September 19, 2018

Bay area chef revives tradition of supper clubs

What’s the difference between a “pop-up” restaurant and a supper club? About 50 years.

Intimate dining rooms had all but faded into a thing of the past until recently, when the idea re-emerged among millennials as the underground or “pop-up” restaurant. While these smaller, informal dining arrangements are similar to the traditional supper club in basic function, the spirit has changed. In today’s so-called supper clubs, the love and warmth of a chef who truly enjoys cooking a good meal for friends is often superseded by a desire to be exclusive or edgy. 

But chef Noah Jacob doesn’t go for the clubby part of supper club.

With his Bay Area-based gastronomic venture, Comestible Catering & Supper Club, Jacob has given new life to the supper club tradition. At Comestible events, the atmosphere is light-hearted and carried by the laughter and chatter of family, as well as friends new and old. The meals are skillfully prepared, yet unpretentious. There is a sense of fresh creativity and energy in this old-fashioned affair. 

Comestible caters events both large and small, kosher and non-kosher. The team of chefs and culinary entrepreneurs are actively involved in the local Jewish community, often hosting events for the San Francisco Jewish Federation and the Jewish Film Festival, as well as elaborate Passover seders. 

It all began when Jacob and a friend, chef Tim Symes, slaughtered a lamb in Jacob’s garage at his Northern California home. But even before that, Jacob had long been passionately engaged in all aspects of the world of food. 

When Jacob was 14 years old, he began his first job in a Portland restaurant as a dishwasher. “Working as a dishwasher gave me great respect for people who do those jobs, the dirty jobs, the less-desired jobs, the physically hard jobs. … I’m sure it’s because of what I learned in those years that I make it a priority to treat my staff as I would like to be treated,” Jacob said, looking back on the experience.

Jacob continued to work in restaurants through high school and college, but when he moved to New York City in 2001, he gave up cooking to pursue a career in finance. After several years in the financial sector, Jacob got married and moved with his new wife, Dori, to San Francisco. It was then Jacob realized that it was cooking, not finance, that made him happy. Jacob explained, “I had a strong connection to my cultural Jewish heritage. … I was hoping to have that be a piece of what I was going to do next.” 

Jacob heard about a new Jewish deli opening in the Mission District of San Francisco, Wise Sons. He tracked down the owners, told them he wanted to be a part of their team and that he’d do whatever they needed, even without payment. “I just wanted to be back in the kitchen learning,” Jacob said. For the next year, Jacob worked at the deli, where he was trained to smoke and cure meats, slice fish, make pickles and prepare vegetables with speed and accuracy. 

 It was around this time that chefs Jacob and Symes butchered the lamb, which they then served over eight courses to 10 people at Jacob’s house. “From there, the supper club evolved to be a more elaborate event, starting with a theme or an ingredient and four or five chefs in friendly competition, with a sommelier or mixologist and a wait staff,” Jacob said. The supper clubs gained in popularity and guests began asking if Jacob could cater their corporate events. 

Jacob’s love of food, and the source of inspiration for much of what he cooks, stems from his Jewish heritage. 

“The techniques and flavor combinations of the foods I grew up with are my daily inspirations, using smoke and brine, caraway and dill, and using cheaper ingredients and attempting to elevate them to more sophisticated levels,” Jacob said. “Beyond that, it’s also about feeding people and how it equates with showing love. I think that’s one of the things that I appreciate most about Judaism and food culture, how tied to food and love are.”

With a baby at home, Jacob has had less time for creating menus, but plenty of food and love in his life. He enjoys reinventing antiquated Jewish recipes and believes that “soon enough, we’ll see modern adaptations of kugel and kishke and gefilte fish on fancy menus all over the place.” 

His embrace of his heritage has lead directly to his emphasis on ethical food. We must pay attention to where our food comes from, Jacob said, not just because the way something is grown correlates to the quality of its taste, but also because it’s the right thing to do. 

“With kashrut, Jews were probably the first people to truly source their food and closely examine its origins,” Jacob said. “While training as a chef and a caterer, I worked for a fully kosher-certified Bay Area caterer to learn exactly how kashrut is applied in commercial kitchens and professional events.”

When sourcing ingredients, Comestible goes beyond the farm-to-table movement, returning to Jacob’s Jewish roots. During his interactions with farmers and suppliers, Jacob strives to find the best kosher ingredients and ensures that the animals used in his dishes were treated humanely. 

Jacob remembers the early days of his supper club events fondly. “I know that it’s not going to be possible to ever go back to the way they were at the beginning, with all of the excitement and mistakes and far too many drinks for both cooks and diners. … It felt like a moment in time, where everyone kind of knew something special was happening. There was just so much creativity and teamwork, and I think you could really see it in the presentation and taste it in the food,” Jacob said. 

In the near future, Jacob hopes to grow Comestible’s team of chefs, but he is also determined to remain personally involved in every event that they cater. He will only take on as many events as he can while still offering the same high-quality, heartfelt dining experience. For Jacob, the goal has never been about numbers or filling seats. Comestible is founded on a simple tradition of sharing good food with good company. 

COMESTIBLE GRAVLAX

People always think that lox have to be expensive or labor-intensive, but in reality, these dishes are super-easy to make and fairly inexpensive. All you need is some foresight, as the fish takes 4 to 6 days to cure, minimum. 

  • 2 sides of salmon
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 cup salt
  • 2 tablespoons ground star anise
  • 2 tablespoons ground juniper
  • 2 tablespoons ground clove
  • 2 tablespoons ground allspice
  • 2 tablespoons ground fennel seed
  • 4 bunches of dill

 

Start with two fillets of salmon, skin-down, on a cutting board.

Mix all dry ingredients in a bowl. 

Pour half the dry rub over both salmon fillets and rub into salmon meat thoroughly. Next, lay bunches of dill over one of the salmon fillets until it is completely covered in dill. Pour the remaining dry rub over the fillet with the dill. 

Place the other fillet skin-up on top of the dill-covered fillet to create a salmon sandwich, with the thick layer of dill as the middle. Line up the fillets as closely as possible so all the spices and dill stay inside.

Next, wrap the salmon sandwich tightly in plastic wrap and place in a large roasting pan. Place another roasting pan directly on top of the salmon sandwich (covering it completely) and weigh it down with cans or something heavy, such as a Dutch oven or cast iron pan. This is the pressing process. Place in refrigerator.

After two days, open it up and flip the salmon sandwich so the other side is facing up. Rewrap it with fresh plastic wrap and place the salmon sandwich back in the roasting pan, repeating the pressing process for the second side. The salmon will release some water, but it shouldn’t smell bad or fishy. 

After an additional two to four days, pull from the refrigerator and unwrap. Toss the dill and give the filets a quick rinse before laying them skin-down on a paper towel. You will see the pin bones starting to protrude. Go down each fillet and pull out the bones with tweezers; they should slide right out at this point. 

Once it is deboned, your salmon is ready to be sliced for lox or used however you see fit. The serving size will depend on the size of your salmon fillet, usually between 2 and 4 pounds. One side of salmon usually makes sliced lox for 20 to 30 people. The scraps can be chopped up and whipped into cream cheese for homemade shmeer.