April 13, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

In the NOBO Kitchen with Josh

Teaneck—Josh Massin has two passions: Torah and cooking. As executive chef and partner in Teaneck’s Nobo Wine and Grill, he lives and breathes both. Tucked between the railroad tracks on Restaurant Row (Palisade and West Englewood Avenues) Nobo is a destination eatery. Chef Josh has crafted a restaurant in the former Pasta Factory that attracts kosher diners from Monsey, Brooklyn, and New York City, and locals who want a trendy, classy New York dining experience without the hassle of crossing the bridge. Josh said that about half his customers are from Monsey, Monroe, and Brooklyn. And probably 60% are regulars.

As captain of the ship, Massin sets the tone, tweaks the menu, and makes the business decisions. He calls his style Eclectic Progressive American food and offers a positive dining experience without “putting something in front of the diner that’s foreign.” He combines his passion for food with the reality of executing it every day. “Will it work in our kitchen?” is a question he asks about every choice he makes in the kitchen. Compared to upscale restaurants in New York, Josh says Nobo’s prices are 30 to 50% less. With customers coming from the most stringent Orthodox communities, I asked if kashrus is an issue. “Part of our hospitality protocol is offering personal consultation about our kashrus standards with the mashgiach or myself,” he said.

Some of Nobo’s most popular dishes: slow roasted lamb riblets with onion and dried cherry glaze; sous vide veal with spaetzle; beef cheek with an ever changing list of sauces; all the sous vide meats; wild mushroom risotto, glazed short ribs; and Belgian chocolate brownie, with just enough flour to hold it together, accompanied by salted peanut butter ice cream.

If you stay really quiet, or get the grand tour before the dinner hour, that bubbling contraption you hear is what is at the heart of Nobo’s cuisine: the sous vide technology. Sous vide, French for under pressure, is a method of cooking vacuum-sealed food. “Sous vide cooks at lower temperatures, precisely, safely, and evenly,” Josh explained. “Sous vide gives you pure flavors, instead of contaminating the flavor in a smokey oven.”

Josh sounds like a food chemistry professor (or Food Network’s Alton Brown, for that matter), explaining how technology and technique conspire to elevate the food he prepares. He didn’t much like school, but he loved to cook.

As a 7-year-old in Fort Lee, he was fascinated by a woman who owned a small Chinese take-out shop and demonstrated her cooking skill at the local schools. “I hung around the counter to watch; that’s where the action was,” he said. He was hooked. A few years later his mother bought him a wok and he began creating stir fries. He also learned to keep a spotless/odorless kitchen—his mother demanded that. “I created an elaborate ventilation system to get rid of the smells,” he recalled. “Years later, when I applied to Johnson and Wales (aka Josiewales) cooking school, my application was titled “The Stealth Chef.”

He often played sick to stay home from school and watch cooking shows. “Those were the days before celebrity chefs,” he said. “It was amazing to watch Emeril Lagasse operate a station at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans in the ’90s.”

In those early days, Judaism was not part of his life. His father was decidedly uninterested in religion, and his mother chose a Reform synagogue to give him bar mitzvah lessons. Around, the same time, his mother discovered the Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies, which held classes on Sunday mornings, and his attendance ultimately led to his becoming a Baal Teshuva. A few years later, he got to know Rabbi Ely Allen, who would help him complete the transformation. Rabbi Allen invited him to his Tuesday night shiurum, then for Shabbos dinner, and finally for an entire Shabbos, every Shabbos. The boy who didn’t like school loved learning. “Becoming religious was a very intellectual process,” he said. “I knew people who were having Carlbach drum circles in their backyards, but I preferred to learn Gemarra or Shulcan Aruch.”

He became a waiter at Teaneck’s Grill Street (now Dougie’s) and started experimenting in their kitchen when the restaurant was slow. “I went to Glatt Express and bought ingredients and cooked for myself and the owners,” he said. Then he worked at the JCC in Washington Township for 14 hours a day doing everything in their cafe, except making pizza. When the pizza maker quit, Josh did that, too.

At 19, his Rockland Community College experience left him unhappy. “My parents told me I had to move out and do something practical,” he said. “I decided the only jobs I ever liked were in the kitchen so I applied to culinary school.”

By this time, Josh was Shomer Shabbos and ate only kosher food. The Culinary Institute of America “wasn’t friendly to frum people.” But Johnson and Wales allowed him to structure his courses around the yom tovim and did not require mandatory wine tasting. Josh asked Rabbi Allen about attending cooking school, and he consulted rabbinic authorities. Josh was told he could cook non-kosher food there for his education but not after that. Tasting was out of the question. Today, when potential interns apply for a position with him at Nobo, he asks if they tasted food in cooking school. “If they say yes, it was for education, I won’t take them. I say ‘this isn’t the place for you.’”

He learned skills in class, but developed his palette in his own kitchen. Living away from home for the first time, on the third floor of the Chabad house in Providence, Rhode Island, he spent most of his money buying kosher ingredients from Whole Foods or Stop and Shop and throwing dinner parties for friends. “I developed ideas for how to make kosher food good and not let kosher be the reason for not making good food.” He quoted a world class chef, Rene Redzepi, of Noma, a restaurant in Copenhagen, who said “limitations promote creativity.”

In between semesters, Massin interned at The Prime Gill, one of New York’s most upscale kosher restaurants, rising at 5:30 to daven and get to midtown by the 7:30 a.m. start time. He would finish at 11 p.m., and commute back to River Vale.

After graduation, he was offered a job at Mike’s Bistro, the place he calls the best kosher restaurant in New York. “Mike was influenced by the California style of the ’90s, chefs like Alice Waters and Jeremy Tower, who favored a minimalist approach: the best ingredients with nuts and bolts technique; good food with a lot of integrity.” Josh began as a fish cook, moved up to sous chef and then chef de cuisine.

By 2011, he wanted a change. His best friend moved to Teaneck and become friendly with Tzvi Maller and Sol Kirshenbaum who owned Nobo. (Kirschenbaum is no longer a partner.) They all became close. When Maller made aliyah with his family, he offered Josh a job at Nobo as chef.

Josh thought he’d be there for a year or two and then look for a place of his own. He began revitalizing the restaurant and six months into the process put it on target to double revenue over the previous year. The owners offered him a partnership.

Josh said Nobo will probably expand in the near future, perhaps enlarging the kitchen and opening a new concept next door. Plans are being made for a vegetable garden, so Nobo can serve its own produce. And they are working with a new company in Trenton that sources ingredients from within a 75 mile radius.

Spend any amount of time with Josh and it’s apparent that he knows his customers almost as well as he knows his menu. He said. “Every night I go into the dining room to shake hands with my customers like old friends—to me, they are all customer number one.”

By Bracha Schwartz

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