A visit to the home of Johns Creek chef Zehavit Kaidar-Heafetz is enough to understand her inalienable passion for cooking and food. During a recent interview with the AJT, she was busy preparing a blood orange citrus salad with black olives and cilantro for guests. Kaidar-Heafetz indulged the AJT with her signature extra chocolate babka cake, homemade sweet challah, sesame cookies, and a variety of flavored hamantashen.
Kaidar-Heafetz is known for gathering friends around different kitchens where she is invited to deliver her decades of knowledge and recipes. In some virtual cases, she sets up two cameras in her kitchen for people to Zoom from the comfort of their homes. Although the owner of Baking Smiles was not formally trained with a culinary degree, she continuously studies the science behind food, the process of cooking and baking, textures and the history of dishes. She said she is determined to share her tricks and tips that will “sharpen your baking skills, techniques and styles.”
She directs birthdays, bachelorette and engagement party workshops, whether virtual or face-to-face. Her workshops are not just about baking a quiche, eating it and leaving. They involve learning, observing and conceptualizing the science of food.
Zoom workshops are also appealing during the pandemic as an alternative to restaurants.
Kaidar-Heafetz supplies workshop kits based on her clients’ recipe requests, such as challah, chocolate cakes and shakshuka, a Middle Eastern dish composed of eggs, tomatoes and spices.
She also began offering gluten-free workshops featuring her fruit sushi, prepared with soy paper, avoiding the use of food coloring, and instead substituting butterfly pea flower, beets powder, pitaya powder and the like.
Having an intimate evening with a few close friends can be more exhilarating than finding yourself in a large crowd waiting for your dish to be served, according to those the AJT consulted for this story.
“I think I’m most impressed with the depth of Zehavit’s knowledge, especially with breads and doughs,” said Kate Melioris, who used Baking Smiles for her birthday.
She said she was also astonished to discover Kaidar-Heafetz’s ability to bring back a tomato pie, like the kind Melioris’ husband remembers growing up in Utica, N.Y. She remembers failing several times at baking it until Kaidar-Heafetz showed up and presented her dough and saucing skills. Melioris used Kaidar-Heafetz for another occasion: a surprise healthy brunch for which she guided Melioris and her sister in how to bake instead of fry and preparing three types of balsamic dips, olives, cheeses and homemade pickles.
For another occasion, Kaidar-Heafetz was called by Daniela Shefler, who used the workshop for her at-home 50th birthday party with 10 of her closest friends. “This workshop was amazing. Zehavit arrived with very special recipes, all fresh and high-quality ingredients. She guided us in the process of preparing the food with detailed and easy explanations, humor, laughter and a great atmosphere. She comes very well-prepared and does everything from her heart and with a big smile.”
Those interviewed for this story said they used Baking Smiles to create an adventurous and intimate evening. “My friends made it very special,” Shefler said about her party, “and Zehavit’s skills and energy added so much. It made the evening even better. Dancing and singing while cooking is a great way to prepare dinner and have fun all together.”
While watching Kaidar-Heafetz’s precision in chopping and dicing the vegetables in her newly renovated kitchen, it’s easy to see how this is the place she showcases her personality and expresses herself through taste and smell.
“I have all these books to choose recipes from,” she said, indicating her large collection. “But the sections I love the most are the introductions that teach you the history of the dish. I am also a fan of The Food Lab books that go in depth with science of all things, temperature, ingredients, portions, etc. It is important for me to acquire as much knowledge as possible, but also, I think that it’s significant for others to know. It’s interesting and creates a qualitative workshop and that’s what I’m all about.”
In addition to conducting face-to-face workshops, Kaidar-Heafetz holds Zoom classes to teach adults and children the art and history of cooking. Before the pandemic, she also led in-person group baking and cooking classes at the Marcus Jewish Community Center in Dunwoody.
Melioris said, “I have done lots of online and in-person classes, and usually learn something. Unfortunately for many [virtual] classes, the instructions tend to be marginal, and the instructor is either passionless or just plain dull. Not Zehavit! She clearly loves what she does, and it comes across in how she interacts with everyone. It’s exciting and entertaining; it’s fun!”
The chef-instructor also is strict about following COVID safety, Melioris said. “Zehavit keeps an immaculate kitchen and is extremely conscious of hygiene. I would not hesitate to set up an ‘in-person’ session with her. The fact that she can combine a small in-person session with Zoom to enable larger groups makes her events a perfect venue for get-togethers, even though you have to stay apart.”
Chanala Rubenfield, co-director of Chabad of Chesterfield, Mo., collaborated with Kaidar-Heafetz on a program in which participants prepared seven desserts in 70 minutes. Since then, the two have worked on shakshuka workshops, baking and salad workshops.
Rubenfield believes the Zoom workshops can be more personable than in person. “Everyone is in their home, relaxed, guards down, not all dressed up and feeling like you have to [dress to] impress. I think it gives insight into people, how they are in their homes, which allows for a more authentic connection.”