Growing up on the Upper West Side of New York City, Jewish food was a staple in my life. Whether it was eating challah, brisket, and matzo ball soup with my grandparents on Fridays for Shabbat, or getting bagels and lox on Sundays, I can always count on Jewish food to connect me to my roots and leave me feeling blissfully full. Historic family establishments in Manhattan, such as Barney Greengrass and Russ and Daughters, look and taste the same as they did when my grandparents ate their food 80 years ago, and there’s comfort in that familiarity. 

Jewish food consists of delicious traditional recipes, many of which are typically eaten during holidays, and these recipes haven’t changed much over the years - and by years, I mean thousands of centuries. Some may argue that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, or in this case, reinvent old recipes. However, in his New York Times bestseller Jew-Ish: A Cookbook: Reinvented Recipes from a Modern Mensch, the food world's favorite nice Jewish boy, Jake Cohen, proves otherwise.

JEW-ISH is a delicious love letter to beloved traditions and modernity, combining Cohen’s Ashkenazi heritage with inspiration from his husband’s Persian-Iraqi traditions to "offer recipes that are modern, fresh, and enticing for a whole new generation of readers.” And for you, the reader, it will become your love story with Jewish food. All religions and chefs of all levels are welcome.

By putting a spin on Jewish classics, Cohen has revived a cuisine so much so that his recipes will become part of your weekly meal planning. Many are classics you may recognize, but with a twist: Apple and Honey Upside-Down Cake, Saffron Chicken Noodle Soup, Macaroon Brownies, and Challah croque monsieurs.

Recipes such as his everything bagel galette and shakshuka alla vodka are fun and exciting, welcoming people from all backgrounds and religions to eat their way through Jewish foods. No more waiting for the high holidays to make such classics, because his recipes are so enticing jew-ish you could cook everything in the cookbook.

Cohen credits Shabbat as the birthplace for his cookbook: “Through hosting Shabbat, I found myself fostering a new appreciation for Jewish cuisine, and began to adapt recipes from all across the Diaspora.” However, like many of us, Cohen discovered his true love for food by watching Food Network, and cooking small dinner parties for his friends.

Since then, he studied at the Culinary Institute of America and worked at world class restaurants such as Daniel in New York City. Following this, he worked at Saveur Magazine testing recipes, thrived as the Food Critic for Time Out New York, and most recently, served as the Editorial and Test Kitchen Director of The Feedfeed, a Brooklyn based food media company, where I had the great opportunity to learn from and work with him.

During my time at the Feedfeed, Cohen not only taught me about the proper ways to hold a knife and cut an onion (yes, I had been doing it wrong for 8 years beforehand), but he also ingrained in me a lifelong passion for cooking and baking. I even had the opportunity to attend several of his Shabbat dinners, where I got to witness firsthand his love for Shabbat, community, and sharing food with others.

Additionally, I was able to sit with his amazing mother in her apartment as he cooked one of the most delicious meals I’ve ever had. After my summer internship at the Feedfeed, Cohen asked me to be his lead recipe tester for Jew-Ish, and of course I jumped at the opportunity to work with him again (and eat his delicious food). I had the honor of testing his challah recipe, which is his favorite recipe in the entire book.

“It is super important that every Jewish person - as well as anyone that is interested in Jewish food - learns how to make Challah because of the fact that it is the conduit of breaking bread with others," Cohen tells me. "There’s something special about creating bread from scratch and sharing it with loved ones.”

When making his recipe for the first time, I was intimidated at first, but his instructions are incredibly clear; he even has step-by step picture instructions to follow along with, taking what used to be a rather complex recipe into one that is accessible for all. 

I was lucky enough to chat with Jake on behalf of Spoon Emory, and he answered some of our community's burning questions about everything it takes to be a cookbook extraordinaire. 

Why did you decide to make a cookbook?

Jake Cohen (JC): I think that it’s obviously the dream for so many people in the world, if this is your medium in terms of food media and creating recipes, to write a book. It’s such a huge platform to have, and a jumping off point for your story. For me, I really wanted to tell a story in a book. In today's digital age, people don’t want a book full of just recipes - they want a story, a perspective. They want to be taken somewhere. That’s what I wanted to do in terms of Judaism and Jewish identity as we were just starting to explore it. It was still in the very early stages when I signed the deal, and the book was really that journey.

You must have had so much food in your house all the time as you were creating these recipes. Did you have any friends of yours trying all your food that you were recipe testing?

JC: All of these recipes were tested and developed at Shabbats, so I would typically block off Fridays or start on Thursday nights. I would test a group of four to five recipes to serve at Shabbat, so that I could see A) how they worked in the context of cooking them together, and B) see what people thought.

Can you talk about your involvement with  national nonprofit One Table Shabbat?

JC: I started hosting Shabbat through One Table. The whole idea is to get people in their 20's and 30's to find a sustainable and accessible Shabbat practice. It's this very, very old Jewish ritual rooted in taking some time on Friday to yourself to recharge, to reflect, extend some gratitude, and have a beautiful meal with your loved ones. When you add on the fact that Alex [my husband] and I had different definitions of Jewish food because of our different backgrounds, it became this opportunity in which we really got to explore and cook Jewish food. It’s not necessary to eat Jewish food on Shabbat, but it became this opportunity for us to explore it, which was super special.

How long did it take you to create this cookbook? What was the first recipe you developed?

JC: It took two years start to finish. I signed the deal in April of 2019, and [the book] launched in March of 2021. All of my free time was spent on this book. I spent every night developing recipes. I spent my entire weekends non stop going through edits and re-reading. Very early on, I knocked out the vegetable chapter. I believe the first one was the Baharat Smashed Potatoes.

What was the first thing you remember ever cooking?

JC: I think it was Ina Garten’s parmesan polenta and ratatouille!

If you want more content from Jake, check out his Instagram and Tiktok @JakeCohen, and stay tuned for his second cookbook.

Now do yourself a favor and get Jew-Ish-: A Cookbook: Reinvented Recipes from a Modern Mensch by Jake Cohen, and give me a challah by sharing which recipe you want to try first in the comments!