A tradition that makes his mother proud

At Supper on South Street , owner Mitch Prensky stirs sweet potato and carrot tzimmes, next to chicken soup with matzo balls. Brisket inspired by his mother has the place of honor. TOM GRALISH / Staff
At Supper on South Street , owner Mitch Prensky stirs sweet potato and carrot tzimmes, next to chicken soup with matzo balls. Brisket inspired by his mother has the place of honor. TOM GRALISH / Staff
Posted: September 18, 2012

Even now, as a professional chef who has made chicken stock 10,000 times or more, when Mitch Prensky walks into a kitchen and smells the stock cooking, he can't help but think of his boyhood.

And his mom.

And the Rosh Hashanah dinners that she would prepare. Especially her beef brisket, a staple of the new year holiday.

Time passed and Prensky, inspired in part by his mother, became a professional chef.

Sunday night, at his South Street restaurant, Supper, he continued a tradition that he started some years ago - cooking a Rosh Hashanah dinner that features his mother's brisket recipe.

"My mom's a great cook," he said. "That's how I got started cooking, really."

She'd be bustling around their New York kitchen, and as he got older, he'd help.

But when it came to the brisket, he'd step back. The dish was totally hers.

He thinks of it now as "a touchstone . . . an ideal, where you're always trying to get back to that note, or flavor, of your past."

The one his mother, Rhoda Lee Prensky, made was a version that's more sweet than savory.

Mitch Prensky, 46, can appreciate that even more these days. Talk to Jewish cooks, he said, and they always want to know, "How do you do your brisket?"

"It's a very Jewish question," he said. "Is it this way? Is it like that? Is it sweet and sour? There are styles. And it depends on where in Eastern Europe your family came from."

He has a Romanian background. And the family brisket is sweeter than others.

Prensky's mother actually made her living cooking. She was the heart and soul of Quiche by Rhoda Lee, a quiche business whose products were sold at New York icons such as Zabar's and Dean & DeLuca. Later, the company was sold.

He recalls their Jewish new year celebrations as being very traditional. The family was at the center of it all.

Maybe 20 people would be there for dinner - his two sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents. Occasionally, he could bring a friend.

Years later, Prensky started a catering company, Global Dish. "I remember saying to my mom, 'I'm doing these Jewish holiday menus, and I want to do your brisket.' She said OK and gave me the recipe."

To Prensky, who by then had been trained at the French Culinary Institute and had worked in high-end restaurants, a few things in the recipe didn't look quite right.

It was his mom's and it was great, sure, but still . . .

So he tweaked it.

When his mother got her first taste, Prensky recalled, "she was like, Wow, this is good. What did you do?"

He won't reveal to the rest of us what he did, but basically, he starts with a whole beef brisket, "nose on," meaning the fat hasn't been trimmed. He sears it, wraps it, and slow-cooks it, "for hours and hours."

At Supper, which opened in 2007, the menu for Sunday night listed the dish as "My Mother's 'World Famous' (she swears!) Brisket of Beef with sweet potato, carrot and apple tzimmes, and cider macerated fruits."

"A lot of this holiday is about the season," Prensky said. "It's the beginning of autumn. The good part about it is there are always apples involved . . . and honey."

Rosh Hashanah began Sunday night and ends at sundown Tuesday. It opens the 10 days of repentance that conclude next Wednesday with Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. While Jews traditionally fast on Yom Kippur, for Rosh Hashanah, apples and honey are served to represent the hope for sweetness in the new year.

Prensky's fresh produce is grown at Blue Elephant Farm, a privately owned organic farm in Newtown Square. He visits there regularly to pick it.

Also on the menu were other staples of his culture - chicken liver mousse, gefilte fish, egg noodle kugel, crispy potato latkes.

And, of course, "old-fashioned chicken soup" with matzo ball and dill.

"I cook what I know. I cook my culture and my history and my experiences," he said. "I always have."

He expected that his mother, now living in central New Jersey, would be there, along with many other family members.

That works for him, because he views the restaurant he and his wife, Jennifer Prensky, own as an extension of their home anyway. Their goal with Supper, he said, is to make people feel as if they're coming to his and Jenn's house.

"The funny thing about my mom, she's known all this stuff about cooking. She, in a sense, taught it to me," Prensky said Saturday, as he continued with several days' worth of preparations for the dinner.

"As she got older, she's decided to conveniently forget a lot of that so she can be a nice retired person and just enjoy," Prensky said.

"She always says, 'Yours is better than mine.' But that's my mom. That's her nature."

Contact Sandy Bauers

at 215-854-5147, sbauers@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @sbauers. Read her blog, GreenSpace, at www.philly.com/greenspace.

comments powered by Disqus