At the age of 17, Avi Avishai, who was raised in a secular home, decided to keep kosher.
But by the time he was 27, he was “really craving bacon,” he said.
Kosher beef fry didn’t do the trick. Those soy versions of fake bacon? Forget about it.
So, Avishai, a self-proclaimed “nut job,” got to work, spending more than 100 hours researching and experimenting and taste-testing until he perfected a product that could easily pass for the real thing.
“I begin with a 2- or 3-pound slab of raw beef belly,” Avishai explained. “I then cure the meat for five days with my homemade curing recipe. Once fully cured, I smoke the meat until it reaches 165 degrees, making it fully cooked. Once it cools, I slice it into what effectively becomes a bacon cold cut and can be eaten as such.
“However,” he continued, “the flavor magic happens once you fry it. This brings out the smokiness, makes the meat crisp, and the fat melts in your mouth.”
Because it had been so long since the Squirrel Hill resident had indulged in nonkosher bacon himself, he sought counsel from a non-Jewish neighbor and meat connoisseur, Eric Rosé.
“I appreciate good food,” said Rosé. “This is beef bacon, and it is different than pork-based bacon, which is lighter and has a sweeter flavor. Beef bacon is stronger and has a richer flavor. Sometimes I get beef bacon in the Strip District. Avi’s bacon tastes exactly like that.”
Once he refined his recipe for bacon, Avishai, who is an electrical engineer by day, branched out to create recipes for other delicacies, including smoked pastrami, corned beef, breakfast sausage and Cuban mojo.
Inspired by the 2014 film, “Chef,” in which the character played by Jon Favreau created a pretty delicious-looking Cuban sandwich, Avishai got to work on developing a kosher version. That process involved creating beef substitutes for Cuban roasted pork and ham.
“I read about it, and I made a sandwich that tastes just like it,” he said. “It’s one of my guiltiest pleasures.”
Those local kosher carnivores that are lucky enough to merit an invitation to the Avishais’ sukkah each year are treated to another rare delicacy, at least in the kosher world: bacon chili cheeseburgers. Avishai’s ingenuity has expanded beyond the transformation of beef and into the development of a realistic cheese substitute concocted by a special synthesis of dayai, a synthetic cheese product, and unrefined coconut oil.
Avishai procures most of his raw meat from Sampo Distributors, but some of the rarer cuts, such as raw whole beef belly, come from a distributor in New York, he said.
If so inclined, Avishai might be able to find an untapped commercial niche market for his fare, but for now, he is only selling small quantities to friends.
“Since I don’t have a factory, it would be costly to sell in large quantities,” he said. “I’d have to charge a prohibitively high markup to make it worthwhile.”
Avishai estimates that it costs about $12 to make a pound of bacon because of the high cost of kosher meat as compared with the $2 or $3 it would cost to make a pound of nonkosher bacon.
Avishai, who keeps about 40 pounds of bacon in his freezer at a time, said he enjoys serving it to guests. On the particular Sunday morning when this reporter visited the Avishai home for a bacon-and-egg breakfast, the chef’s three young children were banished to their upstairs quarters, because they can collectively consume 3 pounds of bacon at a sitting, Avishai said.
“They love it.”
Rosé is happy to vouch for the quality of his neighbor’s product as well.
“It absolutely tastes like treif,” he said.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.