Got Kosher? Rosh Hashana loaf

A handprint-topped Got Kosher? Rosh Hashana loaf. (Christina House / For The Times)

In Paris, where Cohen's father had a kosher restaurant, now run by his brother, called Les Ailes (the Wings). It was next door to the Folies Bergère cabaret, and Cohen says that as a child he was told there was a hole in a restaurant wall through which he could see the showgirls next door. He jokes that he looked for that hole for 20 years but never found it.

He started busing tables at age 9, and later became a waiter, bartender, chef and manager.

Twenty-eight years ago, he came to Los Angeles to attend the American Film Institute.

"I came here to escape the food business, Tunisia and the French. I put a continent and an ocean between myself and my family," he says.

And, of course, he eventually found himself back in the food business -- at first, he says, out of necessity; later, it became a joy.

Got Kosher? began as a wholesale business, with the store opening in July 2008. It stocks items that Tunisian Americans will recognize, such as fish roe called boutargue (similar to Italian bottarga) and the "Tunisian sandwich," which holds tuna, egg, potato, olives, peppers and other ingredients. The shop's harissa is made on premises , and, with advice from Cohen's father's butcher in Paris, Cohen has developed a line of sausages that includes kosher merguez and andouille.

And word has been spreading fast about their pretzel challah, which is a sellout most weeks.

Cohen and Amsellen worked furiously for 2 1/2 months to develop the bread and began selling several versions in January, plain and with chocolate chunks, sesame seeds or green olives, among others. The dough is eggless and lighter than traditional challah.

"I spent hours and hours and hours tasting challah. In the end, I couldn't even feel it anymore," Amsellen says.

For Rosh Hashana, there will be spiral-shaped pretzel challah in several varieties, as well as traditional sweetened dough challah -- one with apple, raisins and honey and one with only raisins. The bakers plan to top them all with open hands.

But the point is to share the bread with others.

His father's restaurant, Cohen says, was a second home to Tunisian immigrants and gave him a sense of community that he couldn't find in this country until he began cooking Passover Seders for upward of 50 people -- mostly Jews who also felt rootless in Los Angeles.

"It was so wonderful that every year it became bigger," Cohen says, with guests from France, Colombia, Mexico and northern Africa all telling the stories of their heritage, their families.

Still, it wasn't enough.

"The rest of the year I was missing Tunisian food. If you grow up with it, this food really marks you," he says.

"I realized that my father, despite my resistance, gave me a beautiful gift -- cooking and tradition. You try to escape your destiny, but it always catches up with you."

mary.macvean@latimes.com