City Life - The food is kosher, but the Hilton's chef isn't

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The Independent Online

RONIT PENSO, a top chef at the five-star Hilton Hotel in Jerusalem, is not sure what tipped the balance. It could have been the day a cook was chopping parsley too finely, allegedly violating religious laws on the Sabbath.

RONIT PENSO, a top chef at the five-star Hilton Hotel in Jerusalem, is not sure what tipped the balance. It could have been the day a cook was chopping parsley too finely, allegedly violating religious laws on the Sabbath.

Perhaps it was when Ms Penso, 40, caused a dispute by ladling pumpkin soup, again on the day of rest. Or maybeit was that Sabbath when she was accused of preparing to carry a tray of food in a lift ... or the one on which she was told that she had lit the stove one minute too soon.

Whatever the cause, it was enough to outrage the five male inspectors who, wearing the black suits, peot (plaits)and beards that denote ultraOrthodoxy, are based round the clock in the Hilton's kitchens to ensure none of the cooks violates the strict Jewish dietary laws, the "kashrut".

Last month the Hilton fired her from her £1,300-a-month post as "sous-chef", one of the hotel's most senior catering positions. In reply, Ms Penso, filed a lawsuit, launching an industrial tribunal case that has become a public relations embarrassment for the Hilton International, which has its headquarters in the UK, and a cause célÿbre among Israel's civil rights activists.

Her sacking was a formidable reversal of fortune. Last December, she was selected by the Hilton as one of two cooks to prepare lunch for the Clintons, while they relaxed at the ancient Masada mountain fortress overlooking the Dead Sea. The food, she recalls, was delicious: fresh red tuna, pasta with sun-dried tomatoes, and asparagus.

More importantly, it was also kosher; no one wanted to risk embarrassing the President's guests, Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, with a protocol gaffe. The day was the pinnacle of a career that had seen her rise swiftly through the ranks.

Eighteen months ago, when the $330-a-night Hilton opened, she was in charge of the lounge restaurant. By the time she was fired, she was one rung below the top chef, with responsibility for all five of the hotel's restaurants. Women in the world of Israeli catering rarely rise so high.

Her sacking was, she says, a bolt out of the blue. She concedes that she - a secular Israeli Jew with outspoken liberal views - clashed on occasion with the "kashrut" inspectors, although she has no objection to kosher food. She also admits she made mistakes, attributing them to the incredibly complex kosher regulations.

"They called me in one Friday - after letting me work the whole day - and told me that the Rabbinate had given the manager an ultimatum. If they didn't fire me, they would lose their kashrut certificate. I was completely shocked."

Any hotel in Israel knows that if it loses its kashrut certificate, no religious person will enter the place. Bang go the weddings, banquets, and bar mitzvahs - key revenues.

The alleged ultimatum is one of the points at issue in the case, in which Ms Penso is seeking her job back plus damages. The Association of Civil Rights in Israel, which is representing her, says that although the Jerusalem Rabbinate is a public authority, empowered to issue kashrut certificates, it does not have the right to dictate whom the Hilton employs.

The hotel management - which declined comment yesterday - has submitted court documents in which it denies receiving such an ultimatum. These say Ms Penso was warned many times and yet repeatedly violated disciplinary codes, especially by "systematically" breaking kashrut laws. They say she was finally fired when she began initiating confrontations with the kashrut inspectors. The Rabbinate has accused Ms Penso of mounting a "deliberate smear campaign".

The affair has far larger resonances, which spring from the fissures between secular, moderately religious, and ultra-Orthodox Israel and liberal concern that the rabbis are steadily pushing forward the boundaries of their already formidable powers.

Sympathisers of Ms Penso have been calling for a boycott of the Hilton. She is pondering leaving for the United States. But before she goes, she says she has her crusade to complete, a mission she is willing to pursue to the highest level. "The next time they want to fire someone, they will be a lot more cautious."

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