In the fall of 2015, I attended a weekend conference called “The Harvest Gathering” put on by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation in Colorado. It was for Jews who work in the food industry; we were chefs, food writers, food entrepreneurs, and more. Everyone I met was doing something interesting, and many potential partnerships could have been made, that is, if we hadn’t come from all over the country.
At that conference, they told us we’d be eligible to receive some funding before the end of the year to put on some kind of experience for our peers. Together with two other Bay Area attendees, Ezra Malmuth of Atlas Edibles and Elianna Friedman, we each applied for and received a small grant. We chose to put on a Chanukah/Shabbat dinner, and because our circle of friends did not overlap, we made it a Harvest Gathering of our own by inviting other Jews we knew in the food industry.
Ezra, Elianna and I spent two full days cooking. We served celery root latkes with crème fraiche and caviar, and short ribs braised overnight, with black truffles. We had a crudo course and made duck egg challah. The grant allowed us to rent dishes, pair wines with each course, and pay a food-obsessed high school student who is now a food writer in New York, Elazar Sontag, to help us cook, serve and clear.
We chefs didn't just cook the food, though. We joined our guests at the table. Over dinner, we each told our food story; how we had gotten into it and why. Of course more than one Jewish mother or grandmother were evoked. The next day, so inspired by what had happened, I started a group on Facebook called “Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals,” and added those who were there, plus many I had met over the years writing about food for J., the Jewish News of Northern California. Within a day, people started adding others. Soon, Chuck Siegel of Charles Chocolates offered to host the first meet-up, which happened in January, 2016. About 25 people showed up, many of whom I knew already, but quite a few I didn’t. At that gathering, Lisa Rogovin, founder of Edible Excursions, said she’d like to see some kind of latke showdown happen. Our official launch was at Covenant Winery in Berkeley, celebrating the new cookbook of Joyce Goldstein in April of that year; in August we went to Sebastopol to tour and sample cheese by Lisa Gottreich of Bohemian Creamery, and by December, we had a latke showdown at the Ferry Building. By April, we had chosen a better name (I knew Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals was just a placeholder) thanks to member and food writer Jim Gladstone, who came up with The Illuminoshi. (I still get so many kudos on the name, and always give credit to Jim).
Our mailing list continues to grow (we are now up to close to 500 names). Recently, I started charging voluntary dues for the first time.
We are primarily a networking group that holds events – more or less – quarterly. More than one job has been found through the group and numerous partnerships, not to mention friendships.
I said this at our launch and I’ve repeated it numerous times. I believe I'm a pretty good writer and a pretty good chef. But one of my superpowers has always been connecting people who should know each other. And given that Judaism and food are two such major forces in my life, it only makes sense that I would combine them in this way.
So how do you join? Drop me a line and tell me what you do in the food industry. Or find us on Facebook, and request to join there. It's as easy as that.
Some of the chefs who cooked for the launch with Joyce Goldstein, at Covenant Winery.
Not unsurprisingly, I was the first one to write about that epic Shabbat dinner (jump to the second half) in my own column. But of course, quite a few others have written about us by now, too. We've gotten some wonderful press for our events. Our launch was covered both by Frances Dinkelspiel at Berkeleyside and by Sue Fishkoff at J. Our latke showdown was covered by Amanda Gold at The San Francisco Chronicle. Our summer meet-up at Urban Adamah was covered by Rachel Trachten at Edible East Bay. Most recently, we were mentioned in this map of Jewish food in the Bay Area put out by The Gefilteria. And then...there was the Trefa Banquet.
In 1883, on the occasion of the first graduating class of Reform rabbis at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Ohio, a dinner with multiple seafood courses and that mixed meat with milk, that came to be called The Trefa Banquet, took place. In an informal poll, I realized that most of our members had never heard of it. Professor Rachel Gross at San Francisco State had become an enthusiastic member of the group, and when I saw that she gave a lecture on the topic, the lightbulb went off. While I had never set out to establish a kosher group, until this event, I had avoided serving shellfish or pork at any of our events because it seemed like the right thing to do. But I knew that most of our member chefs cooked with these items all the time. In fact, the Jewish love for treif is a well-known fact. I thought what better way to acknowledge this, than by learning about the real banquet, especially since it is a piece of our history and it concerns food. I asked eight of our chefs to participate by making some of their favorite treif dishes. All of our pork and rabbit came from local Jewish farmers Mark and Myriam Pasternak at Devil's Gulch Ranch in Marin County. This dinner was meant to simply recognize that this is the way that most Jews eat today. But I was accused of all kinds of other things. Jonathan Sarna, a historian of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, wrote an op-ed for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency saying that he hoped my Trefa Banquet wouldn't become as divisive as the original one. Rachel Gross answered with one of her own. While we were covered by NPR's food blog The Salt, and the Jewish Daily Forward felt the need to do two separate articles on it, and I was interviewed by the London Jewish Chronicle by a woman who couldn't believe I could be so Jewishly-identified that she could see my chuppah hanging in my office behind me as we Skyped. Finally, I was invited on the podcast Judaism Unbound to explain why I did it. While I believe it was a wonderful event (and was told so by those who were there) at this moment, it remains to be seen whether I'll do it again. Being accused of wanting to destroy the Jewish people is not something I take lightly (no matter how ridiculous it is), and I certainly never set out to make a name for myself in the Jewish world just for something millions of Jews do every day.