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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today’s so-called supper clubs, the love and warmth of a chef who truly enjoys cooking a good meal for friends is often superseded by a desire to be exclusive or edgy.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. 

Late to shul, on time for kiddush


My friend and I go to the same synagogue but almost never run into each other. “How come?” I was musing the other day.

“Well,” she said. “I only go there to pray.”

Aha! That explains it! When she’s walking out, I’m walking in.

Yes, I’m one of those synagogue goers who arrive pretty much just in time for the “Amen!” as we raise our mini plastic cups of wine before elbowing our way — er, gently sauntering over — to the food. My timing is never quite exact, of course, so there are days when I get there and my fellow congregants are still singing “Adon Olam,” the last song of the service. I’m happy to sing along — in fact, I like it if I’m in time for Kaddish and the announcements; makes me feel very much a part of things. But for shallow, antsy and kind-of-cheap me, going to synagogue means going to lunch with friends, there, in the social hall.

And how important is the quality of that lunch? Let’s just say that a tray of hummus and carrot sticks makes my spiritual aura shrink to the size of a store-bought gefilte fish ball. You could pierce my soul with a toothpick. But a glistening mound of bar mitzvah lox — the Holy Grail, as it were, of Kiddushes — maketh me skip through the Valley of Death and cartwheel over to the scallion cream cheese. It restoreth my soul and maketh my kids a lot happier about my bringing them along, too. In fact, it getteth them psyched to come again, the way a random shower of slot machine nickels getteth bubbe back to Atlantic City. And I know that I am not the only congregant who peruses the synagogue calendar to see who has a great big spread — er, great big simcha — coming up, and precisely which Saturday we are talking about.

My worry, of course, is that the Divine One is probably not thrilled with the attendee who arrives when the audience is filing out of the theater. Come to think of it, the rabbi probably isn’t, either. But I do believe there is something more than just lip service (and Tam Tams) being offered when a congregant arrives in time only to eat and shmooze. And, I am glad to say, some folks agree with me.

“Kiddush is not just a snack. The word ‘kiddush’ is from ‘kodesh,’ meaning ‘holy,’” says Elliott Katz, author of “Being the Strong Man a Woman Wants” (Award Press, 2005). (It’s also a good idea to be the rationalizing man a woman wants.) “Going just for kiddush is a lot better than not going at all.”

Hear, hear! Maybe it’s not quite as holy as actually participating in the service, but a couple of transcendent things are indeed going on, says Alan M. Singer, author of the recently published “Creating Your Perfect Family Size” (Wiley). First, he says, “It’s the central opportunity in a normal week to socialize with other Jews on a large scale, and I think that’s holy.” Then, too, consider the fact that many Kiddushes are sponsored in honor of an event, or a person.

If the event is a happy occasion, you’re joining in a celebration. It’s a mitzvah, like dancing at a wedding. But if it’s in memory of a person, just being there could be even more significant, because when you say the blessing over the wine or the bread or even the Costco celery sticks, you are adding that prayer to all the prayers being said sort of on behalf of the departed. Which somehow — I was never quite clear on this or on any part of the hereafter where our peeps are concerned — can help the dearly departed only in the afterworld. (Which we don’t believe in. Or do we?) Anyhow, it’s like the dead man given an enema in the classic Jewish joke: Even if it can’t help, it couldn’t hoit.

Then, too, adds Gigi Cohen, a Chicagoland mom of three, quoting her cousin the rabbi, who gets things going Saturdays at 9 a.m.: “If you want a one-hour service, come at 11.”

Vermont rabbi (and stand-up comic) Bob Alper agrees: Shorter services make folks more punctual. But he also reminds us of the quote from writer/publisher/convict/satirist Harry Golden, whose atheist father attended synagogue religiously: “One day he asked his dad why, if he didn’t believe in God, he went to shul. The reply: ‘Everyone goes to synagogue for a different reason. Garfinkle goes to talk to God. I go to talk to Garfinkle.’”

Exactly! And if I am one of the last to arrive at synagogue, I should add that I am also one of the last to leave, because my synagogue is full of Garfinkles. I love talking to them, hearing all the news, being part of an ongoing community. If I also happen to be surrounded by bagels and lox, well, my heart opens wide.

And sometimes, so does my tote bag.

Lenore Skenazy is a public speaker and author of the book Free-Range Kids (Wiley, 2010) and of the blog of the same name.

Mad Salmon?


The latest threat to the Jewish way of life in Britain is a malicious attack on the very fabric of Jewish identity.

The community’s lox is under threat.

In the latest in a series of food scares, U.S. scientists have published research warning that farmed Scottish salmon — the source of the majority of British Jewry’s staple fish — contains high levels of potentially carcinogenic dioxins.

The research, published in the respected journal Science, recommends that consumers avoid eating Scottish farmed salmon more than three times a year to reduce the potential cancer risk.

The findings have caused an uproar at Jewish breakfast tables and bar mitzvah buffets across the land.

"I’ve been serving and eating salmon since I care to remember, and I don’t intend to allow some pressure group to put a stop to that. It’s just another silly food scare," said Leslie Silverman, a kosher caterer based in the south of England.

Silverman has an array of international authorities backing her up.

The World Health Organization, the European Union and the British Food Standards Agency (FSA), all have rejected the study’s recommendations, much to the relief of Silverman and her hungry clients.

"This study shows that the levels of dioxins and PCBs" — both toxins linked to cancer — "in salmon are within internationally recognized safety limits and confirms previous studies by the FSA," said the agency’s chairman, Sir John Krebs.

The article has not caused a stir in the United States, where leading U.S. kosher-certification and kosher-food authorities said they’re aware of the issue scare but have received no official warnings or consumer complaints.

"I haven’t heard anything in the kosher community that even resembles concern," said Menachem Lubinsky, president of Integrated Marketing Communications, which produces the annual Kosherfest trade show.

"We think it is important for people who eat salmon to know that farmed salmon have higher levels of toxins than wild salmon from the open ocean," University of Indiana professor Ronald Hites told the BBC.

Detractors of the research also highlight the study’s failure to note the health benefits of salmon, which is rich on fatty acids and thought to reduce the risk of heart attacks and — in contradiction to the current research findings — cancer.

Gary Tucker, managing director of Riverine Smoked Salmon, a firm that supplies many of the U.K.’s kosher delis and caterers, is determined to spread the message that salmon is not only safe, it’s good for you.

Whether Jewish aficionados buy their lox and fresh salmon for the health benefits is somewhat beside the point, however.

"Smoked salmon and cream-cheese bagels on a Sunday morning are a tradition, plain and simple,” Silverman said.

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