Meet Brett: Jewish Home Chef of the Week

by Allison Friedman / April 20, 2021

Brett Boren has taken craftiness to a new level this year. Over the course of this pandemic, he’s become an incredible home chef, has started woodworking for fun, and has been daydreaming up his next big international travel adventure. Also a fluent Swahili speaker, Brett shares his favorite parts of traveling around Tanzania and Democratic Republic of Congo in search of Shabbat services and stellar sunsets.

Read this week’s interview to learn more about our Jewish Home Chef of the Week and how he’d spend a dream day in DC.

Allie: Tell me what brought you to DC and how you wound up living in Georgetown? 

Brett: I moved here for a job about six years ago. I used to work for a Jewish nonprofit – the American Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (AICE)- and I’ve been in and out of the nonprofit space ever since. AICE is a smaller organization, so it’s not always well known, but they run the Jewish Virtual Library, which everyone seems to know about! Currently, I’m an MBA student at American University. 

Allie: Do you have a dream career that you’re hoping to pursue once you graduate with your business degree?

Brett: I’d like to start my own company someday. I want to get into consumer goods manufacturing in East and Central Africa, specifically looking at value-added agricultural products. For example, taking shea butter and turning that into a finished product or taking another agricultural good and turning it into soap, etc. 

Allie: What sparked that interest for you?

Brett: I lived in Tanzania and spent time traveling around and learning what the market was like there. I spoke with a lot of different people to get an understanding of different local cultural insights and saw the need for such a business. 

Allie: That’s amazing. Have you traveled anywhere else in Africa? 

Brett: Yes, I traveled to Rwanda and I really liked it a lot. I’ve also been to the Congo twice – the first time when I was in Tanzania, I took a boat over to Kalemi, which is a lake town on the other side of Lake Tanganyika. I tried to go to Lubumbashi, which is where there is a Chabad. But I got to Kalami and the only ATM in the town was broken, so I couldn’t take out cash to pay for the flight. And the flight was basically the Congolese postal service, which flies a route around the country once every two weeks. So I had to go back and never made it to the Chabad in Lubumbashi.  

But the second time, I went to visit Kinshasa with a very close friend of mind, and I made sure to get to the Chabad. 

Allie: What was the Chabad like there?

Brett: It was great. It was a big part of the reason why I am a little religious today. I’m still part of the conservative movement so I wouldn’t be Ba’al Teshuva or anything. But I never grew up keeping Shabbat or keeping kosher, and those are both things I elected to do after that trip. 

Allie: Is there something specific about your Chabad experience in Africa that made you more religious?

Brett: It was the first time that I did Havdalah – ever, I think. I went to Jewish day school and Jewish night school during high school, but I don’t think I ever did Havdalah and I had a very moving experience. There was only one other Ashkenazi guy at the shul. It was a Sephardic shul with lots of Israelis and Moroccans. But there was one Ashkenazi guy. We connected and did Havdalah together, and we spoke about the future and what we want in terms of Jewish life. 

Allie: Wow, that’s awesome, and I agree that Havdalah is so wonderful. Did you learn Swahili before or after these trips?

Brett: I studied Swahili in undergrad as part of my African Studies minor. I only became fluent once I was in Tanzania. Specifically, when I was traveling by myself in the western part of the country and I really had to use it. In the eastern part of the country, people speak more English versus the western part where they see far fewer tourists. 

Today, I don’t get to use Swahili as much as I would like to, but I do speak it with my Congolese friend. If there is anyone else in Jewish DC who speaks Swahili, I’d be happy to meet up to talk with you! 

Allie: What’s your favorite place that you have ever traveled – Africa or somewhere else?

Brett: I really loved Istanbul. I was sick for the entire week I was there – I think it was because I pet a cat and then I ate and I didn’t wash my hands properly in between. But I really liked Istanbul despite that and I would like to go back one day. 

Allie: So, I guess its safe to say you are a big traveler! What else is at the top of your travel bucket list? 

Brett: I actually have a trip planned for post-Covid, where I want to travel Eastern Europe by rail. I want to fly into either Berlin or Moscow and take trains to the other one and travel through Poland and Ukraine and back. It’s so tempting to look up flight prices and see what’s out there.

I would also like to go back to Tanzania. My favorite town there is Kigoma – it’s all the way on the western side of the country, but the sunsets there are fantastic! And I’d love to see Kenya someday. I didn’t get to go previously, because when I was there it was during the situation with Al-Shabaab and it wasn’t safe. So I’d like to go there one day and see the rest of East Africa. 

Brett’s sunset view on Lake Tanganyika between Kigoma and Kalemi. The mountains in the distance are on the Congolese side.

Allie: What is a fun hobby that you’ve gotten into during the pandemic? 

Brett: I am really into creative projects. Before the pandemic, I don’t think I realized how much they grounded me. So I’ve gotten into lots of arts and crafts and painting. I’m really into building furniture now. 

I’m an amateur, but it’s really satisfying to build something and have it for myself. Right now, I’m working on a case for my cat Youpi’s litter box.

Allie: Youpi is such a cute name! What does it mean?

Brett: Thanks! In French, Youpi is something you say when you’re happy – similar to yippee or yay

Allie: Is there anything else you’ve made so far or have plans to make? 

Brett: I’ve made a table, a shoe rack, and a shelf for my kitchen. The table, I made as a favor to my friend. I had helped her build her sukkah and once it came down I asked what she was going to do with all the wood. She said she was just going to throw it out, so I decided to make it into a table.

I enjoy building things just as a hobby though, I think once it becomes a business it would stop being as fun.

Allie: Are there any other hobbies or skills that you would like to get into that you haven’t yet? 

Brett: Last year, I really wanted to get into making two types of cuisines – Italian food and Indian food. For Italian food, I got really into making different pastas and experimenting with that. In terms of Indian food, I taught myself how to make my own paneer, which is really easy, actually, It’s basically just milk and lemon juice. So, I’ve gotten more and more into cheese making, too.

Allie: Have you always been big into cooking? 

Brett: Yeah. The first thing that I ever made was an omelette when I was 12 years old. I had just been to my aunt’s Bat Mitzvah (my aunt is only a year older than me), and she had an omelette making station there. I thought that was the absolute coolest thing. And so when I got home, I made an omelette for myself. I don’t remember how good it was, but I remember wanting to experiment with that. Ever since then, I’ve become sort of the chef of the family. 

Allie: What is your absolute favorite thing to cook? 

Brett: I really like making chicken soups. I like homemaking the broths from scratch, and adding in the chicken and letting it simmer there for a few hours while it fills the entire apartment with such a nice aroma. My secret for good chicken soup, and I don’t know how good of a secret this is, but I don’t take the schmaltz out (editor’s note: schmaltz is the rendered fat that comes off the top of the chicken. Also there is a great food truck in DC called Schmaltz Bros). I keep it in for a really rich soup and it makes for great re-heating.

Allie: What’s your favorite Jewish food to eat? 

Brett: I’d have to say brisket. I only eat red meat twice a year – I usually have lamb for my birthday and then I’ll have brisket for Passover. It always reminds me of time with family and good meals. I just recently made some for this Passover. 

Allie: Describe your dream day in DC from start to finish. 

Brett: My dream day would start in the morning. I’d go to the Dupont Farmers Market and I would pick up some fancy mushrooms from the mushroom stall there (well, there are actually two there now!). Then I would go to the Georgetown Flea Market and browse their weird and unique things. I especially love looking at their film cameras there. And then I would go for a walk around the Tidal Basin, preferably with the film camera. Then I would go back home and cook a great meal with the fancy mushrooms. Right now, I’m really into mushroom rigatoni with a homemade alfredo sauce. So I’d probably do that and call it a day! 

Allie: Final question. Complete this sentence, “When the Jews of DC gather… 

Brett: …there’s probably food involved! 

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