On February 23, YINR hosted its Eighth Annual Cholent Throwdown. Cholent, a stew prepared before the onset of Shabbat, usually cooks overnight to provide a warmed dish for Shabbat lunch. Its slow cooking method allows the flavors of the various ingredients to permeate the dish. Ashkenazi cholent is based on meat, potatoes, kishke, beans and barley, which were dietary staples in Eastern Europe. However, there are many variations to this dish. Sephardi cholents often contain rice and eggs, reflecting those regions’ staples. Yet, all cholent chefs have their own concoction of spices, flavors and secret ingredients.
This year, 10 YINR members participated in the competition. On Thursday night preceding the throwdown, the chefs simultaneously prepared their cholents in the shul kitchen, interrupted by occasional l’chaims and sneaking peeks of the competitors’ secret ingredients and techniques. Contestants are allowed back into the shul kitchen on Friday before Shabbat to check on their cholent.
This year’s cholent battle was actually two competitions: the judges’ pick and the popular vote of the oneg attendees. One of the event organizers, Dan Lurie, explained, “Our excellent judges blindly tasted each cholent. Judges were free to use whatever standards and criteria that they deemed most important. Each judge then gave a score of 1 (lowest) to 10 (highest).” Once the judges concluded their grading of each cholent, the judges leave the kitchen and scores are tabulated to determine the 2018 YINR Top Cholent Chef.
Separately, for the popular-vote component, YINR attendees were given a ticket to place in an envelope for the cholent they liked best. Voters’ criteria included taste, appearance and nepotism.
Mark Semer, a past YINR president, was the judges’ choice and was awarded this year’s Top Cholent Chef title. However, Shai Barnea tied with an “Anonymous” submission for the popular vote.
But a scandal ensued: In anticipation of the need to serve a crowd of hungry cholent-seekers, Lurie purchased cholent from New Roc Glatt. “The New Roc cholent was not entered into the official judging; it was put out for the popular vote as an ‘anonymous’ entry,” confessed Lurie. “Given the size of the crowd that has attended in the past, I was concerned that we would not have a sufficient amount of cholent from only 10 participants,” he explained. One discerning attendee even described the anonymous cholent as “very similar to the cholent we have at Kiddush.”
“The YINR’s cholent competition is one of our community’s beloved events,” explained winner Mark Semer. “Those of us who compete thoroughly enjoy cooking and trash-talking together on Thursday night. The Friday night oneg is a warm, fun, well-attended gathering for members of all ages.” Semer continued, “I’ve enjoyed competing just about every year since we started this special event and my many second- and third-place finishes have become a long-running joke. It was exciting to put that to rest and join the ranks of our YINR cholent champions, including my good friends and outstanding chefs Uri Weinstein, Rachel Berger and Adam Chill.”
Shai Barnea explained, “This was my third year in the competition. I am happy that people liked my cholent and that everyone had a good time at the cholent throwdown.”
By Judy Berger