Linda Berns

For Linda Berns of CustomKosher, LLC in Bethesda, Maryland, her fondest memories are of cooking with her grandma from the time she was a little girl in St. Louis. “I went to the culinary school of Gramma,” she says. “My grandparents cooked for everybody. They made challah and sweet rolls for everyone that friends would pick up for Shabbat–for no charge.”

The family held huge seders–the celebratory dinners at Passover–with a table that stretched from the dining room to the living room. In fact, Linda has all of her grandmother’s glasses, plates, silverware, and pots and pans. “So I cook with the same things she cooked with and it’s the same table she set.”

While she grew up cooking, Linda actually studied international studies and communications at American University in Washington, D.C. with the motivation of designing educational materials. Eventually she opened a graphic design company, Berns & Kay, Ltd., a business she’s had for more than 30 years.

Spinach Salad with balsamic vinaigrette and candied walnuts

Spinach Salad with balsamic vinaigrette and candied walnuts

But, with the onslaught of computers, she realized that everyone could now be a designer. While running her graphic design business, she was also cooking for her synagogue and friends whenever there was a simcha (celebration) or a shiva (mourning ritual). Need a meal for 200? Linda could and did make them. So, when she was watching the Food Channel with her husband one evening and saw a show on personal chefs, she turned to him and said, “Well, shoot, I could do that!.”

That was 14 years ago. Linda joined APPCA and took the course to learn how to launch her business. And, in doing so, believes she became the only kosher personal chef in the country. As a graphic designer, she can create her own tablecloths, room decorations, signage, invitations, programs, and wedding announcements for her clients.

Indeed, her business is a mix of catering and cooking meals for regular clients, many of whom aren’t Jewish and some of whom have significant health conditions. As part of her design business she created a lot of health materials for the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Health and Human Services, picking up a wealth of nutritional information as part of developing the materials. So, she finds it easy to create healthful, delicious meals for elderly clients with medical issues like heart disease or diabetes.

“I’m like their Meals on Wheels girl,” she jokes. “I enjoy it and its a wonderful connection to my love of my grandparents. I used to go with my grandmother to visit old people and cook for them, so being around old people has always been very special to me.”

Curried Cauliflower

Curried Cauliflower

Over the years, Linda has taught cooking classes at synagogues and nutrition classes at women’s organizations. She was the food manager at the George Washington University Hillel for four years, which gradually came to feed 150 to 200 students on Friday nights and serve 450 meals for Passover. Today, she gets a kick out of teaching the kids on her street how to cook–everything from sufganiyot (sweet donuts for Chanukah) to potato latkes (potato pancakes, also for Chanukah).  And, she kvells about her grown sons’ cooking talents. “My sons are spectacular cooks. My oldest son, who is 29 and a trombone player in L.A., finds people hiring him to cook for them. My 25-year-old son in Boston is also a terrific cook.”

One of Linda’s greatest achievements is having six custom kosher recipes in the book, Made With Love: The Meals on Wheels Family Cookbook. “It’s filled with recipes from celebrities like Joan Rivers, Al Franken, and Martha Stewart, but I actually have more recipes–and healthy ones–than any other contributor,” she says.

Since Passover begins early next week, we asked Linda to give us some tips for cooking for Jewish clients who observe the holiday–and some recipes that would fit into the restrictions that eating during Passover entails. The two recipes below are healthy and delicious–and perfect for any occasion, including Passover.

“Although my gramma never made these dishes, they are infused with her love of blending traditional ingredients to create new holiday meals, and to celebrate everyday and for all occasions,” Linda says.

Moroccan Carrot Salad

Moroccan Carrot Salad

Linda’s Passover Cooking Tips:

The Jewish religion is complicated! Levels of observance vary widely, as do types of observance depending on regions of the world. The easiest thing to do when shopping for processed products of any kind is to look for items labeled “Kosher for Passover”. They are always safe.

The smartest thing to do when preparing Passover meals is to always ask your customers their level of observance and what fresh and processed foods they consider kosher for Passover.

Passover is the Jewish holiday of unleavened bread. Jewish people from Eastern European countries – Ashkenazi Jews (the majority of Jewish families in the U.S.) — don’t eat foods that rise, including bread or pastry with yeast, pasta, rice, barley, rye, legumes, soy, or corn. Substitute quinoa, potatoes, matzo, matzo meal, and matzo farfel.

Substitute white vinegar — a wheat derivative — with apple cider vinegar.

Substitute pure cane sugar or honey for anything containing corn sugar or high fructose corn syrup.

Mediterranean stuffed eggplant

Mediterranean Stuffed Eggplant

Mediterranean Stuffed Eggplant
from Linda Berns
Hardy and heart healthy all year round!
Recipe serves 4 as a side dish or 2 as a main course

1 Medium eggplant cut in half lengthwise. Remove the meat. Leave the shell intact and set aside.
2 Large zucchini diced into approximately 3/8-inch pieces
2 Large yellow squash diced into approximately 3/8-inch pieces
24-ounce can diced tomatoes with juice
8 ounces fresh mushrooms wiped clean, stem tips removed, cut in large pieces
2 cups diced onions
2 to 3 tablespoons chopped garlic
1/4 to 1/2 cup olive oil as needed
1/4 cup wine, red or white–whatever is on hand (optional)
8 ounces firm tofu cut into approximately 1/2-inch cubes (optional)
8 ounces canned beans of your choice drained and rinsed (optional)
1/2 to 3/4 cup mozzarella or feta cheese (optional)
1 teaspoon sugar to taste
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon coarse ground black pepper
Additional salt & pepper to taste

1. Dice eggplant meat into approximately 1/2 cube.
2. Fry eggplant cubes in 4 tablespoons of olive oil in a sauté pan over medium heat. Stir frequently to brown evenly. You may have to add extra olive oil. When brown remove from pan and set aside in a large bowl.
3. Brown onions and 2 tablespoons of garlic together in sauté pan with another 3 or 4 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Scrape up eggplant bit. Cook until onions begin to turn golden.
4. Add diced tomatoes and juice, sautéed eggplant, wine, sugar, kosher salt, black pepper to the pan. Bring to a boil, and then turn down to a simmer. Let sauce simmer uncovered until most of the liquid is reduced.
5. Add trimmed and quartered button mushrooms. Continue to let simmer 5 minutes. Adjust seasoning and remove from heat.
6. Mix sauce with uncooked and diced squash, beans, and tofu in a large bowl.
7. Spread the saved 1 tablespoon of ground garlic and drizzle 1 tablespoon of olive oil around the inside of each half of the eggplant shell.
8. Fill the shells with the vegetable stuffing and top with mozzarella or feta cheese (optional)
9. Bake in oven preheated to 375° until the cheese is melted, the yellow and greens squash turn bright colors, and the stuffed eggplants are hot throughout — approximately 20 minutes.

Note: You can also substitute the eggplant with portobello mushrooms or acorn squash. Follow steps 1 through 6. With mushrooms, then spread pureed garlic and drizzle olive oil on the underside of each cap and fill with stuffing mixture, then top with cheese. Line a baking dish large enough to hold all the mushrooms with foil and brush with oil. Add mushrooms and bake at 400° until the cheese is melted, yellow and green squash is brightly colored, and stuffing is hot–approximately 15 minutes.

With acorn squash, you’ll cut the squash across the middle, scoop out the center seeds, turn the cut side down in a baking dish with water about half way up the sides of the squash and bake at 400° while you make the stuffing (steps 1 to 6 above). Remove squash from oven and baking dish when it feels soft to touch and let cool, then fill with vegetable stuffing and top with cheese. Bake in preheated 375° oven until cheese is melted, yellow and green squash is brightly colored, and stuffing is hot–approximately 20 minutes

Kale and sweet potatoes

Kale and Sweet Potatoes

Please Pass the Kale & Sweet Potatoes!
From Linda Berns
Eat as a healthy side dish with fish, chicken or beef
Recipe serves 4

Medium large bunch of kale (approximately 3/4 lb. kale)
3 to 4 medium sweet potatoes
4 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons balsamic or sherry vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Remove the kale leaves from the hard center stems. Tear leaves in large bite size pieces.
2. Soak leaves in large bowl of water while you peel the sweet potatoes and cut them into approximately 2-inch chunks.
3. Boil sweet potatoes until just tender as you assemble all the other ingredients.
4. When just tender, drain the sweet potatoes and set aside.
5. Drain kale leaves in colander and set aside.
6. Add olive oil to large skillet or sauté pan over medium high heat.
7. Add kale and stir to coat with oil. Continue tossing and stirring kale until it turns bright green and becomes tender. Do not over cook.
8. Add sweet potato chunks to kale and toss.
9. Add balsamic or sherry vinegar to pan and toss to coat kale and potatoes.
10. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot.

Sweet potatoes, usually an integral ingredient in tzimmes, are traditionally served at Passover because root vegetables were often the only vegetables available in Eastern Europe.

What are you favorite Passover dishes? What the journey that led you to becoming a personal chef? Please leave a comment and let us know.

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Caron Golden


Founder of premier organization of personal chefs inspires students to follow their dreams of culinary entrepreneurship.

Candy Wallace, executive director of the American Personal & Private Chef Association (APPCA), today was recognized by Sullivan University’s National Center for Hospitality Studies as its 33rd Distinguished Guest Chef.

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