recipe he builds for his team includes a note that says: "Taste, taste, taste!"
This is particularly important for the varied menus at Aba and Ema, which Jacobson describes broadly as having a Mediterranean influence, featuring flavors from Israel, as well as Italy, Turkey, Greece, Egypt and Morocco. When I ask Jacobson if he feels like he's challenging any misconceptions about Mediterranean cuisine, he says that he's not sure there are too many myths he has to bust.
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"But sometimes people aren't sure how to enjoy it, or there's an expectation of how it traditionally was and how it's supposed to be," he said. "Mediterranean food has now become very popular in the U.S., but unlike cuisines like Italian and Chinese, it didn't form into its own American version until recently. These ideas are challenged in my cooking in the fact that, here I am, a guy from Orange County, just cooking food that has been inspired from my travels while playing volleyball in Israel."
He continued: "The food at Aba is just that — traditionally-inspired recipes but with my California-influence and modern take."
The Aba Rosh Hashanah menu is even more layered than that, blending Ashkenazi culinary stand-bys with wide-reaching Mediterranean flavors and a kind of Cali-specific breeziness. While there's no set menu for the Jewish New Year, there are certainly a lot of traditions: brisket, roast chicken, kugel, challah and the customary plate of apples and honey, which represent the hope for a sweet year ahead.
Traditions are meant to be made. Give yourself permission to cook your way towards new ones.
As anyone who hosts holiday meals for families (especially particularly traditional ones) knows, it can feel a little perilous to start messing with the classics. However, not everyone wants to eat the exact same meal prepared in the exact same way every single year.
If you fall within that camp, take some cues from Jacobson's approach to the holiday.
Choose a family-favorite dish and augment it in some small way. This could be based on your own travels or the ingredients that sit closest to your heart and location (for an excellent example of this, check out how star PBS chef Pati Jinich prepares Rosh Hashanah classics with Mexican flavor).
Instead of a basic roast chicken, Jacobson is doing a version rubbed in za'atar — a classic Middle Eastern spice blend made of dried thyme, oregano, marjoram, sumac, toasted sesame seeds and salt — alongside preserved lemon and glazed root vegetables. His brisket is shawarma-inspired, served with stewed leeks, thyme and pickled barberries.
"This year for the Rosh Hashanah menu, I wanted to do a kugel — and although the most common version is sweet, I wanted to create a more homey, cozy option going into the fall including mushrooms and feta," he said.
Similarly, he took the traditional dish of apples and honey, but transformed it into a seasoned, comforting combination of sliced roasted apples served with apple butter tinged with golden honey.
"I think it all goes back to our concept of taking traditional favorites, but with a modern, Mediterranean twist," he said.
Who cares if your persnickety aunt or controlling cousin surveys the updated holiday table with a huff? Traditions are meant to be made. Give yourself permission to cook your way towards new ones. Just remember to taste, taste, taste.
from Salon Food