How Jake Cohen Builds CommunityThe Great Ones is a celebration of humans we admire — and an exploration of why they cook, not just how. Jake Cohen is a self-described "nice Jewish boy" who loves food. He got his start as a cook in the restaurant world before moving into food media, with stints leading recipe testing at Saveur magazine’s test kitchen, writing for Time Out New York, and as the editorial and test-kitchen director of feedfeed. We talked with Jake about what being “Jew-ish” means to him, and the power of shared rituals in community building — all while he made a savory kugel from his upcoming cookbook.
I’m of the Food Network generation — I would come from school every day and watch Ina and Giada, and I was completely mesmerized. I started having friends over for dinner in high school. I’d make recipes from the shows I was watching, and that was the first taste I got for hospitality and that warm feeling of welcoming people in to share a meal. I learned how food is a community builder through this. I didn’t have a ton of friends, and when you start to explore this world, you see that people let their guard down around a meal. My whole book is about that same journey — but as an adult, navigating community building through the ritual of Shabbat.
That was the first taste I got for hospitality and that warm feeling of welcoming people in to share a meal.
I didn’t grow up with Shabbat. I’m not religious, and my husband is not religious, but we started exploring Shabbat as a way to build community, and we ended up falling in love with it. My husband and I realized we didn’t have many friends, and specifically many gay friends in New York. We don’t drink and aren’t active bargoers, so why would we socialize around a ritual that doesn’t align with our values? For us, Shabbat was how we made friends and built community.
We started exploring Shabbat as a way to build community, and we ended up falling in love with it.
Food is just the vessel — the real power is the act of breaking bread with others.People have come to our dinners that I really don’t know or maybe met online. The step from following someone on Instagram to coming into their space is a very big jump, but the invitation to Shabbat somehow feels a lot more digestible. I’ll never forget this time I spoke at a panel and afterward I went up to introduce myself to Deb Perelman and David Lebowitz, who were chatting. I invited them to Shabbat dinner, and they came! That was so wild for me, but, of course, I wasn’t asking them out for coffee to pick their brains for ideas. I was inviting them into my home with my family to celebrate Shabbat. So it’s just become this really interesting way for me to connect with others in an unassuming but intimate way. Food is just the vessel — the real power is the act of breaking bread with others.
These are acts of self-care for you and your community.
A lot of it came down to breaking down the walls of everything we were taught. For example, you say a prayer when you light the candles, before the wine, and for the challah. To me, these are all rituals that we do just because that’s what we were taught to do. But when you really look at it, you’re lighting the candles because you are sanctifying this time as sacred and dividing it from the rest of the week. You say a prayer on the wine because you’re taking something mundane and making it holy. You’re saying a prayer on the challah because it signifies breaking bread with others and this moment as a time to come together. I don’t think it’s as important to physically say the prayers as it is to understand the reasoning behind it. These are acts of self-care for you and your community. Even without the religious aspects, it still is an incredible ritual.
Every recipe in this book was cooked and tested at a Shabbat dinner.
Every recipe in this book was cooked and tested at a Shabbat dinner. The idea was that these recipes can work together as a meal. The core value behind these dishes is that they are meant for others, and that is at the forefront. I’m in this Marvelous Mrs. Maisel setup, in that I’m in the same apartment building as my mother and my sister (we’re all on different floors). Typically I’m cooking for four people most nights and often pack up food for my mother, who is a veterinarian and works different hours. We refer to it as the urban kibbutz.
When you think about secular identity and culture, it’s often rooted in food.
Today, I made kugel and cheese from my book. It’s a savory play on classic noodle kugel. I’m Ashkenazi Jewish, and my husband is Iraqi Persian Jewish. When you think about secular identity and culture, it’s often rooted in food, but our definitions of Jewish food were completely different. He’d never had babka before or gefilte fish, and, likewise, I’d never had tahdig or any of the dishes he’d grown up eating. Shabbat also became this vessel to explore these different recipes, and one of those dishes was kugel.
It’s kugel with some flair. This dish is very Jew-ish.
My husband hates sweet noodle kugel; the idea of sweet noodles, with cottage cheese and raisins — he didn’t like it. So, in the book, I do three different kugel recipes, two of which are savory. This one is a mac and cheese meets kugel, and it’s so easy. You don’t have to make a béchamel; you’re blending eggs, cottage cheese, and sour cream and folding in lots of cheese. The result is this custard base that gets super creamy, rich, and thick. It’s kugel with some flair. This dish is very Jew-ish — it’s Jewish at its core, but you would never find it in a traditional household.
Photos by Matt Taylor-Gross.