The organic epicure | Wilderness Torah chef makes healing and herbs menu staples

Four years ago, Baruch Schwadron, an herbalist who has cooked for large groups, moved to the Bay Area. While he had heard of Wilderness Torah, he hadn’t yet attended any of its festivals. With only two weeks to go before Passover in the Desert, he applied for a work-trade spot, but there were no openings.

Suddenly, Avishai Pearlson, who was then Wilderness Torah’s chef, learned he had to leave the festival early for a family event. An organizer asked if Schwadron could cook the last lunch and dinner for the group.

“I had cooked for up to 80 people before, and it felt easy for me,” said Schwadron. “I also knew a lot about food and nutrition.” He said yes, which led to serving as co-chef at future Wilderness Torah events, until Pearlson moved to Peru with his wife. Schwadron has been the organization’s head chef ever since.

Schwadron, 30, lives in Berkeley and grew up in a Conservative Jewish family in Missouri. But he has an unusual background for a chef. He majored in cultural medicine at the University of Michigan, studying communities across the globe and their approach to healing. He has spent extended lengths of time in Peru studying with a shaman. He did Birthright Israel between stays in Kenya and India — which spurred his journey back to Judaism — and later decided to go by his Hebrew name rather than his birth name, Brian.

He first came to the Bay Area to attend Sonoma County’s California School of Herbal Studies and then moved to the East Bay, where he has launched his own organic, kosher catering business. An instructor in Wilderness Torah’s B’Naiture program for youth, he also launched Water of the Vine, a venture in which he teaches earth-living skills such as starting a fire in the wild, making cordage from flax and making one’s own shoes.

Given his background, Schwadron sees himself as more of a healer than a chef, and his cooking reflects that.  His meal plans for events reflect activities that come before and after each meal.

After a late night of dancing at a wedding, for example, he’ll put more immune-boosting herbs — anything from raw garlic to echinacea — into breakfast the next morning. If it’s a cold day, he’ll use ginger, cinnamon and cloves, which feel warming, or if it’s a hot day, mint or basil.

Wilderness Torah’s Sukkot on the Farm, taking place this weekend in Pescadero, is one of the easiest festivals to plan for because almost everything is in season and the holiday doesn’t have special dietary restrictions.

Some favorites from past festivals will be repeats this year: rosemary-roasted fish cooked in a pit; cholent, which is wrapped in blankets at dusk on Friday to keep cooking throughout Shabbat for Saturday night’s meal; and the Tunisian-Israeli favorite shakshouka on the last morning.

 

Baruch Schwadron  photo/facebook

To make the fish, a pit is dug into the ground, and two frames are made out of soaked willow. The fish, stuffed with lemon slices and thyme, is sandwiched between the frames and layers of rosemary.

 

While Sukkot meals are relatively easy, Passover in the Desert is a great challenge. Wilderness Torah strives to observe the strictest levels of kashrut in an outdoor kitchen with wind and dust. (Schwadron who notes that his sister is now Hassidic, likes to think she would eat at the festival.)

Choices include foods for those who eat kitniyot (grains and legumes that are kosher on Pesach for Sephardim) and those who don’t.

This year’s Passover in the Desert, held near Death Valley, was particularly challenging because of its length and timing, and at the end of the festival, there was less fresh produce available. Luckily, one participant from Los Angeles came late, with a lot of greens grown from his own garden.

Furthermore, some participants went on an overnight vision quest, and they had different dietary needs after coming back from their fast.

“It’s extremely expensive to feed large numbers of people and not have kitniyot be an essential part of the meal,” said Schwadron. “We tried to have it so that people who felt they needed [these foods] got them, but we also needed to craft the menu so that people who don’t eat them didn’t feel they were missing out on something important.”

But somehow, Schwadron manages to juggle it all.

“At our festivals, we have to feed hundreds of hungry participants over multiple days, and Baruch knows exactly how to create the beautiful meals that highlight the holiday flavors and Wilderness Torah’s culinary values of using local organic, kosher ingredients,” said Flora Goldman, community program and logistics manager for the orgainization.

Alix Wall is a personal chef in the East Bay and beyond. Her website is www.theorganicepicure.com. Please send story ideas to alixwall@sbcglobal.net.

Headshot of Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."