A Jewish chef cooking pork and shellfish in East Williamsburg, one of the largest Hasidic neighborhoods in the city, may seem like little more than a running gag. Especially when he calls that restaurant, Traif, which is Yiddish for food that doesn’t conform to the Jewish dietary laws. And yes, the cheeky irony may initially attract visitors this corner of Brooklyn (the colorful space festooned with heart-studded piggies is also good for a laugh). But Jason Marcus’ thoughtful brand of cooking guarantees their return, long after the joke has worn off.
The most talked about dish at Traif is undoubtedly the Bacon Doughnuts, but take your time getting to dessert. As promised, many of the dishes joyfully flaunt pork in some form (Seared Foie Gras with Fingerlings, Ham Chips, and an Egg, Berkshire Belly with Grapefruit, Blackberries and Sugar Snaps), or under-the-sea delights (Bigeye Tuna with Japanese Eggplant, Soft Shell Crabs with Pineapple Sambal, Dayboat Scallops with English Pea Risotto). Not that vegetarians (or even Kosher diners!) are left out in the cold at Traif. A tumble of Asparagus, Cherry Tomatoes, Pistachios, Dill, an Egg, and Lemon Yogurt is ready-made for spring. And you’ll never miss the meat in a hearty plate of Blistered Shishito Peppers, tossed with Canteloupe, Marcona Almonds, Feta, Mint and Orange.
But now, Marcus is raising eyebrows once again at Xixa, his new Mexican tapas joint just a few doors down from Traif. Pronounced “Shiksa,” Yiddish for a non-Jewish woman, the name is inspired by his gentile girlfriend, Heather Heuser, and continues to flout tradition with dishes, like Smoked Pork Belly Empanadas, Duck Fat Mezcal, Shrimp Gorditas, Corn Flan “Tamales” and Foie Gras al Pastor. Instead of margaritas, the drink program emphasizes agave-sweetened spirits and wine.
“I’m obviously not a rabbi, I’m not Hasidic, I’m not orthodox, I don’t go to temple often,” Marcus said. “There’s a lot of things I’m not doing correctly Jewish-wise, and the food I eat is definitely one of them. But food is my life. So these restaurants absolutely make sense to me.”
In a relationship with my girlfriend Heather (co-owner of Traif and Xixa).
Did you always want to be a chef growing up?
I grew up cooking, and the more I learned about it, the more I wanted to do it. My dad was a foodie before the word foodie came out. He traveled for business, and he would always call me about what he had to eat for dinner every night. But I went to regular college, and I interned for a law firm, for a congressman, on Wall Street. I never really liked it. Working in restaurants had always been kind of an idea, so when I graduated, I wanted to give it a shot. And I knew quickly, like real quickly, this is where I want to be.
What job would you say really kickstarted your career in food?
My first job was at a place in the Hamptons called Sunset Beach. I was there every day from ten in the morning until one the next morning. I remember I couldn’t fall asleep at night because my feet hurt so much from standing. I was getting yelled at constantly, because I didn’t know anything about being part of a professional kitchen. I felt like a real idiot.
Strange that that experience made you want to continue…
Well, I still really liked it. So I kind of said to myself, man, if you like this, you’re really going to like it when you’re not getting yelled at, when you know what things are called, and have some kind of idea about how to make your way around a professional kitchen.
When did you finally find your footing as a chef?
I got a job at Judson Grill under Bill Telepan. He was the first chef I was around that was like, really, really into the ingredients and just at a different level. It was amazing being around such serious, career-driven chefs, who woke up, spent their day around food, and went back to sleep.
The inside joke at Traif is that you’re a Jewish chef doing pointedly un-Kosher cuisine. Did you grow up Kosher?
No, definitely not. I mean my mom grew up in a Kosher house, but my dad, complete opposite. We are reformed. I was bar-mitzvah’d and all that jazz, but as far as dietary restrictions go, my parents love food, so those rules went out the window. Even my grandmother, who had a Kosher house, was all about going out to dinner and ordering BLT’s. She’d say, “I need bacon every now and then”.
So when you decided to open this restaurant, why call it Traif at all? Why not just cook the food you wanted to cook?
I didn’t have a particularly negative association with the word growing up. I just thought it was a funny sounding Yiddish word for the food you weren’t supposed to eat. And I guess if you were to describe me as a Jewish person, un-Kosher might be the best way to do it. So the name, Traif, made sense on each level, on very serious levels and very humorous levels. And I figured it would a good conversation starter for me to explain the restaurant and the idea, because most people don’t even know what the word means.
You experiment with a lot of different cuisines on your menu, but there are only a few passing references to traditionally Jewish dishes. Was this a conscious decision?
At the beginning, I thought I should try to make sure everything on the menu had some form of traif. But the whole idea is that I’m not following any rules. So why would I set up all these rules about how the menu has to be? I’m not cooking these dishes to be rebellious, I’m cooking them because I love eating them.
On the basis of the tongue-in-cheek name alone, have you gotten backlash from the sizeable Hasidic community in East Williamsburg, merely blocks away from your restaurant?
We ended up here because we just really liked the neighborhood. I wasn’t particularly aware of the Hasidic community. But I remember that when I first came here during the day, I was like, wow, there’s a lot of Hasidic people walking around! It was funny because the real-estate guy was like, “I grew up with Jewish people, and they’re really nice and you don’t have anything to worry about.”
Did you clue him in to the fact that you, yourself, are Jewish?
It was like a “Curb Your Enthusiasm” episode, where somehow they think I’m an anti-Semitic Jewish person who’s afraid of Jews. I didn’t want to be offensive, and I was worried it might be a problem. But the vibe we got was that no one seemed to really care. It was kind of like, “the whole thing you’re doing over there, that version of Williamsburg, we’re not interested. You can do whatever you want over there, just don’t come over here.”
You certainly kept the joke going with Xixa, a reference to your gentile girlfriend, Heather. But how did you arrive at the spelling?
When we were traveling in Mexico, we discovered that the word “Xixa” is pronounced Shiksa, and it put the name in our heads.
And did you have any experience with Mexican cuisine prior to opening?
Well, Mexican food is sort of my shiksa, too, because even though I really love it, I didn’t have any formal training with it. When a spot opened next to Traif, Heather was like, “You’re Traif and I’m Xixa!” That was kind of our joke. And that’s where all the pieces came together.