The chef, his mom and the latke: a Hanukkah story

AROMATIC: Eric Greenspan fills light doughnuts with a mixture of persimmons, sugar and spices.
AROMATIC: Eric Greenspan fills light doughnuts with a mixture of persimmons, sugar and spices.
(Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

YOU hear Eric Greenspan before you see him, whether he’s running the floor at his year-old Melrose Avenue restaurant, the Foundry, or now, cooking for Hanukkah with his mother at her place on a tree-lined street in Woodland Hills.

Mother and son are in the kitchen of her immaculate two-story apartment, banging dishes and arguing happily about whether to use the food processor to grate the root vegetables for the latkes. “Use a box grater, Ma,” says Greenspan. “That’s what they did in Roman times!”

“The Maccabees didn’t have electricity,” says Marilyn Springer as she assembles the machine.

“They had God on their side!” yells Greenspan, deftly reorganizing his mother’s counters as he calibrates the ingredients for the three-course meal.

Greenspan is a charismatic man, with a big, low-slung presence and a loud personality that can distract you (is it a diversionary tactic?) from his considerable intelligence. His high decibels (“Too many Slayer concerts as a kid”) come in handy in the Foundry’s clattering, cramped kitchen. And even in his mother’s serene place, the bluster seems part of a familiar routine.

As Springer stirs the bowl of grated root vegetables -- the carrots, russet potatoes, red onions and roasted beets turning a gorgeous deep mauve in her bowl -- she adds a little egg, a little flour. “I don’t know what your recipe is,” she says, reaching for more flour.

“Ma, it’s a latke!” Greenspan shouts.

But Greenspan knows latkes. Yes, it’s important to achieve the right consistency in the raw mixture: You either have to squeeze the moisture out of the grated potatoes before you combine them with the other vegetables, or you can add flour to absorb the moisture (that’s what he does).

But the real secret to great latkes, he says, is frying them at a high enough temperature, using a neutral oil that has a high smoking point, such as grape seed or canola oil. The high temperature prevents the latkes from getting oily or mushy; instead, their edges fry into gorgeous filigrees.

Greenspan doesn’t use a thermometer: He tests oil with a sprinkle of water, first getting his hands wet, mostly drying them off, then flicking a few lingering drops into the pan. (First he flicks a few drops of water at his mother, who makes a face at him.) When the oil starts to crackle, it’s ready. (As this can cause dangerous splattering, we recommend using food scientist Shirley Corriher’s method: When the oil starts to shimmer, drop in a small cube of bread. If it fries up golden-brown, the oil is ready.)

Greenspan likes to conceptualize flavors, to mix and match them in his head when he’s coming up with any dish. Riffing on latkes, he says, is the perfect way to “raise the bar” on traditional food. So to the classic combo of potatoes and onions, he adds carrots and beets. But he doesn’t just add shredded raw beets; he takes the extra step of roasting them first to intensify the flavor.

After flavor, he considers texture, balance, proportion. “There are five senses,” he says. “Taste is the most important, but it’s the last one you use” when you dine. That’s why the latkes must be perfectly crisp -- with a bit of give in the middle. When you pick up one of Greenspan’s latkes, you’ll hear a faint crackle before you taste it.

On the road to Paris

GREENSPAN was born in New Jersey, and his family moved to California when he was 9; he grew up in Fullerton, high school in Calabasas, a business degree from UC Berkeley. He worked as a short-order cook through college and credits meals at nearby Chez Panisse for spurring his decision to “trade chicken eggs for quail eggs.”

Upon graduation, he turned down his parents’ offer of a car (“I’d just sell it”) and instead persuaded them to spring for culinary school -- at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. “Why not work it?” Greenspan says. “Why not be as technically sound as you can be?”

He then spent four years cooking in New York -- at Alain Ducasse at the Essex House, Bouley and Union Pacific -- and did a “stage” at El Bulli in Spain. Back home in L.A. in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, he worked for Joachim Splichal for two years, becoming executive chef at Patina, then spent a few high-stress months at Meson G.

After he and Meson G’s owners parted ways, Greenspan spent a year and a half scouting for a restaurant of his own. Meanwhile, he taught at the Kitchen Academy in Hollywood, where he met his current business partner. They opened the Foundry a year ago. The restaurant -- at once lively, intimate and loud -- perfectly captures Greenspan’s personality. And his cooking there seems more casual than it actually is. His gnocchi dish, for example, looks like potato gnocchi in a little white sauce studded with ham. Simple, right?

But Greenspan roasts the potatoes on a bed of salt (to leech out as much moisture as possible), enriches the Mornay sauce with butternut squash purée and makes the ham himself (it’s duck ham, house-cured for three weeks). He refuses to write down the gnocchi recipe (if you use a recipe, he says, you’ll get too much flour). Not so simple.

Back to those latkes. Greenspan presses the center of frying pancake with his fingers to see if it’s crisp yet, urging his mother to do the same.

She flips the latkes with the spatula. They’re gorgeous, hued a deep magenta, crisp and delicate. Greenspan sprinkles them with salt (“Kosher salt, ha! Ha!”), then spoons over them a velvety carrot sauce, then another sauce of cream spiked with fresh horseradish and toasted caraway seeds.

“Eric, this brings back so many memories,” Springer muses, dropping another latke into the oil.

“The whole Lower East Side used to come from far and wide for Grandma’s horseradish-caraway crème fraîche!” Greenspan bellows, cracking himself up -- as if Grandma had even heard of crème fraîche.

“You are out of control,” says his mother.

Springer’s apartment is newer than her son’s restaurant -- the stove was installed the day before Greenspan arrived to cook latkes on it. But she’s got an old family menorah on the counter, pictures of her two sons (Greenspan’s older brother Jason is an ER doctor, and Greenspan finds the cliché hilarious) and her two grandchildren in Sherman Oaks, holiday decorations over the banister.

“Ma wants a date out of this,” says Greenspan, checking on the beef short ribs that he’s braised in wine and veal stock for four hours. They’re tender, deeply aromatic and lacquered a dark brown, like chocolate.


“WHEN you braise, most of the flavor goes into the braising liquid,” Greenspan notes. His voice lowers a few notches; for a moment, it’s easy to imagine him as the culinary instructor he once was. He explains that he likes to “take down” the sauce, reducing it until it’s almost a demi-glace, and then paint the meat with the intense sauce, in effect, to return the flavor to the meat.

“When I worked at Ducasse,” he says, “we used to make sauce out of the short ribs -- and then throw the ribs away!” At the Foundry, Greenspan makes his beef jus with oxtails, then uses it to sauce hanger steak with seared foie gras, sautéed chanterelles, baby fingerling potatoes and eggplant caviar. It’s so much richer than the natural jus you’d expect.

Greenspan says that when he was growing up -- his mother kept kosher for the first 15 years of his life -- Hanukkah meant brisket and sweet-and-sour cabbage. This year he’s making short ribs instead of brisket because he likes to sous vide his brisket, and his mother isn’t quite set up for that. “But short ribs, that’s like fancy-schmancy brisket, eh?” Greenspan, Berkeley-educated, Paris-trained, keeps the rhetoric where he likes it.

And Brussels sprouts,” he says, rolling a handful of perfect, tiny vegetables in his big hands, “people don’t realize that they’re mini cabbages.”

“You have to have your vegetables,” says his mother.

He blanches the tiny Brussels sprouts, then throws them into a pan with onions he has sweated in duck fat. “You can’t use butter, because you have to keep it kashrut. So I use duck fat,” he grins. “Even better.”

Next, he naps the sprouts with a quince purée he’s made by roasting the fruit and blending it with an apple cider-honey reduction. He spoons the tiny, jewel-like vegetables around the lacquered short ribs, then tops the ribs with a reduced sauce made from Dijon mustard, heavy cream (use a cream substitute, both Springer and her son note, if you want to keep the dish kosher) and Cognac.

So why cream if it’s a Hanukkah meal? “I don’t know; because I was trained in France?” says Greenspan. “You need something to mellow out the mustard.”

(You can’t, it seems, use duck fat for everything, kosher or not. One night at the Foundry, I heard a woman -- thin, Russian, impressed -- ask Greenspan the secret to his jidori chicken; the chef paused only a split second, then yelled for everyone in the small dining room to hear: “Butter!”)

“I might be the least kosher Jewish chef in America,” says Greenspan , chuckling and noting the heavy reliance on pork in his restaurant. “You know,” he says, plating the ribs, “this is basically the pork-belly dish from the restaurant that we cooked for Hanukkah.”

But he’s on to the next thing now -- Greenspan moves as if he’s on a restaurant line even when he’s in a quiet suburban kitchen -- and is already frying the rounds of yeasted dough for his persimmon-stuffed doughnuts. “The persimmon balances the sweetness,” Greenspan points out. “There has to be balance.”

“Is this enough sugar?” Springer asks, shaking a tin from her pantry.

“Just right! It’s the miracle of Hanukkah!” bellows her son.

(The reference is to the story of the oil needed to light the temple menorah, which miraculously lasted eight days -- long enough to consecrate more oil -- when the flame was rekindled after the Maccabee rebellion.)

“I use that all the time at the restaurant,” Greenspan says. “My line guys will say, ‘Chef! I’m out of whatever!’ and I’ll just tell them, ‘Well, do you believe in the miracle of Hanukkah?”

Greenspan drops the dough into the oil free-form, as he did the latkes. “I like to let it be natural; you have to be more Chick Webb, less Benny Goodman,” he says, alluding to the jazz that he loves to play at the Foundry. “Perfection is found within imperfection.” Then he lifts the doughnuts out, drains them on a paper towel, tosses them in a bowl of cinnamon sugar.

“Here, Ma.” He hands the plate of doughnuts to his mother. “We’ll get you in the restaurant making meatballs next. I’ll just sit there, drinking coffee.”

More spice than sugar

GREENSPAN takes a pan of persimmons that he’s simmered with vin jaune (a sweet white wine from France) and a sachet of spices and sugar, and quickly blends them in the food processor.

Then he deftly stuffs the warm doughnuts with the aromatic mixture, heady with licorice root, cinnamon, cloves and black pepper.

The doughnuts, made from yeasted dough, are airy and tender, not the slightest bit oily, and coated with more spice than sugar. They’re lighter, more nuanced, and not nearly as sweet as you’d think -- nothing like the image conjured when Greenspan yells “jelly doughnuts!” as he presents them, then takes a big, happy bite.

“Be sure to get a picture of the mess,” suggests Springer, surveying her surprisingly tidy kitchen. “It took me three days to clean up the last time he cooked.” (This is more of their rhetoric: Both mother and son have cleaned as they’ve gone with an easy, supportive efficiency.)

“Just like how the Romans left the temple,” shouts her son. “Sacked!”

Greenspan’s pristine knives are lined up on the kitchen table; his food is laid out, perfectly articulated, in the beautiful family dishes.

The noise is, as his mother knows well, part of the ceremony.