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  • VOL 08, ISSUE 01 • WINTER 2020
My Heritage: The Latke

My Heritage: The Latke

Latkes are a favorite Hanukkah food—at homes and restaurants.

Ask anyone raised in a Jewish home about favorite memories of Hanukkah and many will say: latkes. These fried potato pancakes hail from Eastern Europe and some say date back as far as Biblical times. They are inexpensive and generally comprise potatoes, onion, egg and salt, fried in oil and topped with applesauce or sour cream. Hanukkah wouldn’t be the same without them.

Whether thick and fluffy or thin and crispy, latkes pay homage to the story of Hanukkah when the Maccabees, Jewish rebels, reclaimed Jerusalem and its holy temple from oppressive tyrants. Legend says they only had enough oil in their lamp to cleanse and rededicate the temple for one night, but the light burned strong for eight nights, hence why we Jews light candles for eight nights during the holiday and use oil to make our beloved latkes.

“For a lot of Jewish people, religious or not, the three big things of Hanukkah are latkes, presents and lighting the Hanukkiah,” says Zach Engel, chef/owner of Galit in Chicago.

Engel, who opened Galit in spring 2019, says for his first Hanukkah at the restaurant he may veer from the traditional and make large-format latkes like Duchess potatoes and cut off slices. He uses corn starch instead of flour to make them gluten free and folds whipped egg white into the batter. On the side? Labneh, house-made sour cream and applesauce crafted from local apples.

“I want to evoke a longing memory without making it too cheffy.”
- Zach Engel, Chef & Owner of Galit

“For me,” he adds, “I want to evoke a longing memory without making it too cheffy.”

In New Orleans, Caitlin Carney and Marcus Jacobs’ Marjie’s Grill serves Southern-styled cuisine with an Asian influence. To tap into their Northern Jewish heritage in a town with a “relatively underserved Jewish community,” according to Jacobs, they introduced a Hanukkah-themed week, offering different latkes each night during the Festival of Lights: traditional, but also sweet potato; everything bagel; scallion pancake; and Korean seafood with shrimp, squid, oysters and kimchi. They also light a menorah each night, welcoming any and all from the community.

“People will bring their kids who may have never seen that with the prayers,” Carney says. “It allows people who aren’t Jewish to partake.”

At Brad Rubin’s Eleven City Diner in Chicago and his newer deli in Los Angeles, he serves old and new school latkes, adding a modern twist. He continues a tradition started by his grandmother, who, before she passed at 97, was “all smiles,” Rubin says, eating latkes at his restaurant.

“The memories of my grandmother and the goings-on in her kitchen are still very much in my heart and found throughout my restaurants,” Rubin adds lovingly. “It was a dance watching her cook in that tiny space. Whatever the occasion, she was making latkes. The entire house smelled like her latkes. It was most definitely an overpowering scent. I sat in the chair at the table and watched. It was just my thing.”

And now people across the country get to create similar memories. Happy Hanukkah!