Navigating the world of restaurant hechsherim is a tricky business, and it can be quite easy to veer off course and get misled by a hechsher that is a “household name.” In the tri-state area, there are almost as many hechsherim as there are kosher restaurants! How can you possibly tell the difference between so many agencies? A bold kosher symbol, with a lot of Hebrew words, seems like it should be the most reliable, right? Unfortunately for the consumer, the hechsher could be attributed to a rabbi who does not have particular expertise in day-to-day kashrus. He may be very well-versed in the Shulchan Oruch, but not have experience dealing with practical kashrus questions in an industrial setting. In addition, important safeguards, that might not be in the Shulchan Oruch, but are essential to guard the kashrus of a commercial kitchen, are learned only through experience.
These safeguards, the kashrus protocols that are not found in the Shulchan Oruch, are the fences that protect the kosher status of a kitchen. When a safeguard is broken, it is only the safeguard that is broken, and the kitchen is, hopefully, still kosher. When a safeguard is broken, it gives us the opportunity to address the issue and provide a better safeguard without compromising the kashrus. If there were no safeguards in place and treif, G-d forbid, was brought into the kitchen and served, then it is too late and we have failed in our obligation to keep the kitchen kosher. These safeguards ensure that an agency is doing the best job possible of keeping its products kosher. It is only natural to want the best for yourself and your family-the best job, a car with air bags and anti-lock brakes (safeguards for your protection)-so, for kashrus, why should you rely on second-best?
According to halacha, a G-d fearing owner is acceptable as a mashgiach over his own establishment. However, based on many years of experience in restaurant kashrus, we have found that it is necessary to require an additional mashgiach temidi (in-house full-time rabbi) in every restaurant/catering facility that we certify. A G-d fearing owner certainly cares a great deal about the kashrus of his establishment, but he has many, many responsibilities relating to his business and cannot always be available to perform the duties of a mashgiach. After being in business a short while, the owner looks to get out of the “hot” kitchen as often as he can, leaving the restaurant unattended, and opening the door for a real kashrus problem-hence, the need for a full-time mashgiach.
In addition, safeguards must even be implemented to make sure that mashgichim come and go at the right times. The OK utilizes a mashgiach call-in system to further protect the kashrus of our establishments. The system enables the kashrus agency to log the times that each mashgiach clocks in and out of the facility. The check-in system is a simple way to alert the restaurant rabbinic coordinator if a mashgiach is not coming to work on time, or leaves the facility early.
As a further safeguard, the mashgiach must have sole possession of the keys to the kitchen of any kosher certified cooking facility. Nobody can enter the kitchen, to cook or even handle any open food, without the mashgiach present, and he is required to lock the kitchen and be the last person to leave in the evening. In case of emergency, the owner can gain access to the facility, either through a key that is placed in a sealed envelope and signed by the mashgiach, or a combination given to the owner by the mashgiach. If such measures are needed to allow the owner access, new locks and keys will replace the old ones, or the combination to the locks will be changed.
A big part of the mashgiach’s role is to be in constant contact with the main office that investigates the kashrus of each ingredient and product that enters the restaurant or catering facility. The main office has the most current information regarding kosher products. This puts much greater knowledge and experience behind all of our approved ingredients, as opposed to an individual mashgiach approving ingredients. Therefore, he must check each ingredient and product and match it to the approved ingredient list. If a product is not on the approved list, or looks suspicious, the mashgiach rejects the product immediately. At the office, we know that just as a passport is required to prove a person’s citizenship (Anyone can say that he is an American citizen, but proving it is another issue!), kosher certificates are required to validate the kashrus of every kosher certified ingredient and product.
As those in the field of kashrus are already well aware, the mere fact that a hechsher is present on a product’s packaging is not nearly enough to ensure the kashrus of that product. Most reliable kashrus agencies, including the OK, have a whole department dedicated to investigating the unauthorized use of a trademarked kosher symbol. Mashgichim are carefully trained and provided with specific approved product lists in order to help them avoid products bearing unauthorized kosher symbols. At a retail store, every consumer sees the kosher symbol displayed on the package, but in a restaurant or catering facility, only the mashgiach, and a few other people, sees the industrial packaging. A product might be dairy, but the dairy symbol was not included on the packaging, or a product might not be certified at all, and illegally bear a trademarked kosher symbol.
Another major responsibility of the mashgiach is to check all produce that enters the facility. He carefully inspects all fruit and vegetables for insects, according to the instructions laid out in the Vegetable Checking Guide. (Due to popular request, the guide has been published for consumers, as well.)
Just as important as the food coming in to the restaurant, is the food that goes out for delivery to customers. It is the mashgiach’s duty to seal the package with the agency’s kosher tape, and/or his signature, to ensure that the products in the delivery have not been tampered with. When a customer receives a sealed delivery from a kosher facility, he/she should be able to rest assured that the mashgiach has taken personal responsibility for the integrity of the product, and that it has not been tampered with.
Once, a man came to his rabbi and said, “Rabbi, at home I keep strictly kosher. I do everything by the book, but when I go out, I can’t be so kosher, I’m not so strict. I don’t have a problem using a not-so-kosher facility, but at home everything is 100% kosher.” The man’s rabbi replied, “Ok, you’re very lucky, all of your dishes will go straight to heaven!”
If one is careful with the kashrus of his home and the restaurants he frequents, how much more so should he be careful when selecting a kosher caterer. Most kosher caterers make affairs in non-kosher establishments (hotels, ballrooms, etc.), which require kashering prior to an event.
Temporary settings are always more difficult to control, as opposed to a restaurant that always uses the same kitchen. Some caterers will cook everything in their commissary and only use warmers to heat up the food at the event site, while other caterers will cook most of the food at the event. Furthermore, many caterers split the cooking between their commissary and the event site. It is not uncommon that, at the last minute, equipment is needed that was not originally designated for use at the kosher event. This equipment must be kashered, and many times that cannot be done. In some cases, the equipment cannot be kashered, and in other cases, the equipment has been used in the past twenty-four hours (see further explanation below). In such a case, the agency and mashgiach must think “out of the box” and come up with creative ways of solving the problem. Perhaps the needed piece of equipment must be brought from the caterer’s own commissary. This, of course, adds additional stress to an already stressful situation, so much experience is needed. In addition to the food concerns, now the caterer and the kosher supervision agency have to contend with additional rules and protocol from the hotel or ballroom where the event is being held.
Sometimes, only part of a kitchen is allocated for kosher, which can pose a significant logistical problem. If another non-kosher event is happening nearby, at the same time, extra attention must be given to ensure that waiters do not mix up the flatware and serving dishes. The hotel may even have the same, or similar, pattern of dishes or flatware as the kosher caterer, making this scenario even more difficult. Waiters have to be especially careful not to accidentally bring dirty, non-kosher dishes and flatware back into the kosher kitchen when clearing tables. (Cruise ships are especially prone to this scenario.) Such a set up may look perfect and mehudar on paper, but in reality, it can be a major disaster.
Cooking stations at the cocktail hour, bars and party favors create additional kashrus challenges for both the supervising agency and the caterer. Cooking stations at catered affairs pose a common kashrus challenge-bishul Yisroel. Whether the station chef makes omelets, crepes, pasta, fish, or another type of cooked food, extra care must be taken to make sure that the food is bishul Yisroel. This means that the mashgiach/mashgichim must coordinate and ensure that he lights all the fires at each station. (Pots used for food that was cooked by a non-Jew must be kashered). In addition, the hotel or catering hall often supplies the bars for alcoholic beverages. Care must be taken to ensure that all wines are mevushal, due to all of the non-Jewish staff, and that all alcoholic beverages are kosher. Finally, at many affairs, the host provides party favors to be given to each guest. Often, the favor includes a food item (small chocolates, cookies, candies, etc.) and care must be taken to ensure that the food items carry an acceptable kosher certification.
All equipment that is kashered with boiling water must be left idle for twenty-four hours prior to kashering (eino ben yoma). This ruling poses a challenge for non-kosher facilities, because they cannot use much of their equipment for twenty-four hours prior to a kosher event. It is a challenge for the kosher supervision agency, as well, because a mashgiach must be dispatched to the facility to separate and segregate the equipment that needs to be kashered. Although there are many loopholes in this area (including using soap, or kashering twice), why settle for loopholes in the kashrus of your simcha or seudas mitzvah? The OK will only kasher vessels that are eino ben yoma (not used for 24 hours). Generally, a caterer’s services are contracted for family simchas and other seudos mitzvos. These events are auspicious times permeated with spiritual blessings, and keeping a high standard of kashrus at these events can only increase those blessings! One would not take shortcuts in other aspects of the simcha, so the kashrus of the food should be up to the highest standard as well.
In addition to full-time caterers, sometimes a restaurant takes on the role of a caterer. If the restaurant is just doing a food drop-off, then the mashgiach seals all of the containers with OK tape and someone delivers them to the party site. Once the seals are broken, it becomes the consumer’s responsibility to guard the kashrus of the food during the party. If, however, the restaurant fully caters the event (provides flatware, dishes, etc.) and food is being warmed at the event site, a mashgiach must be present throughout the party.
A kitchen that never has a kashrus question is the biggest question. With the sheer volume of ingredients and products that pass through an industrial kitchen on a daily basis, in addition to the number of workers in the kitchen at any given time, it is virtually impossible to avoid kashrus questions. In the Gemara, it is written that if all of a Beis Din of 71 people finds someone guilty, he goes free. It is impossible that not even one of the 71 dayonim could not find a z’chus for the defendant. This is a clear sign that there is more to the situation than meets the eye and a closer look is needed. This scenario is also true in a kitchen. It is impossible to have a kosher kitchen that runs without a single kashrus question. this is also an indication that a closer examination of the kitchen and the procedures is necessary.
The strength of a hechsher is not the questions (or lack of questions) that arise; it is how the hechsher reacts to the questions and what safeguards they implement. There can always be human error, especially in a large-scale operation with many workers and many ingredients. Does the kosher supervision agency ignore the issue and brush it under the rug for the sake of its reputation, or does the agency address the problem and notify the public for the sake of kashrus and halacha?
When choosing a restaurant for your next night out, or the caterer for your next simcha, be sure to call and ask to speak with the mashgiach. Verify that he is a mashgiach temidi and ask about Pas Yisroel, Cholov Yisroel, kashering, and the methods of sealing the kosher equipment. Ensure that the high standard of kashrus that you keep in your home is safeguarded outside the home as well.
To find out more about the kashrus of restaurants and caterers, or to receive your free vegetable checking guide, go to any OK Kosher certified restaurant or visit us on the web at www.ok.org.