The premiere Great Big Jewish Food Fest, being held virtually through May 28, is bringing together some big names for a celebration of food and culture.
Mike Solomonov of Zahav will cook Shabbat dinner (1 p.m. Friday), hosted by Top Chef’s Gail Simmons, with cookbook author Adeena Sussman and chef Einat Admony. There’s a conversation called “Jewish Cooking in America Past and Present” with authors Joan Nathan and Ruth Reichl. James Beard Foundation’s Mitchell Davis will host a panel discussion about restaurants and chefs during COVID-19.
And there’s a baking demo by Avner Schwartz.
He’s a 13-year-old seventh grader at Friends’ Central who runs a bespoke baking company, leads Zoom baking classes (since in-person sessions are out of the question now), and had a recent outing on Food Network’s Kids Baking Championship.
In his festival session at 3 p.m. Friday, Avner will demonstrate the making of Torah-shaped cannoli. The wafers are glued together with Marshmallow Fluff and filled with a sweet cheese mixture. His synagogue, Congregation Beth Am Israel of Penn Valley, is sponsoring his appearance. It’s free to watch.
He said he’s honored to be the youngest presenter among a diverse roster that includes author Michael W. Twitty (The Cooking Gene) in conversation about families, and writer Jake Cohen of Feed Feed showing how to get your table Instagram-ready.
Haverford-raised Avner, in the middle between Eleanor, 10, and Oscar, 15, started cooking with his mother, Rachel. He segued to baking, “throwing a bunch of things into a bowl, but I kept getting better and better” by watching YouTube videos, he said.
Nowadays, “you’re not allowed in the kitchen with him,” his mother, an interior designer, said. “I’ll say I’m doing 'X' for dinner, and he’ll say, ‘Can I do it instead?’ He’s laser-focused. If I so much as touch a flower on a cake, he’ll slap my hand away.”
A Food Network casting director spotted Avner’s Instagram post of an oversize carrot cake in the shape of a carrot, which he’d tagged with the show name. “Within 15 minutes, he got a private message that he should audition,” his mother said. The process was done online, including a video chat during which he had to crack macarons in front of the microphone and camera to demonstrate their quality remotely. He was selected and sent to Los Angeles last year for the show taping with Duff Goldman and Valerie Bertinelli. He was in the first six episodes.
The coronavirus pandemic has taught Avner a business lesson: People eat differently during quarantine. Where friends and families would gather over large cakes for celebrations, Avner now bakes occasion cakes for smaller gatherings — 4-inch cakes that feed three to five people. “It’s the perfect dessert,” he said. “Like [the equivalent of] a big cupcake for each person.”
Avner does a little swimming in his spare time, and with his father, Eric, an executive in the life-sciences industry, tends to a vegetable garden.