Hungry diners flock to the Soul Café for Chef Hunny’s kosher masterpieces — plus, she shares her favorite Passover recipes.
It’s lunchtime, but Hunny Khodorkovsky is afraid to sit down for a bite to eat. Relaxing even for a few minutes will make it that much harder to push through her long workday, so she just lets the adrenaline flow.
As the executive chef for Epic Kosher Catering, “Chef Hunny” oversees the food preparation at Soul Café in West Bloomfield as well as for Milk & Honey, which caters dairy events, and Epic, which handles meat meals. She also offers cooking classes, both privately and for organizations.
She estimates she puts in at least 60 hours, sometimes more, in an average Sunday-through-Friday week. So she’s looking forward to Passover, when the kosher dairy restaurant will be closed.
Khodorkovsky was born in Israel to parents of Moroccan descent. She grew up in Montreal, lived in Los Angeles and Puerto Rico after getting married, and moved to Detroit in 2012 when her husband, Daniel, a commodity trader and software developer, got a job here. They live in Southfield with their four children, Alexander, 10, Olivia, 7, Aaliyah, 5, and Judah, 4, and are members of Young Israel of Southfield.
Khodorkovsky has always loved to cook, learning the basics from her mother. At Touro College in New York City, she studied business marketing and cross-cultural communications, thinking she might go into fashion design, then spent a year in Israel before getting married and having children.
After moving to Michigan, she entered the culinary program at the Art Institute of Michigan in Novi although she had no ambitions to be a professional chef. Having to prepare non-kosher foods as part of her training didn’t faze her, even though she couldn’t taste her own dishes. “Cooking is not only about eating,” she said.
Khodorkovsky was still in culinary school and working for a non-kosher chef when she met Bassie Shemtov, director of Friendship Circle, which provides support and friendship for children with special needs and their families. Shemtov was planning Shabbat at the Spa, a weekend retreat for Friendship Circle mothers, and several women told her about a young woman, relatively new to the community, who could really cook.
Friendship Circle was getting ready to open the Farber Soul Center, a hub for artistic self-expression, vocational training and employment opportunities for young adults leaving the main Friendship Circle program. Shemtov was planning to have a restaurant in the Soul Center and, after the spa weekend, she knew she’d found her chef.
“We all fell in love with her,” Shemtov said. “I told Shalom [Shomer, director of kosher operations for Epicurean Group] she would be a great person for our new café.”
Khodorkovsky came on board in 2015. She helped plan the restaurant and created all the menus. The café opened in March 2016, serving breakfast and lunch six days a week; Sunday dinners were added in January. Next to the café is a large event space that can be rented for catered parties and other large gatherings. When it’s free, the space is often used by small groups playing cards or mahjj after eating in the café.
Khodorkovsky creates a new breakfast and lunch menu three times a year; the Sunday dinner menu varies every month, with café favorites augmented by special themed dishes.
The café features pizzas made in a wood-fired oven, a wide variety of salads, pastas, sandwiches and egg dishes, fresh baked goods and home-made ice cream in creative flavors such as lavender and pine nut and chocolate dulce de leche.
Shomer said he’s worked with a lot of chefs over the years, including some with 30 years’ experience, and Khodorkovsky is special.
“What I see in her is a ‘we can’ attitude. She doesn’t let obstacles stand in her way,” he said. “If she’s catering a party and an oven stops working, she’ll figure out a way around it. If a recipe is not working, she’ll try variations to fix it. She’s always positive and energetic.”
Clients agree. “We had a luncheon meeting at Soul Café last March and there was a major windstorm that knocked out electricity in West Bloomfield,” said Ilene Schwartz of Franklin, a board member of the Eleanor Roosevelt Chapter of Hadassah.
“I arrived at the Soul Cafe 30 minutes before our luncheon, and within minutes they lost power,” she said. “I assumed that we would just have cold items for our meal, but since the restaurant’s ovens operate at such high temperatures, they were hot enough that Chef Hunny was able to prepare our salmon and pizzas. When it came time to serve lunch, we had everything we contracted for. She was a rock star that day!”
Chef Hunny’s day doesn’t always end when the café closes. Sometimes there’s a catered dinner or reception, or a cooking demo in the evening.
Khodorkovsky admits her long hours make it a challenge to balance the needs of her job and those of her family. Several months ago, two of her children were at the café on a day with no school. One of the staff noted her child-care challenges; he said his mother wasn’t busy and could come over to look after the kids. She soon became the family’s full-time nanny.
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Providing good food and a community meeting place is only part of Soul Café’s mission. The café also provides training and jobs for young adults with developmental disabilities.
“It’s amazing to see how these young people transform. They feel more included, more confident. They realize they can do things they never thought of,” Khodorkovky said.
On any given day, the chef oversees a staff of about 15, which can swell to 30 when there’s a special event to cater. She treats the special needs staff the same way she treats the others.
“If I need to be hard on them, I don’t hold back,” she said. “And they appreciate it. They don’t want to be treated differently because of their disabilities.”
Khordokovsky said her parents and her in-laws have become good friends. The two families regularly get together for Passover, either in Detroit or with her parents in Montreal or her husband’s parents in Los Angeles. Siblings and other relatives join in, creating a seder table of 25 or 30 people.
She grew up with Sephardic traditions. Her husband and in-laws are immigrants from Communist Russia, where Jewish observance was suppressed, and they’ve adopted her family’s practices.
“We all like good food and each other’s company,” she said.
Khodorkovsky also looks forward to Mimouna, the Sephardic holiday celebrating the end of Passover. Families make their first post-Passover leavened foods, including muffleta, crepes served with butter and honey, and visit neighbors to share the goodies. “It’s a very fun celebration,” she said.
In just two years, Khodorkovsky has become a pillar of the community.
“When I came here I didn’t know anyone,” said Khodorkovsky. “Now I feel like I know the whole town.”
Chef Hunny shared some of her favorite Sephardic recipes for Passover.
CHEESECAKE WITH DULCE DE LECHE
2 pounds cream cheese, softened
1 cup sugar
1/8 tsp. kosher salt
1/3 cup sour cream
2 tsp. lemon juice
1 tsp. lemon zest
2 tsp. vanilla extract
2 large yolks
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Dulce De Leche:
4 cups whole milk
1½ cups sugar
½ tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. pink Himalayan sea salt
For cheesecake: Beat the cream cheese, sugar and salt in a stand mixer with the paddle attachment at medium-low speed until combined and smooth — about 10 minutes. Add sour cream, lemon juice, zest and vanilla and beat at low speed until combined — about 1 minute. Gradually add eggs, beating until thoroughly combined.
Coat a springform or cake pan with spray or butter. Pour in custard and gently bang the cake on the counter to remove any air pockets. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Bake cheesecake in a water bath for 1-1½ hours or until the center registers 165 degrees. The cheesecake needs to set in the refrigerator for at least 8 hours before serving.
For Dulce de Leche: Combine all the ingredients in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil, and stir every 2-3 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium/high and cook until mixture reaches 225 degrees F or coats the back of a spoon. Stir often. Strain. Cool.
RICE OR QUINOA BOWLS
This recipe contains peanuts and soy, which are kitniyot. Although the Conservative movement recently said kitniyot are acceptable for Passover, many Jews traditionally avoid such foods.
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2 cups cooked rice or quinoa
1 sliced avocado
2 cups cucumber half moons
2 cups blanched cauliflower
2 cups roasted butternut squash, large dice
1 Tbsp. seeds (nigella, sunflower, sesame)
1 cup thai peanut sauce (recipe follows)
1 tbsp. vegetable oil
2 tsp. curry powder or thai red curry paste
1 Tbsp. brown sugar
2 tsp garlic, minced
1 cup coconut milk
1/3 cup chunky peanut butter
1 tbsp. lime juice
1 tbsp. soy sauce (optional)
For the bowls: Place rice or quinoa at the bottom of the bowl. Arrange vegetables over the grains. Spoon dressing over and garnish with sesame seeds.
For the peanut sauce: Heat oil in a saucepan, add curry paste, sugar, and garlic, stir until fragrant. Add coconut milk and bring to a simmer. Whisk in peanut butter until smooth. Remove from heat, stir in lime juice and soy sauce.
1 whole eggplant
2 hard-boiled eggs
1 medium onion, diced
¼ cup mayonnaise
Salt and pepper to taste
Make three slits in the eggplant. Broil until flesh is soft. Scoop out the flesh and strain for 10 minutes. Caramelize onion in oil until lightly charred. Combine all the ingredients in a food processor and process until creamy.