I never expected to look forward to Hanukkah more while in my twenties than as a child. My giddiness is no longer the result of a brand new Easy Bake Oven or a chocolate coin overload. The sheer excitement I feel builds in anticipation of bite after bite of warm, crispy, potatoey heaven.
What I’ve been drooling over for months is the one-of-a-kind “Latke Festival” hosted by Great Performances.
The fifth of its kind, this epic festival-of-lights celebration took place Monday, December 2nd from 7:30-9:00PM at the Metropolitan Pavilion in Chelsea. Seventeen different chefs, most from acclaimed NYC restaurants, each produced a unique take on the quintessential Hanukkah treat. Participants included Kutsher’s, La Vara, The Butterfly, Veselka, and many more, all of whom vying to be number one in the eyes of the public and esteemed panel of judges. Event proceeds benefit The Sylvia Center, an organization that works to teach children how to make healthy eating choices through hands-on learning experiences.
My evening was instantly off to a great start, as I was shuffled inside without a moment spent on line. My friend Ali and I arrived early, anticipating a short wait, but we were allowed in during the tail end of the VIP hour (which had begun at 6:30PM). I recalled standing outside for a bit in chilly, late Autumn weather last year, so no line this time around was a welcome surprise—and a rarity at that.
The Metropolitan Pavilion was perfect: spacious and elegant, the room never grew too loud or too crowded. In my experience, large scale food festivals induce major “shvitzing,” but I am pleased to report that was not the case this evening. There were a handful of tables upon which people could perch while chowing down, and the atmosphere was joyous yet relaxed. The crowd was filled, I’m assuming, primarily with Jews, who were both young and old, coupled and in larger groups or families. I noted more older adults than I remembered from the year before and wished my grandparents had been able to attend (they were definitely “kvelling” when I told them I went, though).
In 2012, I remembered having to relinquish a precious pink ticket for each latke I consumed. Naturally, my friends and I pooled ours together and strategized to avoid squandering any on something we might not like. Much to my delight, this year, the event was all-you-can-eat, all-you-can-drink! Not that I had room to eat more than my pink ticket allotment’s worth of latkes anyway, but it was nice to know I had the flexibility. Multiple bars were placed around the room offering wine, beer, and liquor, in addition to GuS Grown-Up Soda. One smaller station also featured Cliffton Dry Hard Cider. He’brew (“The Chosen Beer”) was my obvious drink of choice to wash down each and every nosh.
While entirely unnecessary, the passed hors d’oeuvres were another new and delicious improvement this year. I helped myself to a grilled cheese and a veggie sushi roll, atypical palate cleansers in between latkes. I passed on the mini pigs in blankets, amused that these were served in conjunction with Jewish food (oy, there was even shrimp). In addition to the never-ending surplus of latkes, Dough provided fantastic strawberry and passion fruit filled jelly donuts, and Hot Bread Kitchen served mini bialys. A beautiful menorah made of bread remains an emblematic image of the night in my mind.
Full disclosure: I’m a vegetarian, and I often struggle with this at food festivals, since many tend to be very meat-heavy. Much to my delight, while several latkes had brisket or pastrami on top, nearly every station was able to serve me a meatless version of their creation. The exceptions were one latke cooked in duck fat (The Plaza Hotel) and another containing braised short rib embedded in the patty (Stone Park Café). It was hard to avoid filling up quickly, but I surged on, determined to at least bite into as many latkes as possible.
Given how astonishingly different each offering was from the next, it was a challenge to pick just one favorite. I ultimately voted for Delicatessen’s “Sweet Potato Latke Slider with Ground Brisket (omitted from my sample), Roasted Apple, Black Pepper Créme Fraiche, and Cranberry Chutney.” Others that left me with a hankering for seconds were Blue Hill Yogurt’s “Butternut Squash Latke with Curried Butternut Yogurt” and Mae Mae Cafe’s “Potato Pancake with Maple Mascarpone and Cranberry Bourbon Sauce.” The latter won the judges’ vote (these taste aficionados were writers from Eater, Food52, The Wall Street Journal, CBS, etc.), and the people’s vote went to Benchmark’s “Caraway-Scented Latke: Short Rib Pastrami, Truffled Sauerkraut, Mustard Créme.”
Any outsiders I spoke to about the festival had the same set of questions for me: “How many latkes can you even eat in one sitting? How different could each possibly be, anyway?” I took the former as a challenge; I think eighteen was this year’s magic number. I also tried to explain how each fried creation was wholly unique and decadent in its own way. Flavors, seasonings, toppings, textures—so many variables, so much room for innovation!
While $58 and change is a considerable amount of gelt to pay for potatoes, I can assure you that GP’s latke feast is a night like no other and well-worth the price. Now, if only there were an upcoming Matzah Ball festival this spring…
By: Emily Giove