Lev Pearlman discovered a love of cooking while studying abroad in France. Quickly realizing that they were on their own to feed themselves, five new friends who had never really cooked before banded together to make a Shabbat dinner. What started as a necessity bloomed into a communal kitchen of more than 50 students during Pearlman's semester abroad.
"Since the very first week I started," said Pearlman, "cooking has been directly tied to hosting and feeding my friends."
When they transferred to Northwestern last fall, Pearlman wanted to use those lessons from France to build a Jewish community that felt representative and inclusive... and that loves food as much as they do. So when a staff member told Lev about Northwestern Hillel's "Host@Home" program, they started hosting Shabbat meals twice a month. The menus were elaborate and tasty, including: birria, falafel, make-your-own pizza, chicken and waffles, build your own burrito, bánh mì, pho, and a Korean feast inspired by renowned YouTube chef and cookbook author Maangchi. Some meals are themed around both the Jewish and secular calendars, including a "Shabbatoween" and a "Friendsgiving" Shabbat. Most weeks, students leave with containers full of delicious leftovers.
Before each meal, Pearlman invited some guests to help with the cooking. Some students came every time, but Pearlman also strived to mix up the guest list, inviting friends from class, welcoming non-Jewish students who were excited to learn about Shabbat, and encouraging friends to bring their friends.
These meals have created a home away from home for students like Vanessa Kjeldsen, a fellow transfer student. "Thank you so much for creating such a beautiful and happy community where everyone feels like they belong," Kjeldsen texted Pearlman after a recent dinner.
When Northwestern Hillel staff was recruiting students to be Engagement Ambassadors as part of Hillel's peer-to-peer engagement model, Pearlman's name rose to the top of the list. An Engagement Ambassador's job is to design and execute a project that connects students to Jewish life, especially those who are not already involved.
Pearlman envisioned a way to get students comfortable cooking and hosting, and the Cookbook Club was born. Pearlman gathered an assortment of Jewish cookbooks and developed a plan. Each week, the scents of sauces, salads, vegetarian dishes, roast chicken, and challah would emanate from the Hillel kitchen as students cooked dishes from an array of recipes.
The process culminated in a huge celebratory dinner with their favorite dishes from the year. More than 40 students signed up to attend a multi-course Shabbat-inspired meal--all on a Monday evening! The menu included Honey Harissa Chicken Thighs, Honey and Olive Oil Challah, Barley Vegetable Soup, Lemony Orzo with Asparagus, Lentils with Leeks and Fennel, Tahini Glazed Carrots, and finished off with an Orange Spiced Rye Honey Cake.
Alongside the Cookbook Club, Pearlman continued to host Shabbat and holiday meals in their apartment. In the past year, they have hosted 20 Shabbat dinners, four brunches, and three holiday meals, welcoming nearly 200 students.
Pearlman also worked as Hillel's summer chef, cooking up elaborate meals for monthly Shabbat dinners on the Northwestern Hillel patio while also working as a line cook at an upscale Italian restaurant in Chicago. The Cookbook Club has started up again with a pickling workshop and, with Pearlman's leadership, will be catering a Shabbat dinner for the Northwestern Hillel community in late November.
Pearlman, who is studying Political Science, now wants to go to culinary school after graduation next year to explore a career in cooking, food photography, and food styling.
"I have learned a range of new skills in the kitchen as a result of trying to provide both a high quality and wide diversity of food," Pearlman said. "When this process started, I had made challah once. Now, it is a centerpiece of any meal in my home."
Check out all the deliciousness at @je_suis_chef_lev on Instagram.
Jessica Lott is the Campus Rabbi of Northwestern University.