For chef Lee Davidson, cooking is a group activity, a way to gather people together around food. But she doesn’t teach cooking classes.
“I’m a food healer or I’m a curator of food healing spaces, and I really want to start pushing those boundaries,” said Davidson. “There are a lot of cooking classes, and they are healthy and nourishing, but people are not there when they cook a lot of the time. They’re not present.”
The Oakland resident believes cooking also can be used as a tool to aid one’s meditation practice, as it “can help you be engaged and use your senses.”
Plus, at the end, “You get to eat.”
Davidson, whose business Made2Gather offers team-building food events, healing workshops and catering services, has cooked at numerous events sponsored by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. At a recent Pride Shabbat dinner, she created a menu with each course corresponding with a color of the rainbow: kale sautéed with peas for green, couscous with corn and squash for yellow; honey and cumin-glazed carrots for orange, beet purée for red, and purple potatoes with garlic and rosemary for blue.
Davidson is a chef on the Feastly platform, and offers a popular shakshuka brunch cooking class. Another is called “Israeli Food for the Soul.”
When asked to describe her style, Davidson has a bit of a hard time putting it all in one basket. She spent her teen years in Israel, so the Mediterranean diet has had a big influence, with its emphasis on fresh vegetables, but her formative years were spent in South Africa and she lived for a time in London so there are Dutch and Indian influences, too.
She said her interest in food probably began when she was young — like, in a baby seat young, hanging out in the kitchen — where there were always the “smells of stews and all of this food going around.”
Davidson, 31, had Israeli immigrant parents who both worked, and in Johannesburg she had successive black nannies who mostly brought her up. With a lot of singing and cooking going on in the kitchen, “I think inevitably I must have absorbed a connection to it,” she said.
At 11, her mother took her and her siblings back to Israel, where two of her grandparents — her father’s father and her mother’s mother — were amazing cooks. While her mom’s side of the family had more traditional food tastes, her dad’s side was full of adventurous eaters, always bringing back exotic salamis and cheeses from travels abroad.
Davidson’s first job, at a McDonald’s in a Tel Aviv suburb, may not have been a harbinger of a future in healthy food, but it did lead to other jobs in the food industry, including at pizzerias and a bakery where she worked seasonally at Hanukkah to help make sufganiyot, the holiday jelly-filled donuts.
Despite her long-running interest in food, it took Davidson awhile to figure out that she was meant to be a chef. She studied art and graphic design in London after serving in the Israeli army. Even when she used cupcakes as her medium for a design project, and spent three months figuring out various ways to decorate them, “I still didn’t understand or put it together that that’s where my heart is,” she said.
She moved to Los Angeles, where she had family, and helped manage their juice bar business for a spell. When she visited San Francisco during Pride weekend, she knew this is where she wanted to live.
Six years ago, she made the move north and got a nanny position with Anya Fernald, CEO of the sustainable meat business Belcampo. Though Davidson was mostly taking care of Fernald’s daughter, there were a lot of travel and dinner parties involved in Belcampo’s early days, and Davidson was able to put her culinary skills to use.
Later, when she began cooking for a woman with thyroid disease and saw her condition improve dramatically, she realized it was time to take this cooking thing seriously, and she enrolled in a 12-week course at Kitchen on Fire to refine the skills she already had.
“Being able to support this woman’s healing made me wonder how I could turn this into something more,” she said.
Davidson has a Hebrew phrase tattooed on one forearm, perhaps a curious placement given she is the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors. It has the biblical phrase “ehiyeh asher ehiyeh,” which is how God answers Moses when he asks God’s name. Commonly translated as “I am that I am,” Davidson interpreted it more as “I will be what I will be,” and said she got it as a mark of self-acceptance after struggling with the emotional turmoil of coming out.
“It’s more philosophical than religious,” she said.
When Davidson arrived in the Bay Area — she became a U.S. citizen earlier this month — she said she was disconnected from the Jewish community. But a funny thing happened in her working life.
“Food has brought me back to Judaism and the Jewish community came with it,” she said. “The community found me, and now I’m finding so many more Jews. The concept of gathering people around food is implemented so much with my business and what I do.”
Part of this column originally appeared on KQED’s Bay Area Bites. Reprinted with permission.
Emily Paster, the Chicago-based food blogger (West of the Loop) and author of “The Joy of Jewish Preserving,” swung through town on her book tour earlier this month, doing publicity stops in the city and East Bay. The Organic Epicure caught up with her at a canning demo at Urban Adamah in Berkeley, where she braved the cold (yes, the outdoor kitchen got chilly enough so that Mexican blankets were passed around to attendees) to show the 25 or so assembled how to make vinegar pickles and an Indian-style quick-pickled eggplant.
While her workshop covered a lot of the basics of canning and preserving (such as, the blossom end of a cucumber should always be removed before pickling; somehow that extra bit can make the cukes turn mushy), she also explained what “bubbling the jar” is (using a straight utensil to get out any air bubbles) and which vinegars and salts are best used for pickling. She also shared a bit about the rich history of Jewish food preservation. As it turns out, it is a tradition of both Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews.
Paster first started canning when she learned her baby daughter had many food allergies. And living in Chicago, where the growing season of certain vegetables is much shorter than it is in California, she’d buy extras of her favorites at her local farmers market and can them for winter.
Talking to her agent about her next book (her first was “Food Swaps”), she came up with the idea to write one on Jewish canning because she loves Jewish food and she loves canning, and no other book seemed to have combined the two. She especially liked researching about preserving traditions in Sephardic culture because it was lesser known to her. “They didn’t need to preserve as much as the Ashkenazi Jews did, but they did so anyway,” she said.
Paster’s book is full of jams, fruit butters and pickles. Below is a sample recipe of an Indian-flavored pickled eggplant with chiles and mint — a favorite of hers and one of the demos at Urban Adamah.
Bene Israel Quick-Pickled Eggplant
Makes 3 pints (1.4 liters)
2 medium eggplants, peeled and cubed
1 Tbsp. (15 g) kosher salt
2 cups (475 ml) apple cider vinegar
1 cups (235 ml) white wine vinegar
1 cups (235 ml) water
1 tsp. sugar
6 cloves garlic, sliced
3 dried chiles
12 mint leaves
Place the eggplant cubes in a colander and sprinkle with salt. Cover with a paper towel and weight down with a plate. Allow the eggplant to drain for 30 minutes.
Sterilize 3 pint-size (473 ml) jars by filling them with boiling water and allowing then to sit for 5 minutes. Pour the water out and allow the jars to air-dry naturally. Keep warm.
Meanwhile, bring the vinegars, water and sugar to a boil in a large saucepan. Add the eggplant and simmer until softened, 3 to 5 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the eggplant cubes to the jars. Add 2 cloves of sliced garlic, a dried chile and 4 mint leaves to each jar.
Cover the eggplant cubes with brine, leaving 1/2 inch (1 cm) of headspace. Allow the jars to cool, cover them and refrigerate. Allow the eggplant to cure for 2 to 3 days before serving. Pickled eggplant will keep in the refrigerator for several weeks.