Kosher food truck “What’s Cookin Kosher” opens its doors for the first time Thursday, March 16, 2023. Credit: Naomi Baron | Mustang News

As the aroma of sizzling schnitzel and savory spices wafts through the air, Cal Poly students are flocking to a new addition to the food scene: a kosher food truck on campus.

The long awaited kosher food truck, “What’s Cookin Kosher,” formally opened Thursday at 11 a.m. This comes after multiple years of discussion between Chabad Rabbi Chaim Hilel, Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong, Vice President Keith Humphrey and Campus Dining to expand kosher food options on campus.  

The truck’s staffing, menu curation, operation and the majority of its finances are all under the jurisdiction of Rabbi Hilel, who will oversee all the truck’s activities. Students are able to view the menu and order ahead of time on Grubhub. The truck will be operating Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Beyond its traditional Jewish cuisine offerings, the truck also represents a larger effort to promote diversity and inclusivity on campus, providing a welcoming space for members of the Jewish community and beyond, Campus Dining director Jess Dozier said. 

“Cal Poly is giving students an education, and a part of what they’re offering is taking care of student’s needs,” Hilel said. “Eating is an essential part of being alive. Similarly, for students with this cultural background, Cal Poly needs to provide for their needs, and those needs are kosher.”

According to Grubhub, the menu includes a variety of pita sandwiches and salads with either falafel, shawarma or schnitzel and a value menu consisting of traditional polish sausage, beef and lamb marquez sausage and italian sausage.

Ever since plans for a kosher kitchen within the Vista Grande Dining Complex were scrapped in 2020,  Rabbi Hilel has worked in conjunction with Campus Dining to find alternative ways to bring kosher food items to campus. He aspired to provide options beyond the to-go kosher options supplied by Vista Grande through Emuna Glatt Kosher Catering. Currently, Emuna Catering supplies Cal Poly with a variety of sandwiches, salads and pasta dishes. 

“I kept the conversation going after that because, while it’s good to have kosher takeout options, it is still not hot kosher food for people who want to actually have a meal,” Hilel said.

Dozier said he reached out to Rabbi Hilel last quarter, sparking the idea of creating a kosher food truck on campus.

After months of searching for a truck proved unsuccessful, Hilel said Campus Dining agreed to provide the Rabbi with a Cal Poly truck for a subsidized price — $1 per year. 

“We see the Kosher food truck as a service the Rabbi is providing to Cal Poly,” Dozier said. “We want to help this operation be as successful as it can.”

Hilel said he feels that Cal Poly “really wants to help.” 

“They want to be part of this so they’re willing to work with us and figure out how to best help us,” Hilel said. 

The majority of financial burden falls on the Rabbi, though. Preparing Kosher meals requires following a strict protocol of how the food is prepared, who can prepare the food and which facilities can be used to prepare it, Hilel said. 

First, the Rabbi said he needed to “kosherize” the food truck. This meant reinstalling all cooking facilities —the deep fryer, griddle and the entire interior — which were all expenses assumed by the Rabbi. 

Furthermore, Hilel is financially responsible for purchasing the kosher ingredients. He is also responsible for finding the specific staff needed to satisfy kosher laws and personally compensating them for their services and living arrangements, Hilel said.

Kosher laws state that a “mashgiach” — the Hebrew word for “supervisor” — must be present to oversee the food preparation to ensure it follows the correct Kosher preparation protocols, Hilel said. After posting the job inquiry on a Chabad Rabbi platform, he was able to find two employees who will simultaneously act as both the chef and as the mashgiach of the kosher food truck.

“One of the caveats to having someone be a kosher supervisor is that they actually have to be a kosher observant themselves and Shabbat observant, because we have to sort of breed an element of trust,” Hilel said. “There’s a lot of trust in the kosher establishment.”

Together with his chef and mashgiach, the Rabbi said they had full jurisdiction to curate a traditional Jewish menu. 

“But in order to keep the food truck afloat, we know that we have to tap into the greater Cal Poly community. It’s not just for Jewish or Kosher students,” Hilel said. “And to do that we have to make sure our price point is comparable so that people will be like, ‘Oh I can afford that.’ And our menu has to be something that you don’t really find in other places on campus.”

Food science sophomore Mika Zeplovitch said she is loving the kosher menu, which features some of her favorite Israeli foods and reminds her of home.  

“There are many students that keep kosher, and food options on campus are very very limited to them,” Zeplovitch said. “The same way there are allergen free food options on campus, there should be kosher food options as well. Kosher food not only benefits Jewish students but also Muslims who keep Halal or anyone that would like to enjoy the food that the food truck has.”

Although opening a Kosher food truck is a monumental step toward inclusivity, Hilel said his ultimate goal continues to be a physical, immovable kosher kitchen within a dining facility on campus.

“[Having kosher food options] shows that [Cal Poly is] welcoming, especially today when there is heightened anti-semitism worldwide,” the Rabbi said. “Even if you’re not kosher, just the fact that you know that the university made an effort for you and for your people [the Jewish community] in itself is comforting. That just tells you that someone’s looking out for my needs as a Jewish person, which can be very, very empowering.”