This dining club's members get dishes from around the world cooked kosher

CULINARY PEOPLE

January 27, 1993|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Staff Writer

Information with a picture of Henry Zetlin in Wednesday's A La Carte section and in the Food section for some editions incorrectly stated that Mr. Zetlin was unlocking the kosher kitchen at the Sheraton Inner Harbor Hotel.

As the accompanying story about the Kosher Dining Club reported, only the mashgiach, or person appointed to monitor the kitchen's operations, is allowed to unlock the kitchen.

, The Sun regrets the errors.

It sounds like a simple idea. Henry Zetlin, pursuing his third career at the age of 69, was running kosher catering operations for the Sheraton Inner Harbor Hotel.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

"And we thought we'd have a dining club of some sort, kosher, we started with a few people." He recalls of that day in 1985 with a chuckle. "And then this developed. And it just got larger and larger and larger."

"This" is the Kosher Dining Club at the Sheraton, and these days Mr. Zetlin sends out some 450 letters every few weeks, inviting members to an evening of lavish food and novel entertainment. Every time, as many as 200 or 300 people sign up, coming from as far away as New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, plus Washington and all the Baltimore and D.C. suburbs.

It may sound simple, but, for several reasons, it's a pretty big deal. First there's the kosher kitchen at the Sheraton, one of the few in the country and until recently, the only one in Baltimore.

"Many Jewish people don't eat out, because of the rules of kashrut," Mr. Zetlin says. There are few commercial establishments that follow these strict rules of kosher dining, even fewer that offer fine kosher dining.

Keeping the kitchen kosher

The Sheraton's kosher status is ensured by the Orthodox Union of New York. The OU participates in many aspects of Orthodox Jewish life, including supervising the kosher status of thousands of food products and monitoring the practices of commercial kitchens. To monitor a kitchen, the OU appoints the "rav hamashir," or rabbi who is in charge of overall operations. The rav hamashir in turn names the "mashgiach," the person who monitors day-to-day activities. The kosher kitchen can't be used for anything other than kosher events. When a kosher event is over, the kitchen is locked and the mashgiach's seal, called the "plumba," is affixed to the lock. "He's the only one who has the key," Mr. Zetlin says.

Kosher kitchens are common among caterers, Mr. Zetlin says, but much rarer in hotels, partly because of the cost. Establishing a commercial kosher kitchen, Mr. Zetlin says, can cost half a million dollars. "You have to designate the kitchen, you have to to buy all new utensils, all new pots and pans -- you have to start from scratch."

The crowd at the Kosher Dining Club is pretty special, too, Mr. Zetlin says. "We have such loyal members. You can't believe how nice these people are." He personally oversees the dining club reservations as they come in, and puts together table mates. Reservation forms ask who people would like to sit with and if there is a special event to be celebrated -- a birthday or anniversary, for instance -- which rates a cake from the Sheraton kitchen. Mr. Zetlin says they've given away as many as 14 cakes a night.

And then there is the entertainment. There is always some kind of program. "We try not to do the same thing night after night," Mr. Zetlin says.

There have been all-American barbecues, and a "New Orleans" night with a ragtime band. There's a "family night" Thanksgiving dinner, with a turkey at every table. There was a baseball event that began, for those who chose that option, with a ticket to an Orioles game and a box lunch that ended with a dining club cookout on a hotel terrace. "We had Rick Dempsey," Mr. Zetlin says, "and the kids just loved it. He spoke for three-quarters of an hour and then he signed autographs for everybody -- kids 60 years old and up," he jokes.

International flavor

But the heart of the dining club is the international connection.

It's a natural, Mr. Zetlin says: "We're 45 miles from Washington, and there are all those embassies there." They approached every embassy, "and every one was very kind to us," Mr. Zetlin says. The ambassador is invited to the dinner and encouraged to bring along a video or other "travelogue" material about his or her country. Mr. Zetlin researches the country and its food, and with the help of the Sheraton executive chef, comes up with a suitable menu. Countries that have participated include Ireland, Mexico, Costa Rico, Turkey, Thailand and India. Some of the countries offer a prize to be given away at the event -- Brazil donated two roundtrip tickets to Rio, Mr. Zetlin recalls, and Spain offered tickets and six nights at a hotel.

It wasn't long after the international theme began, Mr. Zetlin says, that "we thought about getting a little entertainment." There have been balalaika players from Turkey, dancers from Thailand and Costa Rico, and a program of Irish dances put together by the Irish community in Baltimore.

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