Have you heard about The Hester? Named after Pittsburgh speakeasy queen Kate Hester, the Hebrew word for “hidden,” and the Lower East Side street where thousands of Jewish immigrants lived during the early half of the 1900s, the supper club was started in 2011 by Melbourne, Australia native and current Ditmas Park resident Itta Werdiger Roth in response to a lack of culture-rich social events for the New York Jewish community.
Since its inaugural event, The Hester has been serving beautiful seasonal food and drink alongside musical acts (including Brooklyn’s “Chassidic Alt Rock Girl Band” Bulletproof Stockings for an all-women gathering), and has been praised by The New Yorker, The Jewish Week, and Crain’s New York, among others. We spoke to Itta (who often goes by the alias of Kate Hester in club context) about her love of Ditmas Park, inspiration, and of course, food, food, food.
“We moved into Ditmas Park when I was nine and half months pregnant with our second daughter,” Itta says, “literally.”
Itta and her family came to the neighborhood after two years in Crown Heights, and have been here for the three and half years since. In addition to the existing Jewish community, Itta says, “We were drawn to the big old oak trees, shaded streets, and beautiful homes.
“I tell people, ‘The weather is better in Ditmas Park!’ Which is totally true.”
There weren’t any existing in-Victorian Kosher supper clubs/performance spaces that inspired Itta when dreaming up The Hester–which isn’t to say she’s not a fan of our local go-tos (at least to satisfy some of her senses). “I have definitely really enjoyed going to The Castello Plan for a nice Belgian beer,” she says. “The food is not kosher at all, so I’ve never actually eaten there, but I read the menu, smell the air and try not to stare too hard and drool at the dishes.”
Baked Cinnamon Donuts with Cardamom Preserve, via The Hester
She says her menus for the event–which have been known to include sheep cheese sandwiches with walnut pesto and homemade lavender-vanilla ice cream–start with the local, organic, and seasonal vegetables available. “Then I begin to build the rest of the dishes, drawing inspiration from the vegetables themselves,” she says. “If I’m feeling stuck, I might leaf through some cookbooks or peruse some of the gorgeous online blogs for ideas.
“I’m not a huge fan of ‘themed’ meals because I think it can be limiting in many ways; I like to think of my food as not ‘trying to be Indian or Japanese or French’ because I’m not highly trained in any single specific cuisine, not even Jewish food. Instead, I like to borrow concepts that appeal to me from all over and to push each dish to the maximum, but also while respecting where it came from.”
While resisting a theme, though, Itta admits, “The saying, ‘If it grows together, it goes together’ really speaks to me. One of my favorite and most-loved desserts uses pomelo, persimmon, halvah, pistachio-date ice cream and goat cheese, using all foods grown or eaten a-plenty in Israel–and the rest of the Middle East.”
The Bloody Maaryasha by Daniel J. Sieradski, via The Hester
Like the food, Itta’s cocktail menus are also based on seasonal ingredients. “We just had a rhubarb-mint-based cocktail in the spring,” she says. “Last summer we had watermelon margaritas and in winter we had a borscht-vodka based drink called ‘The Bloody Maaryasha.’ Maaryasha is the name of my sister who I used to fight with the most, even though now I love her dearly. It always makes me laugh because she doesn’t actually like borscht at all, but we definitely spilled the most blood together!”
Though Itta may have had her fightin’ days, more recently she can be found spreading the love. She brought way nicer food than most people make for themselves to Brighton Beach and Rockaways families after Hurricane Sandy, and says she’d consider starting her own family-oriented synagogue in Ditmas Park. And if she does, it’s a good thing she’s got experience promoting her new ventures.
“For the first-ever Hester event,” she says, “I actually printed off fliers and handed them around to people I knew or people I just liked the look of. It didn’t take me long to realize that I didn’t need to bother with that, and that online social media was all I really needed to put effort in.”
On the topic of putting down more roots in Ditmas like the synagogue, Itta says, “In general, I think Cortelyou Rd. is heading towards greatness. There’s a really nice mix of bars, live music, restaurants, cafes and of course people. Hopefully it will continue to grow, and maybe The Hester will even end up as a more permanent fixture there–who knows?”
The next event at The Hester (a cooking class!) is sold out, but you can keep up with future events at The Hester online, or via Facebook. You can also keep up with Kate and learn awesome recipes for Chocolate Chip-Lavender-Tarragon Cookies, Rosemary-Fig Hangover Hamentaschen, and more at The Hester Blog.