Meet Legendary Chef Levana and Her New OU Kosher Meal Replacement Program

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Chef Levana Kirschenbaum
08 Jun 2017

What is your relationship with the OU?

Over the years, the OU have been our kosher supervisors at Levana Restaurant. We ran it for a long, long time, and we closed about 9 years ago. They were also our supervisors for affairs we catered off premises.

Tell me about your new line, the all natural meal replacement program?

Three years ago my husband was diagnosed with cancer, one of most treacherous kinds: Multiple Myeloma. It is not curable. It is a cancer of the plasma cells of the bones, it’s really brutal. He had multiple hospitalizations. I remember one time when the hospitalization was just for pain management, it lasted ten days , those were the most miserable days: he couldn’t eat, couldn’t get back to regularity, he was getting skeletal. Mind you, my husband is normally very athletic and fit, so this was really an ordeal. During those hospitalizations the only “nourishment” the hospital offered was the commercial artificial meal replacements, and we kept saying we wanted nothing to do with it.  We were in a catch 22 situation, we didn’t want him to G-d forbid die of starvation, this is precisely what happens to many patients, a lot of them get under a certain body mass and can’t go on with treatments, chemo can’t be administered if they lost too much weight, so we try to fatten them up with meal replacements like Ensure, as these are the usual choice of hospitals for meal replacements. I have nothing but contempt for it.

 So what happened?

So I said to myself, am I not a food professional? I know exactly how food should taste, so I took those bottles of objectionable meal replacement and looked at the nutrients. You can create any nutrient chemically, it’s just not food, all chemicals. What do we really want? The protein, the fat, the fiber, the carbs, the vitamins, the nutrients. I looked and looked at the nutritional labels and said to myself, I think I can do this, but the natural way. I worked like crazy trying to replicate those numbers, mixed things endlessly, in endless permutations, berries, grains and seeds, until I arrived at some palatable mixtures, until I arrived at numbers that were as ideal as possible with no sugar, with high fiber and very good fat. I felt like I hit gold. Pretty soon I hired a food scientist who helped me put everything in place, and then we went to a nationally licensed lab that did all our numbers, all nutritional information scientifically; that cost us practically our life savings. Pretty soon an investor came along and said, what you’re doing is phenomenal, it has a bright future. He financed my project. The best part is a registered senior dietician at Presbyterian Weill Cornell read about it when we announced that we’re setting out to do it and she said, I love it, I want to get involved. This lady is now on our advisory board, she’s bringing in a colleague who also works at Presbyterian, we are experimenting on this product mixed with all different liquids to see how we can use it for stomach feeding, as this is in great demand. This will be the first of our kind with our choices because we have both cold flavors and hot flavors; you can throw our blends in endless dishes.

If you go to my site, you will find a gigantic section of recipes that all incorporate the blends, the recipes are extremely streamlined, I make cookies with them, a meatloaf, a dressing, marinade, pasta, you name it, it’s terrific.

We knocked their socks off two times [early this month] in Baltimore at an event coordinated by John Hopkins and we served desserts made with the product and then three days later we were in LA and we served desserts to children of Chai Lifeline. We partnered with Chai Lifeline because their mission statement dovetails with our own: They cater to children with special diet needs and in treatment, and we can help. If it’s a child it’s easy to lose weight, so this will add calories, fats, nutrients, and they can go on with their treatment. It is also worth noting we don’t use any sugar, which is the great enemy of diabetes and cancer. Counter intuitively, synthetic meal replacements all add sugar in an attempt to make them taste palatable, and that slams the door in the face of diabetics and cancer patients because it’s way too dangerous for them. It‘s not sugar found in fruit or potato, it’s added from refined sugar, not naturally.

 Who are you selling this to? Hospitals?

We just launched, it’s in its infancy, but that it is one of the goals. We want to go to nursing homes, it’s a grassroots enterprise. We are reaching out to registered nurses and dietician establishments, but it’s all available online.

 Do you think it will be beneficial to those without special dietary needs, such as children?

Kids always have special diet needs, it does not have to be tragic needs, many times kids scorn broccoli or seeds, and here everything is in, you can even take mac and cheese and sneak in the blends without modifying the taste; the finished dish takes on the flavors it’s paired with, the child will never know. When you add it to a big bowl of pasta the flavors that the kids are used to will dominate, you pair it with dominant flavors like ground beef, tomato sauce, cocoa. If you don’t want to add anything, mix with oil, water and salt and it’s going to be a fantastic soup. Or make a smoothie in a blender with milk, juice or water and you can have just that without anything added and you get a fantastic meal choc full of nutrition. We were invited to cooking demos at doctors’ offices for children with special diet needs and we insert it into the food that they are already allowed, meals they’re already taking and we raise it to a level of a super meal, made with superfoods.

The other demographic is people on the road, people who don’t have time to eat in the office, backpackers who want to take as little weight on them as possible. And as importantly, elderly people too frail to cook, so here they can put it in and throw in a handful of lentils or oats and in ten minutes they have a bowl of fantastic nourishing soup. It’s in powder form, ready in no time, no fuss, no recipe, it’s ready when you are. You can feed your whole family with it.

My husband subsisted almost entirely on these blends for three or four months, until he regained enough weight to keep going with the treatments. I would add almond milk, yogurt or oats but my meal replacement was always at the center of the meal.

 Did he recover?

B”H he’s doing nicely, but it’s not curable. He has to stay on top of it for the rest of his life, he has treatments every week in the hospital; at least it’s under control, he goes to work a few hours a day, he looks normal. He had a bone marrow transplant, we go through a lot, but we do it with confidence because we have a solution. Doctors do what they have to, but we take care of optimal nutrition at home. At his treatment center they call him the gold standard patient because he comes on his own power. That is why one of our brand’s trademarks is “Getting Stronger Everyday.” That’s exactly what happens when you take it.

 The real goal is to get it to ill patients?

Ill patients, old people who don’t have access to a hot complete meal made from scratch, they take this till dinner or lunch comes along, take this for breakfast on the road or in a backpack on a hike, mix it with water. It is a delicious superfoods meal, no carriers, no processors, the ingredients are dehydrated and that’s all.

 It’s already available for purchase?

Yes, please try it and share your feedback. It’s a hundred percent compliant. It’s kosher, dairy-free, gluten-free, soy-free, nut-free, certified natural, and no sugar added. I have good reason to be mighty proud of it!

 To summarize, you’ve done so many cookbooks and you’re a chef, this seems out of the normal path for you…

It’s bigger than me, I created a monster, we’re going to take it places. We have the encouragement and the praises of many amazed people. You know what they’re amazed about? The feeling of wonder that comes back to me regularly is, how on earth did you initially develop all this in your own kitchen? You did the work of a pharmaceutical company that would have hired a whole crew of businessmen in three piece suits, for a lot of money. And what do they always come up with? Some cheesecake flavor and chocolate fudge, again another worthless product, they’re not moving from there, they’ll make it a little better than all the junk that exists, but not good yet, not healthy, Nestle made one “healthier,” and what is it? Sinful fudge: is that what we want? The person’s sick, don’t have fudge right now, eat something that will heal you, something that will help you.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.