By Cindy Mindell
The quest for the best challah in the world reads like a classic folktale. For many years, the president of the American Academy of Hospitality Sciences (AAHS) searched for a challah worthy of his organization’s Five Star Diamond Award. Joseph Cinque began his expedition in Israel, but surprisingly found no contenders. He then traveled to the Jewish communities of England and France, to no avail. New York bakers in Brooklyn, Monsey, and Long Island couldn’t break the spell.
Finally, in 2013, Cinque found what he was looking for – in Mexico City. The winner, Chef Sara Briman, will share the secret of her acclaimed challah at the Jan. 21 community-wide challah bake for women and girls at Beth Israel of Westport/Norwalk. For the last 20 years, Briman has been involved in various aspects of catering and teaching, and is currently the chef at Hotel Encanto Acapulco.
The story of Cinque’s discovery is a serendipitous one. While dining in a Mexico City restaurant one Friday afternoon in early 2013, he happened to meet Briman’s son, Salvador. Cinque asked Salvador to suggest a local Jewish deli where he could taste challah. Instead, Salvador offered his mother’s challah, which she had baked for Shabbat. Cinque asked how good the challah was. The predictable response: “For me, it’s the best.”
Cinque had a taste and agreed, taking the challah back to New York for confirmation from his AAHS colleagues. He kept in touch with Salvador, who kept the secret from his mother. Two weeks later, Cinque returned to Mexico City for a second tasting, and Salvador asked the chef to bake challot for a “friend.”
On a Friday afternoon before Shabbat, Briman opened her front door expecting to find Salvador and his friend. Instead, she was greeted by her son and a group of several men – “some dressed in suits, like dandies,” she recalls, “and there were paparazzi taking pictures and all these flashes were going.”
Still unaware of Cinque’s mission, she presented the AAHS president with five different challot – plain, raisin, cinnamon, chocolate, and whole wheat. Before sundown that evening, Cinque had placed a Five Star Diamond gold medal around Briman’s neck, declaring her challah the best on the planet. At first, “I didn’t know what he was talking about: when he said ‘award’ from the ‘academy,’ I thought about the Oscars,” the chef says. “He introduced himself as Joseph Cinque, and I assumed he was Jewish, because Joseph is a Jewish name. I thought maybe, in a very high English way of talking, instead of saying ‘mazal tov,’ he says ‘award.’”
Established in 1989, the Manhattan-based American Academy of Hospitality specializes in reviews of all facets of the hospitality industry throughout the world, from hotels, resorts, and spas, to airlines, cruise lines, to automobiles and other luxury items, to restaurants and chefs. Every year, the AAHS board of industry experts selects recipients of its International Star Diamond Award, bestowing plaques, medals, and commemorative plates to establishments and chefs throughout the world. In April 2015, the academy’s first-ever Five Star Diamond award for glatt kosher cuisine was presented to The Addison in Boca Raton, Fla., which had already received a 2013 award as the only venue dedicated exclusively to weddings and events.
“Chef Sara Briman makes an art out of each loaf,” says Cinque. “I never experienced someone who puts more love, tradition, and expertise into her baking. It tastes just as good as it looks, with so many variations, and one as good as the other – all created by a Five Star Woman with so much heart and devotion baked in every challah she makes. My two personal favorites are the chocolate and cinnamon creations!”
Briman shared the news with friends in Miami. Word spread to Chabad of Bal Harbour in Surfside, Fla., who invited the chef to lead a community-wide challah-baking event – with 300 women participating. For the seasoned chef, the demonstration was an opportunity to go beyond the mere physical act of preparing dough.
“At that time, I started learning much more about Shabbat and the importance of making challah,” says Briman, the daughter of European Jewish immigrants whose families resettled in Mexico City before World War II. “I knew that there are three things that the Jewish woman had to do: lighting candles, making challah, and going to the mikveh, but that’s it, that’s the only thing I knew.”
Briman sought out teachers who could deepen her Jewish knowledge – the meanings and prayers behind each of the seven challah ingredients; the significance of hafrashat challah, separating a small piece of dough before baking the loaves.
Since then, Briman has been asked to visit Jewish communities throughout the world, teaching would-be challah-bakers the secret behind her acclaimed recipe. She has also done demonstrations at Macy’s in Aventura, Fla. and Bloomingdales in Bal Harbour, Fla. At a Dec. 17 challah-baking event at Bloomingdales in Manhattan, Cinque showed up again to present Briman with the 2016 Five Star Diamond award.
“For people who have never touched flour – and there are many of them – I teach them how to start doing challah every Friday, and tell them that it’s not so difficult,” she says. “After I make my demonstration, fortunately, for some reason, people don’t go to the grocery store to buy challah for Shabbes, but they start doing challah the way I do it. You have to have time to do it – not just to mix all the ingredients and make the bracha and put it in the oven. It’s a time of receiving the Shabbat in a very beautiful way.”
The widespread attention is unexpected for Briman, who is used to small, intimate cooking events in her Mexico City catering business.
“When I started, I said maybe a few communities are going to be interested, and mainly the religious ones,” she says. “But I was so surprised that religious, not religious, and even goyim have been coming to my events, because they want to know more about Judaism and challah and they start doing it at home. It has become a beautiful mission in my life and I feel very honored to go everywhere and transmit this message.”
Mega Challah Bake for women and girls with Chef Sara Briman: Thursday, Jan. 21, 7 pm, Beth Israel of Westport/Norwalk, 40 King St., Norwalk. For information or to register: www.megachallahbake.net, (203) 866-0534.