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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

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Chef influenced by spices of native India

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Linda Hertzman

Meet Linda Hertzman and you know right away you’ve met a strong, determined woman. The culinary whiz behind the Vancouver-based catering company Classic Impressions, Hertzman, 54, routinely wows Vancouver’s Jewish community with exceptional food that goes far beyond ordinary Ashkenazi fare.

Her background in a country where spice plays such a prominent role may have something to do with that.

Hertzman grew up in Kochi (previously Cochin) in the south of India.

Part of a Jewish community of 200 at the time she lived there, she developed a fondness for the culinary world at a young age, but initially, the odds were stacked against her. For one thing, the family had a cook, so Hertzman had little opportunity to prepare meals herself. As well, her father had other plans for her.

“He wanted me to have a profession,” she recalls.

So she went off to university, graduating with a master’s degree in psychology by age 24. In between her university courses, though, she snuck off to Indian cooking schools to pursue her passion for savoury dishes.

While she was still a student, Hertzman met her future husband, Toronto-born Steve Hertzman, who was travelling in India on business. When she made aliyah in 1983, the two kept in touch, and a year later, they married.

The couple moved to Toronto where Hertzman looked for Canadian recognition of the degrees she’d worked so hard for. Instead, she was told they were not considered equivalent to those offered in Canada, and that she’d have to return to school if she wanted to become a psychologist.

The writing was on the wall, and Hertzman decided to ditch psychology and follow her first love – cooking. She enrolled at the George Brown College cooking school and at Seneca College, taking courses on food service and restaurant management, to learn the details of her chosen career.

Over the next 10 years, she helped out in the family business, a bulk food kosher store called Raisins, Almonds & More, on Bathurst Street south of Lawrence Avenue. Three children followed, and in 1994, the family relocated to Vancouver to purchase a restaurant called Leon’s. They renamed it Aviv’s Kosher Meats, and Hertzman headed the kosher kitchen, preparing meals for Jewish family services and doing some kosher catering on the side.

She found a culinary ally in Zari Layegh, an Iranian chef who had worked in Montreal’s kosher restaurants and knew Jewish cooking. Together, the two put their own spin on kosher catering, with thematic offerings including Middle Eastern, Indian, Continental and Moroccan Sephardi dishes.

With extensive catering experience at companies including Motorola and Canadian Airlines, Hertzman is no stranger to cooking for large numbers. These days she lends her talents to food service for a local hospital group, preparing more than meals each day.

Her favourite kind of cooking, though, is for the private catering contracts she signs for weddings, bar mitzvahs and private functions.

“I put a lot of Indian fusion into my dishes, making items like kubegh, a dumpling with a meat filling, and pastels, similar to blintzes but more savoury,” she says. “I love playing around with flavours, trying out different things and then having the satisfaction of seeing people enjoy my food.” 

At an event catered by Hertzman you might find yourself eating hameem, a traditional Cochini cholent, or meat kofta kabobs and fish dishes with a twist of Indian and Moroccan flavours.

Culinary themes are the latest trends, she notes, particularly themes with an Asian influence. “We’ll still have salmon on the menu, but it’s more likely to be miso salmon than lemon pepper.”

When you regularly prepare dinner for 100, cooking for a crowd of 10 begins to look easy. At home, Hertzman whips up amazing meals for her family and friends in no time at all, making the process look effortlessly easy. It helps that kosher ingredients are readily available through her spouse’s business, the Kosher Food Warehouse in Vancouver.

But as any foodie will tell you, cooking is about so much more than mixing ingredients. It takes a pro to know just how much sauce will bring out the flavour, which spice will be most effective and how to revolutionize an ordinary dish. Hertzman has an innate knowledge of these things, and as a result, Classic Impressions has become a go-to catering company in Vancouver.

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