Image by David Zimand
Last month, Josh Massin, executive chef of Nobo Wine and Grill in Teaneck, New Jersey, caused a bit of a viral stir when he demonstrated his kosher “oyster” online. Massin, who grew up eating actual oysters in nearby Fort Lee, eventually came home to both his Judaism and his neighborhood and has made Nobo one of the hottest kosher destinations in the tri-state area.
Massin was enamored with cooking from a young age. “My relationship with food started before my relationship with Judaism,” he recalls. “I wasn’t the best student. I complained of whatever it took to stay home and watch cooking shows (and Bob Ross). Emeril Lagasse was an early inspiration.” Massin used to frequent a nearby Chinese restaurant that had an open kitchen. “I’d watch the guys flip the woks, and the flames would just shoot out. It was just about the coolest thing I’d ever seen.”
He began to ask his mother for access to the kitchen, but she wasn’t so supportive at first because of the mess he made. Eventually, Massin “learned how to do it differently and make it look like no one had been there.” At that time, cooking was just a hobby, and after high school, he matriculated to UMass (University of Massachutesetts at Amherst) to study Political Science. But after more than a year there, it didn’t work out. Massin started working as a dishwasher in a corporate cafeteria while figuring out what to do next with his life. “At about the same time, I had reconnected with a young rabbi I had met. I went for a shiur, a Shabbos, another Shabbos, and then the YU Seforim sale. I bought 500 books and then I was financially invested, so Judaism became more important.”
Although Massin was inspired, it wasn’t enough to live on. The pressure from his parents mounted when they said, “What else are you doing with your life in addition to being frum?” He had worked as mashgiach, cook and dishwasher before he finally decided to go to culinary school. After learning at Johnson and Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island, Massin found a job in Manhattan at the prestigious and delicious Mike’s Bistro. “I was very hands on. I took over for other employees whenever they were out sick.” Through this, Massin learned the entire restaurant business from the ground up. He was starting to think about what his next steps would be when he learned of the opportunity to be an executive chef at a restaurant in New Jersey. Massin wasn’t sure. “Teaneck was not the kosher restaurant hotbed then that it is now.” With a lot of persuasion on the part of Nobo’s founder, the rest is history.
Two months after Josh started at NoBo, his father passed away. He was sitting shiva, worried about what was happening at the restaurant while he was gone. It’s clear that his investment in his work is much more than just monetary. “My personal style is evidence-based cooking, meaning, whatever we’re making, we come up with a concept based on inspiration, then figure out how we’re going to make it with what components. We don’t use any ingredients or techniques that through the scientific method prove to be perfunctory or superfluous, or otherwise not economical…This technique involves a lot of planning, trial and error and learning from mistakes, but the results are self-explanatory. There has to be evidence for why we’re [making a dish] the way we are. Dishes have to tell as story.”
Massin knows that staying innovative is what breeds success in the restaurant business. “The kosher audience is not a captive audience, especially in larger cities such as New York, Miami and Los Angeles.” In these locations, there are so many competitors that a restaurant has to be perfect in both their concept and their execution. “Restaurants are upgrading, using a wider variety of products, a more luxurious experience. This bodes well for everyone involved. My suppliers feel the demand for higher-quality product.” For Massin, he wants to expand the reach of the high-quality products he is offering, by opening new restaurants in other locations, as well as keeping NoBo fresh and delicious.