CHESTNUT HILL — Some people watch the Food Network for entertainment. For Liora Kushner, it was educational television, which eventually led to a catering career.
Kushner, 39, a lawyer by training, switched fields after the birth of her third child, Maya, 5. “I went to the college of the Food Network,” says Kushner, born in Israel of Moroccan parents. With her striking looks and sophisticated take on the cuisine of her homeland, she could probably host her own show.
On the menu one morning recently is shakshuka, a North African and Middle Eastern dish of spicy tomato and bell pepper sauce, in which eggs are poached just before serving. “Shakshuka can be eaten for breakfast or dinner,” says the caterer. As you break into the egg, the soft yolk runs into the sauce. “You serve it with a loaf of bread,” she says.
A double-handled stainless steel pan filled with the tomato-based sauce is bubbling away on the stove; it simmers for about an hour. Kushner uses a wooden spoon to make several depressions in the mixture. She breaks an egg into a small bowl, then carefully tips the egg into one of the hollow spots, then adds more, and cooks them about five minutes.
Kushner and her husband, Ohad, also have two sons, Ido, 13, and Tomer, 11. The family moved to Boston 11 years ago for Ohad’s job in the communications field.
Liora Kushner admits that she “rarely cooked in Israel. I didn’t have to. I was working all the time and if I wanted something I’d call my mom and she’d send something over.” But that changed when she came here. She started making dishes she couldn’t get and drawing inspiration from Ina Garten on “Barefoot Contessa” and Giada Di Laurentiis on “Giada at Home.” “They make food look so good,” says Kushner.
She began teaching cooking to children at an after-school program at Temple Emeth in Chestnut Hill, because she didn’t think kids ate well. “In Israel we don’t have a boxed food culture like here. I wanted kids to know macaroni and cheese doesn’t come from a box,” Kushner says. “We make everything from scratch and the kids eat it.”
Kushner grew up in Nahariya on the northern border of Israel. After military service, where she met Ohad, they moved to Haifa, his hometown, went to the same university, and eventually married. Her Sephardic parents had emigrated to Israel in the ’50s. The Moroccan cuisine she grew up on was a lot spicier than her husband’s; he is from an Eastern European Ashkenazi family, where pot roast and matzo ball soup were on the menu. Kushner was raised on her mother’s matbucha, a fiery tomato and pepper spread. Kushner makes her matbucha by cooking the same sauce for the shakshuka, only adding chili peppers, and cooking it an hour longer.
Her catering began with dishes for parties at Temple Emeth. Kushner describes her style as contemporary Israeli and Mediterranean. Popular menu items include a savory tart of roasted sweet potatoes and feta, root vegetable couscous, and panna cotta with passion fruit sauce. She uses the synagogue’s kosher kitchen, even when preparing for other parties.
She explains that her menu, to use a kosher term, is dairy. This means she serves vegetables, legumes, grains, dairy products, and fresh and smoked fish, but no meat. And her busy catering schedule all comes from word of mouth.
In Israel, Kushner explains, Jews come from many countries, so she learned about tagines from Tunisian and Algerian families, and garlicky dishes and barbecue from Romanian neighbors. She recalls how mothers in her apartment building shared their specialties and how this influenced her cooking today.
“Israel is very international and that’s what makes its cuisine so beautifully fusion-y,” she says.
Liora Kushner catering