Had Mat Schuster not fallen in love with a Spaniard, he might have ended up as a deli man.
The chef-owner of Canela, a charming, 6-year-old Spanish restaurant in the Castro District of San Francisco, said whenever he dreamed about opening his own restaurant, his partner, Paco Cifuentes, would say that it should be Spanish.
“I had always thought it would be a deli. That’s what excited me, and it was more in my purview and what I was familiar with,” said Schuster, 41. “But at the same time, we were always going to Spain, and I would learn from his mother or from other places, and come back here and teach classes on Spanish food. And the more comfortable I felt with it, the more I wrapped my head around it and realized I love this food.”
For years Cifuentes was in biotech and mainly functioned as Schuster’s “quality control,” telling him “this tastes like my mom’s, this doesn’t,” but along the way he developed a passion for Spanish wine and now is importing all of the wine for the restaurant, as well as growing his own wine business.
One way that Schuster keeps connected to his Jewish roots is by offering Jewish holiday menus, which he’s been doing for several years now.
This year, he’ll be offering his Passover menu throughout the holiday, from March 30 through April 7, which includes matzah ball soup with farfel, dill and mixed pickled vegetables; chilled, smoked whitefish spread (see recipe below) with chive, matzah and haroset; braised short ribs with tsimmes, parsnip purée and horseradish vinaigrette, and house-made chocolate almond cake with coconut cream and caramel. The Passover menu is $69 per person (not including tax or gratuity) and includes wine pairings (not Manischewitz, he promises).
The Passover dinners have been so popular, he said, that last year he added a Hanukkah menu that featured a communal dinner, a menorah lighting and a white elephant gift exchange, and a Rosh Hashanah menu that included Texas Jewish braised brisket and pomegranate-honey punch.
“I was blown away by how many people were really excited about it,” he said. “It’s really encouraging how many Jews there are in the Bay Area who come out to support these menus.”
Schuster said the more versed he became in Spanish cuisine, the more he saw ways to do Spanish-Jewish fusion.
“Especially with southern Spain, there is so much in common with Israeli and Arabic flavors,” he said. “For example, pomegranates are huge in Israel, and there is a city named after the pomegranate in Spain.”
Certain flavor profiles also lend themselves very well to Jewish cuisine, he said, like that of Spanish paprika.
“It’s one of the defining Spanish flavors, and it can very easily be applied to lamb shanks or brisket or other meats that are familiar in Jewish cooking.”
Another crossover ingredient is almonds; they are the most commonly used nut in Spain, and are often found in Jewish desserts.
Schuster was born and raised in Fort Worth, Texas. On his father’s side were immigrants from Germany, and on his mother’s side, immigrants from Russia. “It was always astounding to me how you get on a boat in Europe and you think you’re going to America, but you end up in these tiny towns in Texas,” he said. “Corpus Christi and Houston were big ports where people came in, too. Not everyone came via the East Coast.”
His maternal grandmother was the best cook in the family, he said, but along with her kasha varnishkes and stuffed cabbage she was also known for her Thanksgiving Jell-O molds.
Schuster remembers his grandmother and mother both being part of what was known as the synagogue “ladies’ auxiliary,” which would cook together for every bar mitzvah and wedding. It was only when the community became more affluent that food for simchas would be outsourced to caterers.
“I love those self-produced sisterhood cookbooks with the plastic covers and spiral bindings,” he said. “I love them because you can see what’s going on in that era in that part of the country and how Jews have been cooking for holidays. It’s European, it’s Americana, it’s Texas.”
Schuster showed an interest in the kitchen early on but said that it wasn’t encouraged since he was a boy. In fact, what he remembers most is his mother telling him, “Don’t make a mess.” So it was only during college, at Emory University, that he began cooking in earnest, and a college roommate suggested culinary school.
He attended the California Culinary Academy’s College of Food and later got a degree in nutrition at Berkeley’s Bauman College. While he worked “for about a minute” at a high-end kosher restaurant in San Diego, he knew he wanted to move to San Francisco and did so in 2000.
After a not-so-great job or two, he landed at Draeger’s Market, an upscale grocery chain, managing its cooking class program in Menlo Park.
As not only a newly minted chef but a newcomer to the Bay Area culinary scene, this was a great opportunity, since many well-known chefs from the area teach classes at Draeger’s. Schuster interacted with all of them. “People like Joanne Weir and Roland Passot were coming through every day and I would get their ingredients, organize their pre-prep and manage the class,” he said.
It also afforded him the opportunity to become familiar with all kinds of foreign ingredients.
Another chef who taught quite a bit at Draeger’s back then was chef, scholar and author Joyce Goldstein, who didn’t enjoy the commute from San Francisco.
“She was a big influencer in my early culinary career,” he said. “I would have to pick her up and drive her back, and on those car trips I would pick her brain about all kinds of culinary ideas I was thinking about. Our conversations expanded for me the Jewish cooking that I knew of. She would talk about certain dishes and tie them back to their origins in Jewish cooking. That was a real eye-opener for me.”
And no doubt these conversations also influenced his holiday menus.
Mat Schuster’s Smoked Fish Salad with Pickled Fennel and Red Onion
For the Pickled Fennel and Red Onion
1 large fennel bulb, julienne or half moon, fronds reserved
1 large red onion, half moon slice
½ cup cider vinegar or unseasoned rice vinegar
½ cup water
3 Tbs. honey or sugar
½ to 1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. peppercorns
Dash of chili flakes
A few herbs
Bring all ingredients except fennel and onion to a simmer. Then bring the mixture to a boil and set aside. Pour half the liquid over the onion and half over the fennel. Keep them in separate containers. Set aside to cool.
For the Smoked Fish
2 Tbs. fresh dill, minced
2 Tbs. fresh tarragon, minced
1 cup smoked fish such as whitefish or trout, shredded
½ cup sour cream
½ cup mayonnaise
Juice and zest of 1 large lemon
1 cup arugula
Sea salt and fresh ground pepper
Mix together everything for the smoked fish salad in a bowl, minus the arugula. Season with salt and pepper. Spread onto favorite cracker and top with arugula, pickled red onion and fennel.