February 2024MAIN STORY

Leah Adler, Culinary Star (mom of Steven Spielberg, star director)

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Ethel G. Hoffman, JNS.org

It was more than 20 years ago when Leah Adler gave me a tour of her Los Angeles restaurant, the Milky Way. As we talked, one of her comments remains lodged in my memory: “My food has to be exceptionally good—and it just happens to be kosher.”

The Milky Way. In astronomy, it means the stars that meld together into a single band of light. Maybe that was the inspiration for Leah and her second husband, Bernie Adler, to combine the very best in a strictly kosher dairy restaurant. When the restaurant opened in 1977, Leah was determined to introduce fine comfort food, redolent with spices and fresh flavors, to the Orthodox Jewish community.

And it took off. Dining at the Milky Way was an experience—kosher food with zip and a dash of ethnicity served up in a cozy atmosphere where family photos and Leah’s paintings lined the walls. Then there was the added attraction of a feisty, petite Leah flitting between tables. She was like the Energizer Bunny. A slash of bright red lipstick and swanky denim reflected her adventurous, bold spirit. She talked to everyone, schmoozing with celebrities equally with the not-so-famous. Everyone was welcome, no matter their faith or background. People loved it. She was the family matriarch of the place (and being Steven Spielberg’s mother didn’t hurt).

Leah reached outside culinary norms. Forty years ago, who would have ever thought that chimichangas could be made kosher? Under the direction of a mashgiach (a Jew who supervises food so that it is prepared according to the laws of kashrut), she encouraged Latino cooks who made LA their new home to prepare dishes they had grown up with. Sure, there were still the mouthwatering kugels, blintzes and kreplach on the menu that catered to the traditionalists, but the multi-ethnic dishes quickly attracted a growing clientele.

When Leah Adler passed away at the age of 97 on Feb. 21, 2017, the restaurant closed. Could the Milky Way be the same without Leah’s dynamic personality? The Spielberg family—Steven and his sisters, Nancy, Sue and Anne, decided to reopen—with a facelift. They reached out to Phil Kastel, the founder of PK&J Hospitality, a group that provides strategic guidance and leadership in culinary development.

Bright, innovative and with years of experience as an executive corporate chef, Phil was ready to work with the family to lead the Milky Way into a new era. The red carpet was replaced by glossy wood floors and the blue booths were reupholstered, while framed family photos still hang on newly painted walls. A three-minute video of Leah and her family is shown all day. Although the staff is small (only one chef and three cooks in the kitchen), everyone pitches in. On any given day, you might find a cook passing out menus, the mashgiach may be rinsing fresh herbs, and Phil or Stephanie, the general manager, are delivering plates to the table. The Milky Way has expanded its repertoire with Sunday brunch and special events, such as dinner and a screening of short, award-winning movies.

Milky Way’s “Classic Kosher Cuisine” is a combination of contemporary flavors and eye-appealing dishes. Phil notes that “with travel, tastes have become sophisticated and that extends into the kosher culinary world.” Plenty of classics like Adler’s own cheesecake remain, but you’ll find dishes like Salmon Piccata Linguine, the “Impossible” (plant-based) Cheeseburger and Carrot Cake with Toasted Coconut on the menu; Leah Adler would be proud. It’s a fitting testimony to a fearless, multi-talented woman who was ahead of her time.

The Milky Way, at 9108 Pico Blvd. in Los Angeles (310-859-0004), observes Shabbat. It is closed for dinner on Friday and all day Saturday.

L'Chaim

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