The knish king

 

Former fine-dining chef Michael Blum reinvents himself as a maker of gourmet Jewish pastries

By Elinor J. Brecher | ebrecher@MiamiHerald.com

Proclaiming itself “the cure for boring food,” Michael’s Kitchen put chef Michael Blum on South Florida’s foodie map more than a decade ago.

With creative combos like black-bean-sesame glazed Asian ribs, tempura-battered crab cakes and candied pecan grouper, Blum developed a loyal clientele at a tucked-away location in Dania Beach.

Fans followed the Culinary Institute of America-trained chef to a showcase downtown Hollywood eatery in 2005, then to the Newport Beachside Resort in Sunny Isles Beach in 2007.

But that last stop proved as much of a disaster as the earlier ones had been successes. (“A rather bizarre, circus-style restaurant,” was one critic’s take.) In the spring of 2008, Blum left — and dropped out of sight.

The Long Island native spent 18 months taking stock of his life, coping with the end of a nine-year marriage and his first professional failure.

“It took me six months to pick my head up off the pillow,” said Blum, 44, a father of three. “I had an ego as big as any chef when he’s flying high. I needed to reinvent myself.

“I couldn’t go back to doing what I was really good at because I wouldn’t be there for my children. … When you’re at the top of your game, people want you in the kitchen: Friday night, Saturday night, New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day. And when you deal with famous people, you can never say no.

“But all the success is worth nothing if I can’t be a dad to my kids,” Caleb, 5, Daphnie, 7, and Spencer, 9.

Blum resurfaced in October in an unlikely venue — Hollywood’s Yellow Green Farmer’s Market — with an unlikely product: knishes.

The traditional, kosher-style knish, a staple of delis the world over, is a baked, bun-like pastry stuffed with mashed potato and/or ground beef and/or kasha. Think Jewish empanada.

Just as Michael’s Kitchen devotees “never knew what the wacky chef was going to do next,” Blum said, neither could they predict what they’d find on the knish menu at the market ($2.50 to $6 apiece, depending on the filling).

He might make a Reuben or clam-chowder knish along with vegetarian varieties like spinach-garlic, broccoli-Cheddar and portobello mushroom with truffle oil.

He calls them “the cure for boring knishes. Your grandma’s authentic knish with a chef’s flair.”

Surrounded by booths selling home-made soap and candles, beaded jewelry, fresh produce and potted plants, Blum was a long way from the sleek banquettes, dramatic open kitchen and boldface-name patrons of prior ventures.

But he believed it was exactly where he needed to be at the time.

“This is my second life,” Blum said shortly before Thanksgiving. “Life comes full circle. It’s exactly how I started in 1994: knishes, home-made pastry and ice cream at The Frozen Café,” the Dania Beach eatery that became the first Michael’s Kitchen.

It was a weekend mid-morning, and a line was forming: fans of the old restaurant, and curious newcomers who wondered aloud, “Is it Mexican food?” “I thought it was quiche.”

That weekend, Blum offered a Thanksgiving knish: turkey-cranberry-dressing. Other novel permutations include Philly cheese steak, chicken pot pie, lox-eggs-onions, and — vey iz mir! — bacon and eggs.

Blum established the knish booth “as a way to let my customers know that Michael was back. If they need catering, boom! here he is.”

It didn’t take long for regulars to find him and stop by to kibitz and nosh — mainly Jewish retirees like Mickey Irgang of Hollywood, who said he “came in [to the restaurant] seven days a week.”

Blum isn’t sure how much longer he’ll stay at the market. He’s concentrating on catering — from small dinner parties with items from the Michael’s Kitchen menu to corporate barbecues for 600 — and “home delivery of Jewish comfort food.”

He sells frozen knishes in bulk to restaurants and hotels.

Blum, who lives in Hollywood, turns them out, 840 at a time, using rented “monster” ovens and mixers at Little Havana’s Rico Bakery: 35 knishes per sheet pan, 24 pans per oven.

“I’m here as much as they’ll let me be,” he said one recent day as he hand-shaped dozens of spinach knishes.

“I told him to put a little bit more Cuban flavor,” said Vivian Marquez, whose family owned Rico for 30 years before selling it two years ago. She still runs the place.

So Blum experimented with plantain-skirt steak-white rice and Cuban pork-yellow rice, and Marquez began selling them at Rico.

“People like it,” she said. “It’s baked, so it’s healthier.”

Blum said that he’s healthier, too.

“My chef soul has been cleansed,” he said. “I realized that, with the highs and lows of the restaurant business, at the end of the day, the most important thing is not taking care of customers but taking care of my family and myself.”

Knish dish

Michael Blum sells his gourmet knishes from booth 328 at the Yellow Green Farmers Market, 1940 N. 30th Rd., Hollywood, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Customers can order knishes and arrange catering by calling the Knish Hotline, 954-290-7726, or visiting www.thedowntownbakingco.com.

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