Passover, which begins this year at sundown on March 25, is the most widely celebrated of all the Jewish holidays — and, as with many Jewish holidays, food is at the heart of the festivities. However, preparing a seder, or ritual dinner, when you don’t have generations of Jewish Bubbes to learn from, or if you’re not that culinarily inclined, can seem like a daunting task — even if we have come a long way from keeping live carp in the bathtub. Which may be why restaurants, delis and specialty groceries are stepping in to help out.
Passover commemorates when Jews escaped slavery in ancient Egypt. And, given that the seder is customarily held on the first and second (of eight) nights, most synagogues or Jewish community centers hold their community seders on the second night, leaving many without a seder on the first.
Rabbi Bridget Wynne is executive director of Jewish Gateways in Albany, a non-profit that helps those with scant Jewish backgrounds connect to Judaism in ways meaningful for them. Three years ago, she started to fill that gap by leading a catered seder at the East Bay Jewish Community Center on the first night. Each year, it sells out, proving there is a definitely a need.
“It’s a home-based celebration, so it’s not as potentially intimidating as something at a synagogue,” she said “Also, it’s around food, family and community. These are the parts of Judaism that are more comfortable and accessible to people,” as opposed to High Holy Days services, for example, which are held in synagogue.
This year, a Berkeley Jewish chef has thrown his toque into the ring, not by offering a first-night seder exactly, but rather two Passover dinners.
Comal’s executive chef Matt Gandin will be serving a multi-course Mexican dinner for 20 in a private room of the downtown Berkeley restaurant on the first and second nights of Passover. Both nights sold out fairly swiftly – despite the restaurant fielding a few angry phone calls from people complaining that the menus weren’t kosher at all, not to mention, kosher for Passover.
Gandin first started creating Passover menus while he was chef de cuisine at Delfina in San Francisco with another Jewish chef, executive chef Craig Stoll.
“It was always fun for me to do these dinners as an almost academic exercise — to figure out how to use Jewish ingredients in whatever cuisine I was working with,” he said. Noting that Jews have always taken their own cuisine and adapted it to wherever they landed, he likes the idea of blending older culinary traditions with the new to make something his own.
Call it fusion, if you will, though Gandin doesn’t like that word.
For example, in Gandin’s menu, matzah balls in chicken soup will become jalapeňo and cilantro matzah balls in Caldo de Pollo, a Mexican chicken and vegetable soup.
Gandin said that offering these dinners on the first and second nights wasn’t deliberate; given that the restaurant is still fairly new — it opened last May — and this is his first time doing a special menu at the same time as dinner service, he wanted to try it out on a Monday and Tuesday rather than on busier nights of the week. And of course he’ll be soliciting feedback for next year.
Gandin’s multi-course menu also features lamb barbacoa, tequila-cured salmon and brisket in adobo. The menu mixes meat and cheese, and uses beans, rice and corn — meaning that for Jews of Eastern European descent, it is not kosher for Passover. (One component of the dessert, a shortbread cookie, has regular flour in it too, but that can easily be avoided, he said.)
Gandin’s Passover menu is part of a larger trend that began in 1988, when Joyce Goldstein started offering several nights of a Passover menu at her San Francisco restaurant Square One in 1988.
“I think we were the only ones [in the Bay Area] doing it at that time,” she said, but the idea caught on. “It was mostly Jewish chefs doing them.”
For Saul’s Deli of Berkeley, Passover is its biggest holiday of the year. Every year, the preparations start two weeks in advance, since the majority of its Passover business is take-out. Saul’s chefs prepare massive amounts of horseradish using gas masks, said co-owner and executive chef Peter Levitt, and they make hundreds of pounds of brisket.
On the afternoon of the first night of Passover, they set up a rented refrigerated truck outside, to cater to the large numbers of people who pre-ordered their gefilte fish and other traditional foods. The restaurant closes that evening, but reopens for the second night.
And then, a curious thing happens.
People who want the convenience of someone else doing the cooking bring their own haggadahs – or use Saul’s, whose staff have compiled their own. It’s not uncommon to see about 15 seders going on at the same time in the restaurant. Not only does Saul’s provide a full Passover menu with numerous entrée options – this year, it’s inspired by Yotam Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem
“The funny thing is, that it’s done differently at each table, as everyone has their own interpretations,” said co-owner Karen Adelman.
This can be tricky for the non-Jewish wait staff, she said, who have no idea whether a particular table will take 15 minutes, three hours, or somewhere in between to run through the seder, and therefore don’t know how to pace the food.
As in previous years, The Pasta Shops at Oakland’s Market Hall and on Fourth Street in Berkeley, will offer a full Passover menu for take-out, to be ordered in advance. Options include brisket with braised vegetables, zucchini, carrot and potato kugel and matzah ball soup.
And Oakland residents will have some new Passover options this year. While most observant Jews will flock, as they always do, to Oakland Kosher, for the non-kosher set, Temescal’s Beauty’s Bagels will be selling delicacies like house-made gefilte fish, charoset (the symbolic fruit-and-nut paste representing the mortar the Jews used to make bricks), horseradish, macaroons and matzah. Since Beauty’s will not cease its bagel operation during the holiday, the matzah won’t be kosher, even if it is baked in the wood-fired oven without any bagels present. Also, co-owner Blake Joffe said his matzah has olive oil and salt (both forbidden in the traditional recipe, which can only have flour and water). “I’m trying to actually make matzah taste good,” Joffe quipped.
Grand Lake Kitchen, a new deli with sit-down service on Grand Ave., is offering a non-kosher Passover menu as well, with a few items from Beauty’s, as well as house-made brisket, and chicken soup.
Interestingly, the idea of Passover menus has caught on with non-Jewish chefs as well since chef David Wasem and co-owner May Seto, the couple who owns Grand Lake Kitchen, aren’t Jewish.
Beauty’s will start selling its Passover food on Sunday, March 24 through the entire week of the holiday, and Grand Lake Kitchen will have its Passover menu for the full week of Passover as well.
Rabbi Wynne said that she can understand the appeal of taking the home-based holiday out to a restaurant, especially if the restaurant is offering the traditional foods, given how much work is involved in preparing everything. And while holding a seder in a non-kosher restaurant would never fly with more observant Jews, for those just getting their toes wet, Wynne thinks it’s a great idea.
Wynne suggests diners bring their own haggadah to a restaurant offering a Passover menu. She recommended “The 30-Minute Haggadah,” for example.
“If you want to do some part of the ritual, and [preparing a seder] seems overwhelming, get that haggadah, bring it to the restaurant, and do whatever part has meaning for you,” she said.
Places for Passover menus:
Comal, downtown Berkeley
Saul’s Deli, North Berkeley
The Pasta Shop at Market Hall, Rockridge, Oakland
The Pasta Shop, Fourth Street, Berkeley
Oakland Kosher Foods, Oakland
Beauty’s Bagel Shop, Oakland
Grand Lake Kitchen, Oakland
Alix Wall is a certified natural foods chef and freelance writer who lives in Oakland.