Monday, May 07, 2007

Le Marais: My Personal Visit....

After writing in depth on the Le Marais Kashrus matter, I decided to take a look for myself. Here is my summary on the issues:

I have read and reviewed much of the information floating around the web regarding this establishment. I thought it would be best to take a closer look at it. I personally went to visit Le Marais to get an inside understanding of what standards of kashrus there were and to see if indeed any kind of cover up was going on. It has always been my experience that when people have something to hide they won’t be all that interested in talking to you, instead they will just wait for things to blow over and hope for the best. That was certainly not the case here. The owner of Le Marais Jose, was very open to discussing what had transpired and in great detail. What I found most interesting in my conversations with Jose, was that he did not once utter a bad word about the former mashgiach who sought to bring down his business. Rather he seemed quite hurt that someone who he had entrusted to make sure his restaurant followed the strictest standards of kosher law had felt it necessary to go after his chef and bring into question the reliability of kashrus at Le Marais. Jose prides himself not only with his excellent work as the executive chef but with the kashrus standards as well. I not only spoke with the current mashgiach but I had the fortune of speaking to a former mashgiach and asking him about his previous experiences. He said he had worked at Le Marais for 3 years and he had never seen a violation that brought into question the kashrus standards. He also had wonderful things to say about the owner and his commitment to excellence in kashrus. As we all know a mashgiach’s job is to catch problems, correct them and to insure they don’t happen again. All restaurants have kashrus issues that may occur on occasion, things that can go wrong, and that’s why a mashgiach is hired. His job is to ensure that kashrus standards are adhered to and that only kosher food will be served. If there is a major violation the kashrus organization may very well pull its supervision as did the OU with Junior’s Cheesecake. The owner gave me the grand tour of the restaurant. I was shown everything from the kitchen to the vegetable wash station to the meat lockers. I can honestly tell you that the standards put in place by the OU go way beyond the letter of the law. Not only are the rooms locked up after hours but tape is put over the lock with the signature of the mashgiach. To insure no tampering had taken place under any circumstances. Nowhere in my conversations with either the mashgiach or the owner did I smell or see anything that seemed out of place or felt wrong. If anything I found the owner to be a very warm and straight forward person who felt terrible that Mr Bitton has resorted to dirty handed tactics. The owner said he got along with the mashgiach but that from the start the mashgiach had an issue with the chef. Mr. Bitton’s issue with the chef stemmed from the fact that the chef had left from one kosher restaurant (Levana) to work for another (Le Marais). The mashgiach felt he could not be trusted as his loyalty is now issue if he could leave so easily to work for a competitor. The chef had left Levana as they were on a month to month lease and he was looking for a higher salary as his family was growing and Levana could not afford to keep him. Both the Chef and Mr Bitton started working around the same time and there was certainly a clash of personalities from the start. I’m not going to go on a line by line attack of everything that was mentioned against the OU and the illegitimate claims that they are looking to cover their interests. I personally spoke with everyone involved here and I can see nothing unusual. Many of the accusations that were made by the former mashgiach took place when he wasn’t even around. It seems that he’s dead set on trying to ruin both the chef as well as the restaurant. Many esteemed Rabbis have eaten at Le Marais and continue to patronize because they know the truth: The Mashgiach is twisting the facts to fit his own agenda. The fact that he outright lies about the chef being fired, strawberries that were not checked etc., just shows that he has an overzealous attitude and it’s ruining both his and the restaurant’s reputation. It’s very easy for people to become paranoid by this man’s rhetoric about the big evil empire which is out to get you but believe me when I tell you he couldn’t be more wrong. If you want to bad enough, you can make anyone look bad by spinning things to fit your agenda and that is exactly what Mr. Bitton has shamelessly done. I feel sorry for Mr. Bitton as he has a big family to support and he should have only hatzlacha, however this charade is a big chilul hashem. Just for the record he was never fired from his position at the OU rather he left on his own. I’m certain business will be back in full swing as people are starting to tire of Mr. Bitton’s antics and are seeing him for what he really is, a distraught man who is pulling at straws. I have absolutely no problem eating here and I don't think you should either.

Here are some of the pictures which I took:The Kitchen and the door to the meat locker with the mashgiach's signature from the previous lock ups.


Shpitzle Shtrimpkind said...

Wow. Great post, very in depth. Thanks!

Chaim said...

How can you say you spoke to all parties involved if you didn't meet with Bitton? Them rolling out the red carpet when they are trying to look good and already under the microscope is not so impressive.

Neither is the fact that they have people professing their love. I believe the opposite, when someone protests too much, and tries TOO hard to make you agree with them, something is odd.

I hate to say it, but this is a one sided report. By all accounts I've heard that Bitton is a good guy who wouldn't make things up. I think to be fair you should attempt to meet or speak with Mr. Bitton as well, otherwise this is not a balanced report.

To you know who - don't email me. This is how I feel. I'm very conflicted about this issue and I think it's a problem that's symptomatic of the bigger issues facing Kashrus today.

Lakewood Venter said...

Nice post. Very well written and informative. Thanks. i will be heading there on my next date. (anyone want to go on a date with me? lol)

Jewish Blogmeister said...

Chiam, you may consider it a one sided report and certainly are entitled to your opinion. I have no interests actually in speaking with him to tell you the truth because I have found lies on his part that can easily be verified. If he's such a "good" guy why lie about the chef being fired from Levavna? Call Levana youself and ask if he was fired...Then tell me if you still belive the trash he spews out.

Chaim said...

JB, I didn't decide to go do this investigation. I'm just telling you a fact, you can't call this a balanced and two sided report if you only spoke to one side who has way too much to lose by not going ut of their way to make things look shiny and fine.

Again, I'm not picking a side, but I happen to know from very close sources that Bitton is a really good person. I can't explain the Levana thing, but its possible that there is an explanation.

If you went this far and it seems that you really want to do a toiveh for people by getting to the bottom of it, then I would strongly suggest speaking fairly to BOTH parties.

Don't be so dead set, Bitton might be stubborn and melodramatic, but I'm telling you, too many people who know him and his family first hand have told me what kind of person he is and he doesn't fit the profile Le Marais and the OU have painted of him.

Joel Katzinger said...


If you listen to what JB wrote, he even indicated that the owner of Le Marais feels this too. He said that Jose - the owner - did not say a bad word about Bitton, and was shocked at the level, tone and type of allegations being made.

There is clearly something we all do not see, somewhere between Bitton's extreme allegations against the chef and the OU's side of the story, and that may very well fall out of the realm of a kashrut crisis and into that of a messy relationship that has such a history of hurt and frustration that the parties involved no longer see it as any other way than their own perspective.

Human nature is to rationalize and while the OU rationalizes that since they are the big, great OU who knows all and is coveted worldwide, Bitton must be over zealous because that is the "only way" this makes sense, Bitton rationalizes that since he is liked and even loved by so many in his previous career and currently as well (from what I read) the only reason the chef could possibly be doing what he is doing must not be because he does not like Bitton (a rationalized impossibility) but because he hates all Jews.

Anyone RATIONAL person who has been following this from the beginning of the original posts can see that while everyone is claiming to know one side or another of the story, and even some blogger here who wants JB to write the "other side", there is clearly the third side that probably falls in that “middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge” (For those old time TV folks out there)

But yes, this is the Twilight Zone; There is truth that we are not privy to, most that is likely lost in a confused state of anger, frustration and ego, and we’re never going to ever really see it.

JB, thank you for your post and your visit – the fact that a restaurant allowed a blogger – not a food writer or a gourmet expert – a blogger, to walk into its kitchen, I am impressed. I worked in a catering kitchen as a younger man, and while Kashrut issues were not the issue, replacing fallen food back on a plate, re-stuffing rice from several plates back into a stuffed chicken for a late comer, etc, were all part of the game. For a gourmet to allow you into his kitchen with a camera takes a lot of faith.

No matter what might have been seen before and allegedly done under Bitton’s experience, it sounds as if the place is good enough and kosher right now.

This issue is over. There is nothing new or surprising on those recordings other than an OU guy fudging details, but we never once heard that mamish treif was served.

Chaim said...

Joel, I am not debating what JB wrote about. I am saying this is not a balanced and two sided report. This is a report based on an owner who had a publicist begging people to come in and "see for themselves" ages after the allegations were made and they would be on their best behavior there. I'm saying that if your going to do t penultimate report it has to include in person reports from BOTH sides of the story otherwise it's not complete.

I am additionally saying this, because while for some people it may be easy to write Bitton off as a nut. I live in Crown Heights and have personally been told by people I know and respect who know Bitton and his family and they all swear the same thing. He is a nice guy and a good person.

That bothers me. It's too easy to just take one side's word on it. despite the "praises" Jose has been heaping on Bitton. Which is laughable if you ask me. If he isn't even just a tad angry at this guy for causing a 30 percent drop in business and stirring up a huge controversy then he must be an angel- cause I'd be livid.

It's not a dead issue for me and despite JB's excellent report based on his visit, until I see an independent person meet with BOTH parties I'm gonna choose to just consider myself still on the fence.

Jewish Blogmeister said...

Chaim I never said this was a balanced report but simply my take on the situation. No one is forcing you to eat there. Some people might say that being in Crown Heights you are simply taking sides with Mr. Bitton.I'm not looking to pick sides but rather make my own decisions based on what I have seen and read from both sides. I have read Mr. bitton's accounts in depth and I think he doesn't have a leg to stand on. In twisting things to fit his agenda he's lost all credibility in my eyes. Like I said call Levana and you'll hear the truth for yourself. You don't have to take my word for it.

Chaim said...

JB, you're missing the point. If you went the extra mile to see for yourself the Le Marais side of the story, then to report "case closed" without personally also hearing from the other party involved - then I think thats wrong.

Trust me, me being in Crown Heights has nothing to do with anything. There are plenty of people in this town that I don't agree with, PLENTY.

There are a few people I know very well, who also know Bitton and his family and i trust them. They wouldn't just go to bat for this guy for nothing.

All I'm saying is before shutting the books, why don't you SPEAK to Bitton yourself. Just like you went to le Marais to see for yourself, I think call Bitton and speak to him, come to his home maybe visit with him before passing judgment.

I can try to get you his number if you really want.

Please understand, I'm not upset at your conclusion or report. I'm upset that you made this conclusion without speaking to the other side. Which is exactly what I told Juda was the overall problem here. There should have been an INDEPENDENT investigation who dealt with BOTH sides. There isn't enough INDEPENDENT oversight with regards to Kashrus organizations in general.

Milhouse said...

What kind of proof is this? "Call Levana and ask them"! Do you really expect that if they fired him for kashrut violations they'd tell you, especially now that it's become an issue? Of course they wouldn't. So calling them is useless; you'd get the same story no matter what the truth was.

For the same reason, if you called the OK and asked them why they dropped Le Marais, or why Le Marais dropped them, you're not going to get the true and complete answer, and it would be foolish to expect one. They'll probably tell you "we can't comment on that", or else something bland like "they decided to go with another hechsher", but we all know there's more to it than that.

I have no idea whether R Bitton's allegations are true. But I do know that they haven't been publicly refuted, and the string of responses from the OU have been marked by disingenuous statements and misstatements. To me the fundamental question is whether, if the current mashgiach should suspect anything, he would feel confident enough to raise it with his superiors, or would he feel that he should not make waves.

Anonymous said...

Allegedly, from the word of someone pretty close to Bitton, he said that he trusted the current mashgiach who replaced him (not the daytime guy who has been mentioned in these various posts).

He allegedly believes that this new guy is trustworthy.

Joel Katzinger said...

From everything you say, you were in the perfect position to be the independent source with access to Le Marais and Bitton. What's with your decision to be armchair quarterback?

Anonymous said...

Funnay JB, you say you read bittons account in depth. Which part of the recording that he has on his website that has mrs. LEVANA kirshenbaum saying in plain english the CHEF WAS FIRED did you miss? Not only are you one sided, but you are possibly blind and deaf.

Before you accuse bitton of making a chilluh hashem, I suggest you stop talking bad about this man and look at the facts. You dont even have to go too deep.

Listen to the recordings. How can you or the OU or Le Marais explain the fact that they adamantly denied dairy margarine was USED when bitton has them recorded saying "we know it was USED"?

How do you explain this blatant lie? Did they enlist you? Why else would you have such a biased one-sided approach.

I am not looking to smash you, I really want to know how it is possible for someone who is "seeking truth" to miss all the BASIC facts.

The strawberries incident, that you claim never happened, he has rabbi elfeant and schreier and luban saying "we know he lied".. is that not enough?

Back to the issue. putting all this together, bitton was making a chilul hashem for going public when he met brick walls laced with lies? are you sick? out of your mind? and again, i am not bashing you, i am just appalled that someone who has readership and people that trust his word, can so recklessly bash someone in public.

Bitton did his fair of bashing, but he backed every inch of it up.

How are you gonna back this up.

before you do respond if you feel you can, i do suggest you go to his site and hear the recordings, then get back to me.

Jewish Blogmeister said...

Anon, actually I checked his site and didn't find that recording anymore..hmmm. seeing as how I contacted Levana myself it's irrelevant. He kept hounding to admit that they fired him so he could get it recorded. I must also point out if he's willing to go this route I wouldn't put it past him to splice recordings as well. Call Levana yourself it's very easy to get the information as did I.

Anonymous said...

JB, Actually, the recordings are all there under the Updates section. I understand your point that you just wanted to reach a personal decision and are comfortable enough doing so by personally verifying one side of the story. However, your staunch refusal to even call Bitton, after you received a guided tour of ground zero, sounds to me as if you really have another agenda. I loved eating at this establishment and would like to believe that this is all one big misunderstanding. However, I just cannot fathom how a person with a large family to support would just "go nuts" and resign. There are many people who hate their jobs and/or the people they work ith, but the bills have to be paid so they don't quit. What is wrong with this picture? And even though I continued to eat there after the OK removed their certification, I am begining to wonder why they really did?

Jewish Blogmeister said...

There are many people who hate their jobs and/or the people they work ith, but the bills have to be paid so they don't quit. ever heard of wall st.?People quit all the time it's called finding a new job. I understand he has 12 to support and that just ties into the matter can you imagine how much strain that puts on a person all the more reason to say he had some kind of break (now that you brought it up).

Samuel Brauch said...

The particular recording of Levana is NOT there. There is Schreier, Jose, Elefant, etc, but no Levana Kirshenbaum.

Jewish Blogmeister said...

The bottom line is the whole idea is ridiculous. This has been nothing but a PR nightmare for the OU. The easy thing for them would be to say we're pulling out and let someone else take the hashgacha. They don't need the money as I have discussed several times. The fact that they stand up to this bad press speaks volumes to me. If every time someone started making some accusations that were not legitimate can you imagine what would happen?