Isaac Bernstein can go on and on about his love for pork; the belly and bacon were particular favorites. With a love like that — “an obsession,” he says — it’s hard to believe he gave it up once he became Orthodox. Except that he hasn’t given it up entirely. It’s just that the bacon he eats is a version he makes himself, and it’s made from veal.
One of Bernstein’s goals, and it’s a funny one for a kosher caterer, is to give his clients the sense of eating bacon. “I can’t do catering if I can’t give people that awesome experience,” he says.
So he experimented and came up with his veal bacon. “We charge a fortune for our bacon, and we can’t make it fast enough,” he says, referring to himself and partner Eitan Esan, 27, the forces behind Epic Bites Catering.
Bernstein, 28, is currently working on beef bacon, and he also makes ham out of duck. (He adds with a note of pride that several clients have “freaked out” at their events, thinking that the real thing was actually being served.)
Oakland-based Epic Bites has been official for about six months. The partners neither advertise nor have a website, and that’s the way they like it. (They can be reached via email at email@example.com.)
“It works really well for us this way,” says Bernstein. “We’re afraid to advertise, we don’t want people lining up at the door. We want a few parties to choose from, and want to enjoy working. We don’t want to do parties where we’re forced to do things we don’t want to do.”
Bernstein and Esan have much in common. Both are from New York. They are almost the same age, married, and fathers to very young children. Bernstein was raised Orthodox, left it to explore his passion for food, and now has returned. Esan didn’t grow up Orthodox, but decided at 18 that that was his path.
Esan grew up watching cooking shows on television, but has a master’s in public administration. Yet he worked in a butcher shop, and says he takes direction well. Bernstein is the trained chef of the pair; he went to culinary school, is an expert bread baker, and has completeds internships in kitchens around the world.
Clearly Bernstein is more the brains behind the food, and Esan is the more business-minded of the pair.
Esan moved west to take a job running the Orthodox movement’s youth movement, NCSY, while Bernstein moved here to follow his passion for bread baking.
The two met at Oakland’s Beth Jacob Congregation. Bernstein was working as a freelance baker. “When someone needed a baker, I could just show up for the day and then go home. It was easy money and allowed me to relax, but I got bored.”
Esan was getting bored at exactly the same time, and suggested they start a kosher catering business in the East Bay.
Slowly, they began volunteering to do an event here, another one there. Beth Jacob Rabbi Judah Dardik allowed them to use the synagogue’s kitchen (Beth Jacob has both meat and dairy kitchens, so Epic Bites can do both meat and dairy events). At first, the pair called themselves Adequate Catering, because it expressed their feelings about most large-scale catered events.
“You can’t cater an event for 400 people where everyone will get perfectly cooked meat,” Bernstein says. “The best you can aim for is adequate.” But their clients were finding the food much more than adequate.
Though they began doing only Beth Jacob events, word about them spread to Jewish organizations, and even some non-Jewish clients came onboard. Out of the four recent reviews of them on Yelp, three gave them five stars (the top rating).
“Everything was perfect and the guests were literally clamoring for more/complimenting the food the entire evening,” wrote one Yelper.
Bernstein and Esan say their goal is just to make people happy: They have their own tastes and palates, but are not trying to force them on their clientele.
“We don’t want people to be limited by the kosher experience, just because you can’t use this or you can’t use that. It’s a bad excuse,” Esan says.
For smaller events, Epic Bites uses duck fat or goose fat in place of butter. Among the dishes for which they are known: their 72-hour short ribs, pulled veal (which resembles pulled pork) and duck breast cooked slowly overnight. They are frequent users of a sous vide (immersion circulator) machine, “bringing technology and mixing it with the farmers market,” says Bernstein.
They do not attempt any parve desserts that are supposed to be made with dairy unless they are 100 percent pleased with the results. Among their non-dairy desserts is one with bacon jam and peanut butter — “don’t knock it until you try it,” Bernstein says — and a hazelnut cake made with duck fat.
“We won’t use margarine,” adds Bernstein. “It’s unnatural, and doesn’t belong in your food.” Instead, they favor hydrocolloids, gums that change the texture of food without sacrificing flavor. “We can do panna cotta with soy milk, and use carrageenan [a vegetarian substitute for gelatin, extracted from seaweed] to achieve the perfect texture,” he continues, adding, “Hydrocolloids are all kosher but are very difficult to source.”
Long-range plans include finding a larger storage space (they currently rent space in San Francisco for when large orders of meat come in), and perhaps eventually having a storefront where they can sell their own charcuterie (they also make their own mozzarella) and other items.
Says Esan: “Being kosher just pushes you to be more creative.”