The Vegan Mashgiach: An Interview with IKC’s Rabbi Zev Schwartz, Part 2

Introduction

The number of vegan restaurants continues to grow. Few are, however, kosher. I see this as a missed opportunity, especially in smaller communities with few kosher options. And this is even true in communities with a larger selection of kosher options. Vegan restaurants offer more variety of foods than the typical kosher restaurant and expand the number of places and neighborhoods to enjoy a meal out. Since they compete with regular restaurants that offer vegan options, many go the extra mile to provide an attractive atmosphere and service at a fair price. Given how easy it is for a vegan place to become kosher, one might wonder why so few are certified.

In a few markets, one kosher agency has been making inroads into certifying vegan restaurants. The International Kosher Council (IKC), founded and led by Rabbi Zev Schwartz, certifies a number of restaurants in New York City and Philadelphia (among other places), most of them vegan, including the only national kosher chain, Beatnic (formerly, by Chloe), Beyond Sushi, and many others. A search of the Internet for IKC shows a number of blog discussions asking about the reliability of the IKC and its standards, which some assert depart from the major national and regional kashrut agencies. The IKC does not appear on the common lists of approved hashgachas (kosher certification agencies), and its restaurants are not found on the approved lists of many synagogues. Yet, there is scant information about why this is so.

I have included IKC restaurants in my listing of vegan eateries and profiled a unique product unavailable under any other hashgacha. While Mipikale takes no official position on hechshers (that is a matter of personal conscience between the eater and their Rav), this blog is all about increased transparency in kashrut, and I believe that informed decisions are better than uninformed ones. In that context, I had a chance to interview Rabbi Schwartz at length. The questions and his responses have been condensed, consolidated and edited for clarity (and verified with Rabbi Schwartz). Parenthetical notes are by the editor. 

Note to readers:  This is the second of two parts (read part one here). Even with the split, both are long posts. I wanted to give readers the opportunity to get to understand Rabbi Schwartz’ approach to kashruth in detail and mostly unfiltered. Whether or not you hold by his standard is your personal decision, but at least your decision will be more informed than just by reading comments on someone’s Facebook post. While respectful comments are always welcome, please reserve judgment until you have read the entire interview, and note I will not approve comments on the web site that are gratuitous or lashon hara

Interview Part 2

What about insects? Every week it seems, there is a bulletin about insect infestation in produce. Are the restaurants under the IKC careful to check for insects?

Vegetables have to be checked and washed to make sure that there are no bugs in there. No restaurant wants to serve bugs. No restaurant will accept produce that is infested. This idea that there is infested produce laying around everywhere and nobody cares about it—that is completely untrue. If a produce distributor would ship too much infested produce, the restaurants have told me that they will not order from them anymore. Most restaurants do their due diligence, they check their shipments to make sure it is relatively clean before they accept it, and most producers who ship it do their due diligence to make sure that they are not shipping infested produce.

The vegan restaurants don’t want to serve bugs for sure. Because for them, bugs are just as bad as anything else not vegan. Every vegan restaurant that I’ve been to has a process for washing and checking the water for bugs.

We try to follow to a certain degree the standards that all the certifying agencies do when it comes to catering. Most places are washing two times, that is standard. Now when we come in, we insist that they put something in the water, salt, vinegar, or vegetable wash, and we ask that they wash three times. One of the things the mashgiach does when he comes is to make sure that they are following the procedure for washing. We don’t think it is necessary to have a mashgiach paid to stand on top of [them] and check vegetables all day long. We believe it is enough [to set a standard and inspect periodically]. I’ve seen mashgichim (kosher supervisors) who are doing this all day long and by the time the second or even first hour passes they are already bored, and they aren’t really paying attention anymore. I’ve seen it because it is normal. I believe that an owner is just as concerned about it, even maybe more so than a mashgiach who is checking. 

Also, a lot of places are using a lot of pre-washed vegetables. Pre-washed vegetables, even without a hashgacha, are pretty much OK. I have been to places that bag prewashed vegetables. They are run like laboratories. This whole myth out there that you can have bags of vegetables without hashgacha means that they are infested—no, it doesn’t. Infestation can take place in bags with hashgacha too. Bags of washed vegetables, even without hashgacha, are 100% ok because that is the whole idea of why they are doing it.

[Ed. Note: Readers are referred to an article published in the halacha journal Hakira about inspecting produce for toalim (insects) ]

 

The third concern about restaurants in general is bishul akum, the prohibition of eating certain foods cooked by a non-Jew unless a Jew was somehow involved in the cooking process. (Ed. note: the foods subject to this rule satisfy two criteria: they are not edible raw and they are “fit for the king’s table”). Most agencies get around this by insisting that a Jew light the stove’s pilot light. How does the IKC address this?

Chef in restaurant
Photo by Rene Asmussen

Practically speaking when it comes to a vegan restaurant, anything edible raw is not a problem for bishul akum. Also, things that are par-boiled or partially cooked somewhere else and finished there, bishul akum doesn’t apply either. So most of the items in a vegan restaurant have no issue whatsoever because [they are] edible raw. When it comes to bread, the chachamim did not want to aser (prohibit) [commercially baked] bread by a non-Jew and permitted what is called pas palter. It is a valid chumrah to eat only bread baked by a Jew—pas Yisrael, but pas palter is not a problem. The same applies to cakes or anything baked.

The only time you have an issue is when you are talking about products [not edible raw] that are “fit for a king’s table.” That is a very grey area and something which is the subject of debate. As certain types of foods became available and common, the discussion arose whether those foods are fit for the king’s table or not. Does it mean [to exclude foods that] the king will never put on his table? Or does it mean that it [applies to foods that are] only used on the king‘s table? For example, if French fries are served at a state dinner, does that mean from now on French fries are considered fit for a king’s table? And if not, does that mean if a fancy potato dish is served to the king, does that therefore make all potato products considered fit for the king’s table? Or, vice versa, because French fries or potato chips are not considered fit for the king’s table, then it makes no difference if you can find a very fancy way of preparing potatoes, as these would also not be considered fit for the king’s table?

The Aruch HaShulchan (a 19th century code of Jewish law) discussed this many years ago and his opinion is that the concept of “not fit for the king’s table” means that it’s regular, common man food. Meaning that, if it is accessible for the common man, even if a king will also have it, because it is accessible for anyone too, it is considered not fit for a king’s table [and hence not subject to the rules prohibiting bishul akum]. Because there are a lot of different opinions on these things, and this is a later argument, there are different interpretations. 

So [according to the OU], potatoes and beans are not fit for a king’s table, however, those who hold that these things are fit for a king’s table [like various Hasidic groups including Satmar and Lubavitch], they’re consistent and you can find potato chips and cereal marked bishul Yisrael. So they are makpid (strict) on that sort of thing. We were asked why not cover all of the bases [by being strict], but it is not worth it for us to do that. I’d much rather tell people that it is not bishul Yisrael and let them not eat those particular items.

You have addressed the three major objections, but there are a few other issues. What about the use of equipment that is also used for non-vegan food, either previously or continuously? Some small vegan restaurants may share a kitchen with an adjacent non-vegan restaurant. Some startups prepare food in an incubator or commissary kitchen shared with non-vegan and certainly non-kosher producers. Or a cook may use an ingredient that was processed on the same equipment as non-vegan food. 

Pots and pans
Photo by Justus Menke

They are not makpid on kelim (utensils and equipment) at all. They have no problem using utensils that [were previously used for meat or cooking vegan] in the oven together with non-vegan foods and it is not a problem for them. So that for sure is an issue that needs to be checked. In a regular restaurant where they are making everything from scratch, it doesn’t necessarily matter so much but I had situations for example where I had found that this one restaurant would allow the [restaurant] next door to bring their [meat] foods into the [vegan restaurant’s] oven when they were full. Obviously, that doesn’t work for kosher. But for vegan it works. And there may not have been the proper clean up between [the non-vegan and the vegan production]…they don’t care.  So those are things that need to be looked into.

But all utensils and equipment are kashered?

Yes. If they are using previously used utensils and ovens, we make them kasher it. And there are certain things, for example sheet pans and frying pans that we throw out. When they go from non-kosher to kosher, they must kasher the proper way.

Have you heard of employees bringing in non-kosher foods and preparing them in the kitchen?

No restaurant allows employees to mix their food and restaurant food or eat in the kitchen. There are different rules in different restaurants regarding employee eating. Some vegan restaurants are very strict and do not allow anything that is not vegan in their establishment, others are less strict. These are all issues that need to be addressed and we find solutions.

Most of your restaurants are open on Shabbat. This has been a sticking point for some critics, since most of the well-known hashgachas do not permit this. Yet given the size of the Shomer Shabbat vegan market compared to the general vegan market, I would imagine it would be hard for these restaurants to stay in business if they were closed on the busiest night of the week.

Interior Ja Ja Mexicana
Ja Ja Mexicana Restaurant, NYC

First of all, there are some people pushing the idea that even a non-Jewish owned restaurant should be closed on Shabbos, which is completely out of control. There is absolutely no reason for that. They will say, “if it is open on Shabbos, how can we check it?” And I say, “How can you accept factories that are in the middle of nowhere and open Shabbos, how do you check those?” That is what happens when you cross over the line from what HaKadosh Baruch Hu allows. Non-Jewish owned restaurants were open on Shabbos for a long time.  This is not a brand new thing.

I have seen this. In the last year, a local vaad that certifies non-Jewish owned bagel shops refused to certify a vegan bakery and a vegetarian restaurant, both owned by non-Jews. While the older businesses are grandfathered in, under its current policy, no new non-Jewish owned restaurants can be open 7 days. But the IKC also certifies some Jewish-owned restaurants that are open on Shabbat.

PLNT Burger exterior
PLNT Burger, NYC

The halacha, even the Gemara talks about it, is that a Jewish owned business is allowed to be open Shabbos if it sells itself to a non-Jew and is officially owned by a non-Jew. Now, of course, you can’t have the Jewish owner working on Shabbos. That defeats the purpose. And so obviously those are things that need to be addressed. But this idea of selling a business on Shabbos is something which was happening for thousands of years already. As a matter of fact, many [haredi] rabbonim made shtar mechiras (a contract of sale for the duration of Shabbat), very commonly, for their communities. Many had businesses that could not shut down on Shabbos. And they would sell it for Shabbos.

There was a restaurant in midtown Manhattan in the 1980s called Greener Pastures that had a similar arrangement. It was also approved by an individual rabbi from Yeshiva University rather than a large organization, but it was widely accepted by the community. I do know of non-food businesses owned by Jews that operate on Shabbat using a shtar mechira, but is a restaurant somehow different?

Exterior Thyme and Tonic
Thyme and Tonic Restaurant, NYC

For the longest time, the hashgachas allowed restaurants and bagel shops to be open on Shabbos. Then someone decided that restaurants were different even though the halacha is the same and the Gemara doesn’t talk about restaurants being different, but they made it up. Restaurants are different. They are not allowed to do a shtar mechira for Shabbos. The truth is Shabbos and kosher are two separate things. I’m not saying that Shabbos isn’t very important. But halachically if somebody cooks on Shabbos it doesn’t make the pots not kosher. And not only that, if a Jew cooks on Shabbos, the only person who can never eat it is that person who cooked it, but anybody else can eat it [after Shabbos] if enough time passes for it to be prepared [unless it was cooked for you specifically, even if it was by a non-Jew]. Halachically, kashrus wise, it does not affect the kashrus if a Jew cooks something on Shabbos.

Are there any restrictions on the owner?

Exterior Michaeli Bakery
Michaeli Bakery, NYC

It’s Shabbos, and we need to be careful and it’s true that we lessen as much as possible chilul Shabbos (sabbath desecration). So, it’s a very serious matter. In all cases, I don’t want the owner working on Shabbos. Because I am already having the business sold for Shabbos, the purpose of it is that I don’t want the Jewish owner to be mechalel Shabbos (sabbath violator). I want to minimize chilul Shabbos. So, I want to make sure he doesn’t come in. I also want to make sure there is no kitchen staff that’s Jewish that is cooking on Shabbos. I prefer that there are no wait staff that [are Jewish] but I can’t demand that because I [have no way of knowing if the wait staff is or isn’t Jewish]. [Mostly], I don’t want cooking [by Jews] to take place on Shabbos and I don’t want the owner to be working on Shabbos. I will do some due diligence, I’ll speak to the staff, I will speak to the owner’s Rav. But [the fact is that even] if the [owner] will go in on Shabbos it won’t affect the kashrus of the food.

So, the bottom line on all these issues is that if halacha permits it and the food is kosher, it can get a hechsher.

I care about halacha. I care about the food that comes out of the place being kosher. So I am not into politics. And I am not into optics. Or emotion. I am not into any of that stuff.

 

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