Judah Cowen has always had an interest in food — a serious interest in food that he has nurtured and cultivated in diverse locales throughout the world.
Now, as the new in-house caterer at Congregation Beth Shalom in Squirrel Hill, Cowen is expanding the reach of his “elegant edge” in culinary skills to Pittsburgh’s greater Jewish community.
Cowen, 31, launched his catering company — called Elegant Edge — in 2013 from the kitchen of B’nai Emunoh Chabad in Greenfield. His reputation as a skilled chef quickly led to an expanding demand for his services, which had him searching for a larger kitchen. As Beth Shalom was in the market for a new in-house caterer, joining forces with Cowen was a “good shidduch,” said Debby Firestone, president of the congregation’s board of directors.
Cowen, originally from Hartford, Conn., began his culinary studies promptly after his high school graduation, when he left for Israel to train at the Jerusalem Culinary Institute. After completing the yearlong course, he was tapped to intern at the Grand Hyatt in Hong Kong, where he worked alongside the luxury hotel’s executive chef.
“I have always kept kosher, so I couldn’t necessarily taste the food, but I picked up world-class methods of cooking there,” said Cowen.
While in Hong Kong, the young chef also catered between 40 and 200 Shabbat meals each week for traveling executives, as well as corporate lunches and other events.
Cowen’s experience in the food industry also includes running the former Pinati Kosher Mediterranean Grill on Murray Avenue and working for a kosher caterer in Brooklyn, for whom he handled a busy wedding and b’nai mitzvah schedule and catered three meals a day for 800 participants at a Passover retreat in Atlanta.
But when he finally decided to make Pittsburgh his permanent home a few years ago, he took a position preparing meals at Weinberg Terrace, a personal care community in Squirrel Hill. It was there that Cowen’s skills as a chef caught the attention of many community members, who began asking him to cater private events. That led to the launch of Elegant Edge.
“I saw there was an opportunity to bring culinary experiences from throughout the world to Pittsburgh,” he said. “I started off slow, and then business began to grow by word of mouth until I outgrew B’nai Emunoh.”
As of July 1, Cowen is “the exclusive caterer” at Beth Shalom, he said, with “the right of first refusal” to cater all events at the synagogue, whose main kitchen is now under supervision of the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh.
Being under the Vaad allows Beth Shalom to serve a greater pool of community members, according to Firestone.
“We are looking forward to our facility being rented more often,” she said.
Vaad supervision of its main kitchen allows for increased inclusivity, according to Beth Shalom’s senior rabbi, Seth Adelson.
“We are a congregation that is dedicated to the value of community; it is one of the three key values indicated in our mission statement,” he said. “Our commitment to community is further enhanced by making sure that catering at our big events meets the Vaad’s kashrut standard. That way, everybody can come to Beth Shalom and feel welcome.”
Beth Shalom’s smaller kitchens remain under Adelson’s kashrut supervision, he said.
The synagogue’s social hall can accommodate between 350 and 400 people with the dance floor open, said Michelle Vines, Beth Shalom’s events coordinator, and the building has additional spaces that can be used for entertaining.
Cowen is also available to cater events held at other locations while preparing the food at Beth Shalom’s Vaad-supervised kitchen.
“I think the kosher world has grown tremendously in the past 10 years,” Cowen said. “And I think having the experience of education in the field and training throughout the world — seeing different businesses and methods of cooking — gives me an edge, hence the name, ‘Elegant Edge.’”
Beth Shalom’s central kitchen, which is currently used for meat, will be redesigned this summer to include separate spaces for the preparation of dairy and pareve dishes. PJC