The chef sees no need to break from tradition when it comes to the table set with classics like matzo ball soup, chopped liver, haroset and brisket.

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Braised Brisket with Fennel & Onions By Andrew Zimmern
Braised brisket is one of the first dishes Andrew Zimmern helped his grandmother make and a staple at his family’s holiday table for generations.
| Credit: Madeleine Hill

I think of my grandmother, Henriette Zimmern, every day in my kitchen. Her salt box, a 150-year-old German ceramic piece, sits on my kitchen counter. My hands touch it whenever I am in my home. The connection is immediate. She taught me to cook, and what she taught me was the gallimaufry of her family's cooking.

There is no holiday, no day of the year that I cook more of her food than on the first night of Passover. Her dill-kissed matzo ball soup, chopped chicken liver that melts in your mouth from the copious glug of schmaltz she seasoned it with, icy-cold gefilte fish with a dollop of horseradish on the side, braised brisket with onions, haroset, tzimmes, pickled tongue with port wine sauce, roasted chicken with pan gravy, leg of lamb with pickled cherries, and for dessert … well, seconds of everything that was on her sideboard.

I love this holiday. The story of our slavery in Egypt and the significance of the meal, the "order" of the evening itself, the songs, the fights over which Haggadah to use, the love that was represented at our table and the celebration of our freedom from bondage. Even the empty chair for Elijah meant that someone, anyone could show up. As a young kid I found that exciting. As a dad, 50 years later, I love filling the seat at our table with as many friends and loved ones, Jewish or not, as I can.

Related: Read Andrea Strong's essay from 2020 about observing Passover virtually.

At an early age I decided that I would always be the one to find the afikomen, the small prize of a dollar hidden between two pieces of matzo by the oldest at the table. And since I was the youngest at the table, and because a key ceremonial piece of the Seder ritual is for the youngest at the table to ask the eldest the Four Questions (Why is this night different than all other nights?...), I felt compelled to race around the house in search of my prize. For decades after that, the spiritual significance and the religious import of the day became a major focus. It became a time to reflect and pause, to bring gratitude into my life at a time when I had trouble finding some.

The holiday has evolved for me: Today I celebrate the love and diversity at our table—it's a time for reminding ourselves that the most important reason to gather is to celebrate our commonalities and declare our commitment to love one another, family, extended family, friends and strangers. This year will be extremely powerful, I imagine. So, while my personal commitments and belief systems have changed, and the meaning of the holiday shifts around from time to time, one thing has always remained constant. The food. And I have the salt box to prove it.

I make Henriette's entire Seder menu at my home each year, a veritable pastiche of the Jewish grandmother classics. I have shared many of my grandmother's Passover recipes on my website, including her brisket (recipe pictured above) and chopped liver—these recipes should turn out perfectly for you as they do for me. Chag Pesach Sameach!