No Duds in Spuds at Latkepalooza

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Why do some of the most respected chefs in the area devote a Sunday afternoon to flipping latkes for a community event, especially when most of them don't even offer the Chanukah classic on their regular menus? 

Fifteen minutes before Latkepalooza opened its doors to a hungry throng Sunday afternoon, Schlomo Kaufman of Catahoula Bar & Restaurant fretted beside his latke-less table in the third-floor auditorium of the Gershman Y while staff from nine other restaurants bustled around him with last-second preparations, flipping latkes on warming griddles and crisp-frying them in pans.

All Kaufman could do was call his wife back at their Queen Village restaurant, wondering where the latkes were.


“We got slammed” by the brunch crowd, Nechama Kaufman explained after arriving nearly half an hour after the doors opened with spicy Cajun-style potato pancakes in tow.

Across the room, Jeff Hudson, one of the floor managers at Estia, expertly flipped latkes in an oil-slicked skillet. With the help of one server, he quickly passed along their wares to hungry customers while other tables — some with three cooks and as many servers — developed lines stretching from stage to bleachers trying to keep up.

“We’ve done this before,” Hudson explained.

Indeeed, staff from Estia, the Greek-Mediterranean restaurant on Locust Street across from the Academy of Music, have had plenty of time to develop their technique for Latke­pa­looza, where they’ve participated almost since the event’s inception 12 years ago.

But you won’t find the upscale eatery’s spanolatke — a mix of potatoes with spinach, leaks, scallions and feta — on its regular menu.

“It’s a one-time thing, and that makes it special,” Hudson said.  

He and virtually all the other chefs at this year’s Latkepalooza cited fun as a driving factor in their participation, but none could put their fingers on precisely why. Perhaps it’s because many of them got to prepare a dish that isn’t normally on their menu. Or maybe it was seeing the long lines of enthusiasts clamoring to taste their versions of the holiday classic.

The chefs “have some fun with them,” explained Debbie Fleischman, a Gershman Y board member involved in Latke­palooza’s creation who has watched its popularity explode. Fleischman credits the variety of latkes, like Estia’s spanolatke, for the consistent sell-out crowds in recent years. The 400 tickets for this year’s event were all snapped up more than a week beforehand.

Beyond novelty, “here you can enjoy latkes without making your own kitchen all greasy,” Fleischman said. “There still isn’t anything else like it” anywhere else.  

A quick Internet search for other “Latkepaloozas” seems to back up that assertion. Chicago has a private Latkepalooza party at a nightclub on Christmas Eve that references “cocktails and appetizers” but no latkes; there’s a similar event in Seattle. Caplansky’s, a storied To­ronto deli, held its Latke­palooza in February, but it centered on recipes submitted by customers. For the Peninsula Jewish Community Center just outside San Francisco, the wine tasting gets higher billing than the latke-eating.

While several of the participating Philadelphia restaurateurs are Jewish, they acknowledge that part of the appeal is the major promotional opportunity for their businesses.

“Hopefully, it helps you grab a new audience and maybe convince 20 people or so to come visit your restaurant,” said Richard Landau, owner and chef of Vedge and V Street, his new “street food” venue off Rittenhouse Square, who took part in Latkepalooza for the first time this year. “It’s expensive to do and you don’t make money, but it’s a good promotion. You have to pick and choose outside events because time is precious.”

Lots of elbow grease, as well as vegetable oil, went into the preparation of Latkepalooza’s latkes. Having an experienced staff helps. For Landau, an Elkins Park native, that comes in the form of sous chef Mike Caplin. Like Landau, Caplin grew up in a Jewish home where latkes were on the Cha­nukah menu.  

“Latkes were definitely a family event,” said Caplin, originally from Cherry Hill, N.J.  

Although latkes aren’t on the current menus at either Vedge or V Street, they have made appearances at Landau’s previous restaurants, Horizons in Willow Grove and, later, in Philadelphia. For his first James Beard Foundation dinner during the Horizons days, Landau prepared a latke made from ka­bocha squash. For Latke­pa­looza, his restaurants created a vegan version from white Hamon sweet potatoes accompanied by black garlic and onion dip and a parsley root “sour cream.”

Catahoula, another Latke­palooza newcomer, offered a white-and-sweet potato latke with chopped long hots, Loui­siana seasonings and a spicy tomato jam. Owner Nechama Kaufman, a Haifa native, comes from a res­taurant family. After moving to Philadelphia at age 15, her father opened a luncheonette on Germantown Avenue. She later ran a Philly cheesesteak restaurant in Houston before moving back to Phila­delphia.

Kaufman said the Cajun flavors at her restaurant and within her latkes aren’t unknown in Israel, where popular Moroccan Jewish foods rely on similar spices and aromatic vegetables, particularly tomatoes and peppers. One of her regular customers is Sahar Oz, the Gershman Y’s program director, who reached out to invite her to Latkepalooza. It was fitting, she said, because both her sons-in-law “say I’m the best breakfast brunch maker they’ve met.”

For Lance Silverman, executive chef of Sabrina’s Cafe and a regular at Latke­­palooza, the event provides “a chance to participate in my heritage.”

“It allows me to give something back to the community, and it’s good for the restaurant,” said Silverman, who grew up eating latkes in Cherry Hill, where his family made them year-round, not just for Cha­nukah. Latkepalooza was his first outside event after joining Sabrina’s in 2001. “I look forward to it every year.”

While Sabrina’s has offered traditional latkes in years past, it went the Mediterranean route this year with a spinach-and-potato-based latke accompanied by a mixed fruit compote and basil lemon-roasted garlic sour cream. Though made with similar ingredients to Estia’s, the textures and tastes were quite different — Estia’s was a thin, crispy latke with smooth interior; Sabrina’s a hearty, thicker potato-centric mix with pleasing chunks of Yukon Golds.

The Saturday night before Latkepalooza, Estia gathered its cooks after dinner service ended to devote an hour and a half to frying latkes. On Sunday, they reheated the spanolatke in an oven at the restaurant, then Hudson crisped them in a pan at the Y before serving them with tzatziki sauce.  

Latkes are nothing new to Terry Berch McNally, whose London Grill in Fairmount is again offering “Eight Days of Latke” this Chanukah, with a different iteration each night. For Latkepalooza, they went with a sweet potato version.  

“We had a few cases left over from Thanksgiving,” she said by way of explanation.

Even the straightforward lat­kes stood out, thanks to their accompaniments. Abe Fisher, the new Steve Cook-Michael Solo­monov venue, served a traditional latke with cured salmon, pickled beets and Boursin-style cheese.  

Although other Cook-Solo establishments — including Zahav and Federal Donuts — have participated in past years, it was a new experience for Abe Fisher executive chef Yehuda Sichel.

As with Silverman, Sichel’s family didn’t reserve latkes just for Chanukah. His Hungarian grandparents would always make chremzli whenever he was around, he recalled.

“They would sit down and grate the potatoes, slow fry every single latke, taking their time, keeping it simple. They would pile them up between paper towels and they would stay crispy and delicious.”

Starr Restaurants, another group with a long history at Latkepalooza, was represented this year by Talula’s Garden, Frankford Hall and Jones. Chef Tim Brockman, whose Ashkenazi grandparents reared him in Chanukah latke-making, took charge of a traditional offering from Jones, adding potato meal to lighten the texture and serving the deep-fried final products with a choice of sour cream or apple sauce.

Why no cutting-edge latke or sauces for Jones?

Simple, Brockman responded: “We’re a comfort food res­taurant.”

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