Sunday, February 17, 2019

I was on the Whitestone Bridge on my way to JFK to catch a flight to Israel, when I got the call. A masculine voice, with a slight yeshivish accent, simply said, “There was a cancellation. We have a spot for you at Nothing tonight at eight if you want it.” I debated for a moment as to whether it was a crank call or not; but then I decided it was worth the risk. I got off at the next exit and turned around to head back to New Jersey.

I had been wanting to dine at the legendary Nothing ever since I first heard about it a year ago. Nothing, the brainchild of autodidactic wunder-chef Yankel Gornisht, is a 12-seat kosher restaurant located in the basement of Gornisht’s suburban Bergenfield home, where diners are treated to a six-course prix fixe tasting menu for an entirely reasonable $400 per person (plus wine and gratuities). For those following the treif world’s culinary trends, Gornisht might be compared to Damon Baehrel’s Damon Baehrel in Earlton, New York, a half hour south of Albany—which, for some, is the most exclusive restaurant in America, despite being located in the basement of a woodland home and, aside from a few reviews on Yelp by people whose last names all begin with “B,” possesses precious little in the way of a digital footprint. Baehrel was described by Nick Paumgarten of The New Yorker, in its August 29, 2016 issue, as his eponymous restaurant’s presiding wizard and host, who serves as forager, farmer, butcher, chef, sous-chef, sommelier, waiter, busboy, dishwasher and mopper. (If you don’t believe me, check out the article. I guarantee you it’s worth it.)

If, like Damon Baehrel, you’ve never heard of Nothing, you’re not alone. Gornisht does not advertise in The Jewish Link, nor anywhere else for that matter, nor does the restaurant have a website, Facebook page or a Twitter handle. News of Nothing, which opened in 2014, is spread simply by word of mouth, but as kosher foodies around the world learned of Nothing, demand for reservations has soared. Gornisht claims that the restaurant, which is open four nights each week, is fully booked until after the Chagim in 2023. Gornisht, who is notoriously press-shy, almost never grants interviews—but he agreed to speak with me after service on the night of my visit, because, he said, he enjoys my occasional food writing in The Jewish Link. And, he said, because Elan Kornblum of Great Kosher Restaurants Magazine (who leads a bevy of “trophy hunters” of kosher haute cuisine on his Facebook page) told him that he would comp his machatunim’s hotel room on Kornblum’s New Hampshire Pesach program if he spoke to me.

Gornisht, a slight and balding 43-year-old Brooklyn native, took a circuitous route toward becoming the world’s most fascinating and mysterious kosher restaurateur. He left school at 7 to join his mother’s Habonim Dror Gezer kibbutz in Shephelah between Modi’in, Ramle and Rehovot in 1991, but a roving Chabadnik brought him back to Orthodoxy by asking him if he had put on tefillin that day as he gnawed unpeeled carrots during his first attempt to quit smoking, at age 13. “My first experience in the kitchen came when I was working in the Lakewood Yeshiva dining hall while I was studying to get my kabala as a shochet,” says Gornisht, who later spent more than a dozen years working as a shochet at Imperial Poultry’s plant outside Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. When Gornisht relocated his family to northern New Jersey in 2013 to take care of his in-laws, he was unsure of what to do for a living, but says that “I kept on thinking of my days in the yeshiva kitchen, and really wanted to see what cooking can do to food.”

That evening, it took me a while to find Nothing. Gornisht’s home, like all homes in Bergenfield, was not well lit, nor were there any visible identifying signs. Resorting to Waze, I eventually found myself parked in front of a nondescript brick house, with a small laminated cardboard sign with the word “Nothing” written with chalk in a childlike scrawl and an arrow pointing down the driveway. I later learned that the sign was made by Gornisht’s 8-year-old daughter, who made it in her third-grade “laminating for fun and profit” class, the only elective offered at Teaneck’s Yeshivat He’Atid.

As I walked past a hastily strewn double-stroller and a rusty tricycle, I found myself in front of a dimly lit door with an olive wood sign (of the sort sold to tourists in Jerusalem) with “Nothing” written on it in Hebrew. The door led me down a flight of stairs into a warmly lit, well-appointed three-table dining room, anchored by stacks of junk mail from Verizon Fios and Optimum Online. The ambiance of the restaurant was most pleasant, much like being in a family’s living room, but unfortunately, at times, it was strained by the noise of Gornisht’s children playing a loud game of Bananagrams in their adjacent playroom.

As I came in, Fruma, Gornisht’s wife, greeted me and led me to a table for four, which I was to share with a couple from Deal celebrating their fifth wedding anniversary, as well as an investment banker from Manhattan, who appeared to know Gornisht from his days on the kibbutz, and with whom he appeared to share a penchant for unpeeled carrots, which he kept stuffing in his pockets as Gornisht brought them to the table as part of a garnish for the bread basket.

The menu at Nothing is ingredient driven, and changes daily. Gornisht jokingly describes himself as a member of the “Taliban wing of the Farm to Table movement,” and claims that “I serve almost nothing at Nothing that I did not harvest or kill myself.” Gornisht even claims that the salt he uses at Nothing comes from boiling sea water he collects at the Jersey Shore.

The first course was a salad of dandelion greens with a light sumac-based dressing, served with a wild-garlic crostini. Fruma, who serves as waitress as well as hostess, explained that “the dandelion greens come from our front yard, the garlic and sumac were foraged from my uncle’s vacation place in the Catskills and the wheat for the crostini was hand-harvested and ground by my husband.” (Gornisht later explained that he started making his own flour “when I began baking my own shmurah matzos back in 2016.”)

The salad and crostini, while enjoyable, did not strike me as being worth a six-year wait, but the next dish, “Quail Six Ways,” was far more impressive. It consisted of a three-centimeter disk of aspic jelly, made, I was told, by boiling quail feet, containing a sous vide-poached quail egg, and slivers of black fermented wild garlic; a wafer-thin slice of maple-cured, pine-needle-smoked, quail breast (the maple syrup reportedly came from trees Gornisht tapped in the Catskills while the pine needles were gathered from discarded Christmas trees left in nearby Bergenfield streets); a tiny quail-meat croquette pan fried in rendered quail fat; a dollop of quail liver pate; and a few curls of quail-skin cracklings. Gornisht noted that no effort was spared for the dish. “I needed to shecht 70 quail to make 12 portions of the dish,” he told me.

This was followed by a lovely ragout of Lake Perch made with tomatoes, parsnips and unpeeled carrots grown in a small greenhouse that Gornisht has set up in his backyard. Gornisht told me that I was lucky to be there on a night that he was serving fish. “I don’t often get a chance to go fishing these days,” he says, considering that it is difficult to find parking near the small canal that runs toward the Hackensack River under Woodbine Street, between the auto body shop and the wholesale party supplies store. Also, the CSX freight trains that run every 12 to 40 minutes on the track next to Woodbine Street make quiet fishing a virtual impossibility.

Next up was a duck paella, made with duck legs, homemade duck sausage, saffron and star anise, all cooked in a duck stock. Gornisht, somewhat defensively, admitted that the paella rice, saffron, and star anise were all store bought, but joked that “there was no place around here to plant a rice paddy, and saffron crocuses are out of season.”

The highlight of the evening was a classic pheasant under glass, served with mushroom stuffing. The mushrooms, Gornisht says, come from an adjacent root-cellar, where he cultivates five different types of exotic mushrooms. When I asked to see it, as I am somewhat of a fungal expert (having grown numerous types of fungus in my own refrigerator—though, I note, the most recent and most impressive one I discovered was on a forgotten banana wedged between the seats of my minivan as I was cleaning before last Pesach), he mumbled something I didn’t quite catch about needing to wait until his neighbors left for work in the morning.

The final dish was a bizarre take on teiglach: little, slightly bitter dumplings made from ground acorn flour cooked in a wild-flower honey syrup made with honey from Gornisht’s rooftop apiary. When I winced a little from the aftertaste, he muttered in a frustrated manner, noted something on a pad that he keeps with him at all times, locked with a diary-type, small padlock that I’ve seen used by tween girls and available at Amazing Savings. I took a look at it later but it still didn’t make much sense: “Tell squirrel to chew longer.”

Dinner was delicious, though perhaps not worth the $400 price tag, not to mention the projectile vomiting I experienced sporadically over the next 96 hours. Also, however unique his methods appeared, some of Gornisht’s claims don’t seem to add up.

First, there is the organic poultry farm in Monmouth County from which Gornisht supposedly sources all of his live poultry. We contacted all of the commercial poultry farms in that county and none had heard of Gornisht, or, for that matter, The Jewish Link. This put my cockles up, so to speak. Also, there is Fruma’s uncle’s vacation property in the Catskills, where Gornisht supposedly forages for many of his ingredients. New York State tax records do not indicate that Shlomo Chenyuk (the name that Fruma gave for her uncle) owns any property in the Catskills, though he does appear to welcome lodgers via Airbnb for a two-bedroom walkup near The Jewish Center on the Upper West Side.

Then there are Gornisht’s claims regarding celebrity guests. Gornisht told me that “Jared and Ivanka used to be regulars before they moved to DC.” However, after multiple inquiries to the administration, I could not confirm Jared or Ivanka had ever even heard of Nothing, let alone dined there. I did, however, get a quote from Jason Greenblatt, saying that he heard from his boss that Gornisht was “making kosher cooking great again,” and he’d trying to stop in if he ever comes back to Teaneck.

I also have my doubts that any restaurant can be both booked up for six years solid, while at the same time have “regulars.” This just seems strange—unless,
of course, one is an advertiser in The Jewish Link.

However, I discovered the truly shocking bit of evidence by happenstance. I apparently dined at Nothing on the evening before their weekly garbage pickup, and three large trash cans were sitting on the curb in front of the house. One of the trash cans had lost its lid. I looked inside and saw discarded food wrappers from Glatt Express and Cedar Market hidden in some bright yellow ShopRite plastic bags. (When I inquired the next day, Gornisht, rather angrily, told me that I must have looked inside of one of his neighbors’ trash cans.)

After weeks of follow-up fact checking carried out by multiple teams of Jewish Link staffers in Washington, DC; Teaneck; Monsey; Philadelphia; Detroit; Chicago; Los Angeles; Boca Raton; and of course the Jewish Link’s flagship offices in Santa Fe; I am still not sure if any of Gornisht’s claims add up. Indeed I suspect that many of his claims, as well his policy of not advertising, are an attempt to create a mystique and cult following, as well as an attempt to justify Nothing’s exorbitant prices.

Putting my doubts and suspicions aside, the one thing I am sure of is that Yankel Gornisht is an extremely talented chef, and that an evening at Nothing will never be a nothing of an evening.

Nothing is open Monday-Thursday with one seating at 8 p.m. Reservations are very much required. Address and telephone number withheld at the proprietor’s request.

By Gamliel Kronemer

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