Shalom Life | April 23, 2014

A Proud Jew Brings "Traif" to the Masses

Jason Marcus's Traif restaurant in Brooklyn, New York specializes in bacon, shellfish, and globally-inspired soul food.

By: Miriam Cross

Published: April 12th, 2010 in Culture » Food » Interviews

A Proud Jew Brings "Traif" to the Masses

When you’re a proud Jew set to open a restaurant specializing in bacon, shellfish, and other non-kosher goodies, what do you call it?

Traif – naturally.

Brooklyn-bound Jews might be forgiven for doing a double take if they stumble across this brand-new restaurant in the Williamsburg neighbourhood. Advertised on its website as “Celebrating pork, shellfish, and globally inspired soul food,” chef and co-owner of Traif (a word derived from the Hebrew term “trefa,” meaning non-kosher food), Jason Marcus is hoping to bring his own spin on forbidden delicacies to the masses.

“The moment I came up with the name and concept was kind of random,” he tells Shalom Life. “I was cooking a staff meal at my last restaurant, which was a simple Alsatian-style chicken stew with white wine, cream, and bacon. The bacon was minced finely, so as not to be detected, and the staff were all talking about how this was the best chicken ever. I have always loved pork and shellfish and have been inspired by the cuisines and regions that feature them, but for some reason, that staff meal was my ‘aha’ moment. I started to think about not just how much I love pork and shellfish, but how versatile they can be in not only being the main attractions, but the supporting acts.”

Marcus, 30, has cooked professionally for the past 10 years at high-end New York restaurants such as Eleven Madison Park and La Bernardin. He came up with the concept for Traif about two years ago, and so far, has received both positive and negative feedback for his venture. “For our liquor license we had to speak to a community board of local leaders, one of whom is a local Hasidic rabbi, and he thought the idea was funny,” he says. “As well, I have a relative who is an Orthodox rabbi, and he thought the idea was great.”

There are a few particularly unforgiving comments on his blog (traifny.wordpress.com), but Marcus doesn’t let those faze him. They are far outweighed by the positive comments. And he didn’t choose the name “Traif” to be provocative. “I liked the sound of the word and the fact that many people will not know what it means,” he says. “The name begs the simple question for many people: what does traif mean? That question is at the very heart of both Traif the restaurant and myself.”

Marcus was raised Jewish, went to Hebrew school, had a Bar Mitzvah, and is proud of his heritage. “But it wasn’t until I travelled through Europe that I really felt a deeper connection to being Jewish,” he says. “So many Jews were oppressed, segregated, and murdered simply because of their ethnicity. I am fortunate to live in a different time, and I honestly feel like not being true to myself would dishonour my ancestors more than hiding my religion and beliefs.”

Besides pork and shellfish, Traif also offers up dishes with lobster, mussels, and shrimp, many of which are inspired by his travels along the Mediterranean. And there are a few dishes that contain no traif at all, including the yellowtail sashimi and the hearts of palm salad. But Marcus says pork and shellfish fit naturally into his favourite cuisines. “Big bowls of steamed mussels, plates of smoky-sweet pork ribs, ribbons of nutty-silky Spanish jamon – they make me want to live,” he says. “However, from a chef’s perspective, I also love their diversity. Pork can be transformed into so many inspiring products and the world of shellfish encompasses so many delicious varieties.”

Marcus makes no apologies for his non-kosher preferences. “Philosophically, Traif represents me being true to myself, what I love to eat and cook.”

Traif opens today. For more information, visit www.traifny.com.

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