Michael Chelst is a loan officer and branch manager for Norcom Mortgage in Rockville, Maryland, but most Kol HaBirah readers know him better as the local kosher restaurateur who has operated DC eatery Char Bar for the past four years. Since 2018, Chelst acquired Nut House Pizza in Silver Spring, Maryland, with Ira Feldman, and the DC-based Brooklyn Sandwich Co. food truck as well.
The native Marylander lives in Bethesda with his wife, where they raised daughters Jessica and Allison, now ages 19 and 21. While Chelst and his family are active in Chabad of Bethesda and Aish HaTorah in Rockville, they support many Jewish organizations, synagogues, and schools both personally and through the food business.
Chelst recently dished to Kol HaBirah about his passion for connecting with the Jewish community, shared exciting new developments for diners to look forward to, and offered his personal recommendations for the must-have items on each of his menus.
What was your first job in the kosher dining industry?
My first job was when I was 15 years old and it was Nut House Pizza’s opening day, bringing the first kosher pizza shop to the area. I was assigned to making pizza dough and cutting up cheese. It was so busy that we closed at 4 a.m.
What made you decide to become a restauranteur in addition to your “day job”?
The mortgage industry has become much less face to face and almost entirely over the phone and through email. I missed that personal connection and the ability to see the smile on someone’s face when I was able to help them. It feels great serving our community and the travelers that I meet from all over the world. Opening [Char Bar] for Pesach so that visitors and business travelers have a place to get kosher for Passover is a great feeling.
What are your plans for Brooklyn Sandwich Co. since acquiring the popular kosher food truck business in July 2018?
Brooklyn Sandwich Co. Food truck has two missions. Provide traditional gourmet kosher food downtown for lunch along with the posse of other food trucks. We are about sharing the wonderful Jewish cuisine with non-kosher patrons while also serving an option for kosher quick food for kosher people working or traveling in downtown DC. We don’t have any major plans for changing the menu but will be making changes that support our gourmet-style traditional Jewish foods.
Our second mission is to promote events, gatherings, and private catering in the evenings and Sundays. We plan to return to Kemp Mill once the weather gets warmer. Recently we have been at the Seven Locks Brewery on Thursday nights and are partnering with the Federation, JCC, and other organizations for upcoming events.
What is the latest news with Nut House Pizza? I hear big changes are underway.
We began this summer the remodeling and intense cleaning of the restaurant. We put in all new floors, painted, upgraded equipment, new bathroom, new large screen TV, etc. We have some more to do but we wanted the Nut House decor to reflect the quality of its product.
The big news. I am excited that we will provide fresh kosher sushi. Our new sushi bar will open on May 15 and will be open at the beginning from 12-8 Sunday-Thursday. We will offer a full menu of fresh sushi and poke made to order by experienced sushi chefs. The name will be Sushi7.
We also plan to provide daily delivery to all the Jewish neighborhoods beginning in late May or early June. Nut House Pizza just hired a pizza chef consultant to work with us on upgrading our pizza menu. We have no plans to change our historic sauce and cheese blend but are beginning to offer new types of pizza toppings.
What are some of the biggest challenges kosher restaurants face in the Greater Washington area?
The biggest challenge is probably not what most would think – working with our local Vaad and the mashgiachs [kosher supervisors] has been wonderful. I’m so glad I chose to change from the OU and have the local support.
Rent and fixed costs are expensive and being closed for Shabbos and the chagim [Jewish holidays] hurts the business model. Most retail establishments are open seven days a week and only close a few days each year. We try and supplement with catering for Shabbos and holidays but it only helps to a degree. Even with all my food ventures I won’t be quitting my day job. Kosher food is a passion, a service to the community, and hopefully provides some additional income.
Do you actually get big-name politicians at Char Bar, or is that just something tourists hope to spot?
Yes, on most weekdays we will serve at least one Senator, Congressman, member of Knesset, judge, White House staffer, foreign ambassador, UN staffer, or political insider. We’ve even been blessed with Ivanka Trump having a quiet dinner with one of her children.
What is the one dish everyone has to try from each of your menus?
At Char Bar, brisket nachos jump off the menu: Pulled BBQ beef over nacho chips with a drizzle of chipotle mayo and BBQ sauce topped with guacamole. The chicken marsala is a close second. I’ve had chicken marsala all over the world and ours is definitely one of the best. Freezes well and it’s my family’s go-to Shabbos meal.
At Nut House Pizza it would be the wild mushroom with pesto drizzle pizza. We marinate shitake and Portobello mushrooms and top the pizza with our pesto drizzle. It’s brand new but getting popular quickly.
Finally, I’d recommend Brooklyn Sandwich Co.’s BBQ pulled brisket sandwich: BBQ pulled brisket topped with broccoli slaw on a pretzel bun.
By Rachel Kohn