Cookbook author Jake Cohen dedicates his new book, “I Could Nosh: Classic Jew-Ish Recipes Revamped for Every Day,” to his sister Jamie, and in the acknowledgements, calls it a “love letter” to the matriarchs of his and his husband’s family.
But it’s another Jewish woman who he describes as his “North Star:” Fran Drescher, the star of the 1990s sitcom “The Nanny.” In her title role, Drescher as Fran Fine is the sexy, funny, warm Jewish nanny who works for a British-American upper-class family.
“She created a cultural phenomenon that made America fall in love with Jewish characters,” said Cohen. “And that’s what I want to do with my recipes.”
People are certainly falling for Cohen and his Jewish food. His first book, “Jew-Ish: Reinvented Recipes from a Modern Mensch,” was a New York Times bestseller. A million people follow him on Instagram, a million and a half on TikTok. The 29-year-old New Yorker pals around and cooks with everyone from fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi and television food personality Rachael Ray to Jewish food writer Joan Nathan and journalist Katie Couric.
“I love his joie de vivre,” Couric told The Nosher about Cohen. “I love how he shoves things in his mouth. Love that his recipes are easy for someone like me who is not an expert chef.”
Like Fran Fine, Cohen is sexy: Exhibit A is the photo in “I Could Nosh” of him scantily clad, leaning on a burnished challah with a come-hither look. He’s funny: His chapter on quick-to-prepare recipes is titled “I Only Have Time for A Quickie — Give me One Hour and I’ll Show You a Good Time.” And he’s a self-described Nice Jewish Boy.
His mission statement, he told The Nosher, is, “Be good for the Jews.”
This, sometimes, is easier said than done. In January 2022, Cohen was named in a discrimination suit targeting food media company Feedfeed, where he served as editorial and test kitchen director from 2018 to 2020. The lawsuit was settled without a trial, and Cohen hasn’t been slowed in his culinary or communal pursuits.
“It was an opportunity,” he said, “to really understand who people are, who my community is and who my friends are. More importantly, focus on the mission, which is what it comes down to. There always will be noise but at the end of the day I have a mission.”
So, back to the mission it is. Jewish food, he says, can be — should be! — for everyone, and it should be incorporated into one’s everyday life, not saved for the holidays or Shabbat. Which is one reason why he made his first restaurant investment in Gertrude’s, a Brooklyn bar and bistro inspired by Jewish food.
“It’s important that we create spaces that show that Jewish restaurants are the hottest tables in town,” said Cohen. “And that Jewish cookbooks are making the bestseller lists. All this does is create more opportunity for the next generation.”
The young food star is loudly and proudly reclaiming “Grandma Hospitality,” where your kitchen becomes the center of gatherings and you show your love through food.
“To me, that is everything in the core of how I want to be,” said Cohen. “I want to have something sweet on the counter so if someone comes over you can say: Do you want a cup of coffee and a piece of cake?”
He underscores Grandma Hospitality through the book’s aesthetic, with colorful vintage plates resting on terrazzo surfaces, or purple, pink and yellow tupperware containers filled with leftovers, scattered across a floral linen cloth.
“The cover is supposed to look like a Miami grandma,” he said. “Brooklyn meets Palm Beach.”
Many of the recipes can be made in large quantities and frozen — like his mother’s lentil soup or his mother-in-law’s burghul b’seniyah, a Levantine dish of cracked bulgur and ground beef. So when company comes, there is always something delicious to put out.
Recently, Cohen and his husband hosted the comedian Modi Rosenfeld and his husband at their beach home on Fire Island.
“I kept running into Jews we know from the City, and they asked: What are you doing for Shabbat?” he recalled. “I couldn’t cook Shabbat for everyone so we did a house oneg for 50 gay Jews for challah and kiddush.” His Shabbat dinners, too, allow him to create a space for other gay Jews who “might not celebrate Shabbat otherwise if I wasn’t inviting them into my home and into my table.”
Whatever dish he’s making, Cohen finds a way to, in his mother’s words, “bring it to a whole new level.”
Take his chicken stock. First, he roasts the chicken and vegetables to intensify their flavor, then simmers the roasted ingredients with water, peppercorns and fresh herbs.
“It’s about taking every ounce of flavor — that is my poor shtetl mentality — and squeezing every ounce of flavor out of everything you have,” said Cohen.
Or he will reimagine a traditional dish. His current favorite is his tzimmes cake with cream cheese frosting, where the basic ingredients of the Eastern European side dish made of carrots, sweet potatoes and prunes are turned into a moist and flavorful cake, which he claims is “better than any carrot cake you have ever had.”
Inspiration can come from anywhere. Cohen describes himself as a die-hard New Yorker who would “rather be dead in New York than alive anywhere else except, perhaps, Tel Aviv.” Tel Aviv, he said, is the best food city outside of New York in the world. During a recent visit to the Carmel Market, he was inspired to create what he describes as “one of the best things I have ever had.”
“I was walking in the shuk, and I was eating a date, and it was so fudgy and I said: What if I made a brownie that mimicked the fudginess of the date and vice versa?” That recipe, called “Super Fudgy Date Brownies,” made it into the book, where Cohen is pictured biting into a brownie, with dark chocolate and date covering his front teeth.
“People in the food world take themselves too seriously,” said Cohen. “They’re not in on the joke, which is about joy.”
Which is why, when he demonstrates a recipe, Cohen encourages his viewers to take the food and, “Shove it in your mouth!” Above anything, he says, have fun with food, “because that’s what this should be.”