January 19, 2020

Opening kosher restaurant helps chef Aaron Clayton discover ingredients of his Judaism

Chef Aaron Clayton may be something of an anomaly in the observant Jewish neighborhood of Pico-Robertson. The 30-year-old son of a Russian-Jewish mother and a Baptist-raised father from Kentucky, he is neither an Orthodox Jew nor does he keep kosher. Yet, his Origin Café, which opened in May on West Pico in Los Angeles, is one of the newest kosher dairy restaurants to grace the area. And it’s hardly a pizza or falafel joint.

Rather, Clayton’s menu reflects the farm-to-table approach he learned while cooking in California’s wine country and at Herbert Samuel, the lauded gourmet restaurant, now closed, in Tel Aviv. He selects his produce from a dozen farmers from San Luis Obispo to Fresno. His seafood comes from local fishermen. And his recipes reflect his culinary adventures from Spain to Thailand, as well as his desire to use only fresh, seasonal ingredients. Most everything on his menu is made from scratch, including the tamarind paste and kimchi that he hasn’t been able to find for sale in kosher form.

Why did he choose to go kosher?

 “Frankly, it started out as a business decision,” Clayton, who is 6 feet 5, affable and earnest, said during a recent interview at the café. When he was looking for a location last year, he found an affordable rental property in Pico-Robertson and decided to cater to the area’s Orthodox residents. “Food is one of the ways in which I experience the world, so I dove into [kashrut],” he said. “I started researching and having meetings with rabbis. And my understanding and relationship with the Jewish faith has continued to evolve because of it.”

On a Monday morning at Origin Café, a blackboard in the simple, bright space listed a variety of fresh-squeezed juices, from carrot to pomegranate, as well as a homemade version of the Mexican rice drink horchata. The variety of coffees included the Vietnamese brew ca phe sua da, which Clayton first sampled while lost during a scooter trip through the jungles of Thailand.

The café’s printed menu has a Korean-spiced, seared yellowtail sandwich, served with kimchi and Clayton’s version of the condiment gochujang — a sesame paste spiked with chilies and a touch of honey. The Moroccan salmon tacos are flavored with harissa, cilantro and mint, topped with a tamarind-lime vinaigrette. Lox also has its place on the menu, cured with sugar, salt, orange zest and the leaves of the fennel plant (the fennel bulb is reserved for Clayton’s citrus and fennel halibut salad). “For us, that has to do with working within the environment,” Clayton said. “Everything that we do has a second life, so we’re not throwing anything away.”

For Chanukah, Clayton will hardly serve the usual potato pancakes. “We’re going to do sweet potato latkes with a curried crème fraiche, spiced apple chutney and mint-lime vinaigrette — kind of Indian style,” he said.

If chef Clayton, who runs the kosher Origin Café in Pico-Robertson, has a signature dish, it’s shakshuka, a spicy Israeli egg stew. 

Clayton grew up in Encino, in a decidedly secular home. “My father, for as long as I have known him, has never been in a church,” the chef said. “He had a ‘divorce’ with religion. But it was always a very open discussion. My parents let me know I was welcome to feel any way I wanted about faith.”

His parents were enthusiastic when he elected to become a bar mitzvah, while cautioning that ‘this is about yourself and Judaism, not just a big celebration,’ ” he recalled. When he began his tutoring with the then-cantor (now rabbi) Ron Li-Paz of Valley Outreach Synagogue, “the first thing out of my mouth was, ‘I’m not sure whether or not I believe in God,’ ” Clayton said. “And there was no shock or judgment on his face. …The majority of our discussions centered around the historical, academic and psychological perspectives on the Jewish faith, because theological dogma wasn’t particularly important for me at the time.”

Meanwhile, food was crucial to the young Clayton, who described himself as “a fat kid with an insatiable appetite.”

 “The funny thing is, growing up I wasn’t in contact with anyone who was a particularly good cook,” he said. “We had tuna noodle casserole at least once a week, which I absolutely hated.”

Clayton’s mother, a busy accountant, prepared school lunches “that were invariably two pieces of bread with one of those Kraft cheese singles crammed in between,” he recalled. “I must have been 6 or 7 when I said, ‘Mom, please, this is not lunch.’ And she said, ‘I don’t have time; if you want something else … you can make it.’ ”

Clayton promptly began preparing his own bagged lunches and cooking meals by “basically rummaging through the cabinets, seeing what was there and kind of working things out.”

He went on to attend culinary school at the Kitchen Academy in Hollywood and to intern at a restaurant in Thousand Oaks that specialized in molecular gastronomy. “We’d make caviar balls out of fruit purees,” he recalled. Then came three years at the Black Cat Bistro in Cambria, Calif., followed by a year at Herbert Samuel under the esteemed chefs Yonatan Roshfeld and Yuval Ben Neriah.

 “Understanding Israel’s agriculture and how scarce resources are there — we really took that to heart,” Clayton said. “We were very deliberate in how we used the ingredients, in knowing how they were grown and what it took to bring them to the plate.”

During that year, Clayton traveled all over the Jewish state, avidly reading about Jewish history and walking the streets of Jerusalem for hours on end. “It absolutely helped solidify my Jewish identity,” he said.

When he returned to Los Angeles, he worked as a personal chef for five years before opening Origin Café, but the kashrut learning curve was steep. Clayton sought and earned his restaurant’s certification through Kosher LA, under the supervision of Rabbi Moises Benzaquen. “Our first step was cleaning out everything, so we blowtorched, we boiled and we burned,” Clayton said.

The chef said he chose to go with a kosher dairy menu “because eating meat on a daily basis isn’t the most sustainable thing.”

Origin Café is open for breakfast and lunch, as well as a four-course dinner about once a month. A recent prix fixe meal began with an appetizer of pumpkin roasted in olive oil, topped with toasted papaya seeds and green curry butter. A leek-flavored pea soup included not just peas but also the tendrils and other parts of the plant. For the main course, Clayton whipped up handmade artichoke tortellini infused with ricotta cheese and caramelized shallots, and finished with a pistachio pesto. Dessert featured a mango puree with grilled pineapple and crumbled coconut macaroons.

If Clayton has a signature dish, it’s his shakshuka — an homage to the Israeli spicy egg stew he shared every morning with his colleagues at Herbert Samuel. Clayton simmers onions, bell peppers, shaved garlic and tomatoes with vegetable stock for more than four hours before adding the eggs, which are cooked in a sous vide water bath.

So far, the café has drawn mostly modern Orthodox patrons, some of whom “bench,” or recite prayers, after a meal, Clayton said.

 “Since opening the restaurant, I have started going through the Torah portion and study guides every week, just to learn and grow,” he said.

Clayton still attends Valley Outreach Synagogue and lays tefillin with a Chasidic patron a few times a month. 

“My Judaism has been a natural kind of evolution,” he said, “just the way this restaurant has been a natural evolution of my cuisine.”

For more information about Origin Café, located at 8532 W. Pico Blvd., call (424) 288-4682.