Tomato fennel soup. Roasted sweet potato, kale and sausage. Fried red snapper and grits topped with roasted tofu and okra. Sautéed garlic spinach and dirty rice. Cheesecake for dessert.
All kosher. And that’s not even the surprising part.
Virtually none of the people eating this luncheon feast at Touro University California in Vallejo — including the chef — are Jewish or keep kosher.
Even though the student population is largely not Jewish, the school has a strict kashrut policy because it is part of the Touro College and University System, the country’s largest private institution of higher education under Jewish auspices.
Mezuzahs hang on every doorway, and a banner proclaims “Shalom” behind the lunch counter, where students grab a meal, then slide over to easy chairs or tables where they munch before open laptops under sparkling chandeliers.
The Touro system has 20 branches, including in New York, Jerusalem, Berlin, Moscow and Paris, as well as across the U.S. All campuses are kosher supervised, and offer High Holy Day and Shabbat services.
Touro University California, with a focus on the medical and public health fields, has 1,400 students on its 44-acre Mare Island campus, offering degrees in nursing, osteopathy, physician’s assistant and pharmacy. Mare Island was home to the first permanent Navy installation on the West Coast from 1854 until it closed in 1996. Touro moved there two years later from San Francisco.
This kosher oasis in Solano County, some 20 miles northeast of San Francisco, is run by chef Ray Nottie. Born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, and raised in Oakland, he learned to cook by sneaking into the kitchen to spy on his mom making smothered chicken and collard greens.
When he came to Touro in 2013 he had extensive experience in kitchens at hotels and high-tech firms, but his only previous encounter with kosher rules came when he catered an event and noticed “a guy in a black coat looking at all the ovens.”
At Touro, Nottie studied kosher rules with Rabbi Elchonon Tenenbaum, who with his wife, Chanie, directs Napa Valley Chabad Jewish Center, and two mashgiachs (kashrut supervisors) who oversee the kitchens. Elchonon also serves as Touro’s rabbi and director of campus life.
Nottie, 46, quickly learned there could be no bruised meat, no blood in eggs and, of course no pork, shellfish or mixing of dairy and meat, among other restrictions. But he was determined to bring his own style to this new — for him — form of cooking.
“You show me the kosher and I’ll cook with my passion,” he said. “All I want to do is to bring the outside world here.”
When he wanted to serve pad thai noodles, he couldn’t use standard fish sauce because it comes from shellfish, which isn’t kosher. So he substituted a concoction of rice wine vinegar, soy sauce and other ingredients that were all approved by a mashgiach.
Nottie has designated a theme for each day of the week, creating a global menu made with all kosher ingredients.
You show me the kosher and I’ll cook with my passion. All I want to do is to bring the outside world here.
Monday is “Healthy Cuisine” day with honey Dijon chicken and stuffed eggplant with couscous raisins; Tuesday is “Asian Cuisine,” with pepper steak and spicy, crispy tofu; “Italian Cuisine” follows on Wednesday, with chicken penne pasta and egg noodle Florentine; Thursday is reserved for “Soul Food Cuisine,” including the red snapper and the grits, and Friday is “Latin Cuisine” with beef tamale pie and chicken or tofu posole soup.
The campus dining hall, called Farragut Inn after Adm. David Farragut of “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” fame, attracts workers from nearby companies who come for Nottie’s dishes. “People tell me, ‘Chef, kosher food usually don’t taste that good,’” he said.
Tenenbaum, when asked how much Nottie knew about kosher rules when he arrived at Touro, forms his thumb and index finger into a zero.
“His receptiveness to learning was refreshing,” the rabbi said. “He challenges himself to make regular dishes that are normally not kosher. He doesn’t look at it like his arm is tied behind his back, he sees it as an extra challenge, continuing his art with slightly different rules.”
Cooking was a big part of Nottie’s childhood. Many family members had a specialty — Uncle Robert did the BBQ, Uncle Joe was a pastry chef, his mom made an amazing sweet potato pie — and they still compete over who makes the best Thanksgiving dinner.
Nottie’s first creation was a grilled cheese sandwich he made as a 7-year-old, and he hasn’t stopped cooking since. After high school in Oakland, he attended a culinary institute and went on to jobs in the cafeterias at high-tech firms such as Hewlett-Packard, Google and Facebook. He also worked at Wente Vineyards in Livermore, local hotels, St. Mary’s College in Moraga and the International House at UC Berkeley.
“Cooking makes me happy,” he said. “When I got older, I saw that when you’re feeding kids, you have someone’s life in your hands.”
Nottie’s cooking makes plenty of people at Touro happy as well.
“I have a tremendous respect for him as a chef and also his concern for adhering to the kosher laws,” Tenenbaum said. “It’s a process of creation. It’s a pleasure to watch him, and to eat his food.”