Benny Greisman of Irving’s Premium Challah (left) and Evan Bloom of Wise Sons at Emanu-El panel discussion (Photo/Alix Wall)
Benny Greisman of Irving’s Premium Challah (left) and Evan Bloom of Wise Sons at Emanu-El panel discussion (Photo/Alix Wall)

At ‘Oy Bay BBQ,’ Jewish chefs who say food is more than a business

The platters of pastrami, rye, coleslaw and potato salad — and later, babka and black-and-white cookies — were in the back of the room. There was also chopped liver with crostini and latkes with smoked trout spread, and more chopped liver, plus applesauce for good measure.

But Rabbi Ryan Bauer had a surprise for those gathered for the Tribe for Men’s “Oy Bay BBQ” event at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, where a panel discussion about local Jewish food was the main course. As if proving his Jewish cred, Bauer surveyed the platters before the event and worried there might not be enough food (in fact, there was more than enough).

“After deli, what’s the second most Jewish food?” he asked the crowd.

“Chinese?” guessed one participant.

Of course it is. Bauer had called in a large order of Mission Chinese Food’s Kung Pao Pastrami. Just in case.

It’s rare to have people from some of the city’s best-known Jewish food businesses on one stage together. Robby Morgenstein, chef-owner of Miller’s East Coast Deli, and Evan Bloom, chef-owner of Wise Sons, have even shared employees over the years but somehow had never met in person before. They were joined by Scott Youkilis, chef-owner of Hog & Rocks and a member of Emanu-El, and Benny Greisman, son of Irving Greisman, who started Irving’s Premium Challah.

The idea for the gathering came from Emanu-El member Matt Kaufman in a brainstorming session with Bauer about future Tribe for Men events. Given that so many congregants are New York transplants like Kaufman, and the quest for the foods they grew up with is a constant topic of conversation, he felt pretty certain it could be a popular offering. So popular, in fact, that when women got wind of it, they wanted in. (Incidentally, despite the event name, there was no barbecue to be seen.)

Getting the panel started, participants were asked to share what this food means to them and talk about challenges they face in the industry.
Morgenstein said one problem stems from how people remember Jewish food growing up. “Everyone has a sense memory, and now they’re over here, it’s 30 years later, and they’re 2,500 miles away and their taste memory has changed. Sometimes it hits the spot, and other times it’s just ‘feh.’” (News flash: After years of ordering black-and-white cookies from an East Coast purveyor, Miller’s has just started making its own.)

Youkilis, who has incorporated Jewish elements into his menus, recently did a pop-up of latkes called “The Chosen” for Hanukkah. Given that he’s active at Emanu-El and his kids attend Brandeis School of San Francisco, he is thinking about how he can add to the existing Jewish food scene.

“I’ve seen how restaurants can connect people, but now that I have kids, I think more about introducing them to the foods I grew up with,” he said.
But the industry is not without its hardships. Bloom reiterated numerous times how difficult the deli business is. While pastrami is by far Wise Sons’ most popular dish, he said it has the slimmest profit margin. And Morgenstein, who opened his deli in 2001, said the minimum wage was around $9.25 then, and soon will increase to $15.

Audience questions touched on a range of issues, from the Bay Area’s great bagel controversy, to the high cost on the consumer side (“I feel like an a–hole for paying $18 for a sandwich,” one said. “Why is it so expensive?”), to the panel’s all-male makeup.

With the exception of Karen Adelman, co-owner of Saul’s Deli in Berkeley, no one on the panel could name any women in the Jewish deli business locally. Bloom said he fields several calls a month from young people who are interested in opening a deli and look to Wise Sons for inspiration. “None of them are women,” he said.

Despite the challenges, all of the participants expressed great reverence for the food and what it means personally and to the community.

“We love making challah because it brings family around the Shabbat table together,” said Greisman, whose family business makes 1,700 challahs a week.

Bloom loves the same thing, seeing multigenerational families all enjoying deli together.

“We’re never going to be as good as the corned beef you had with your Uncle Irving at his favorite deli in New Jersey,” said Bloom, “but if it reminds you of that, it’s pretty cool.”

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."