Chef David Nayfeld in his kitchen at Che Fico (Photo/Christopher Michel)
Chef David Nayfeld in his kitchen at Che Fico (Photo/Christopher Michel)

At SF’s hot new Che Fico, Italian Jewish food is a political statement

Chef David Nayfeld wanted his new San Francisco restaurant, Che Fico, to have a strong Jewish identity because of the current political climate. But why was making a statement so important to him, exactly?

“We’ve been made into scapegoats so many times, and hearing ‘Jews will not replace us’ and weird [stuff] like that recently,” he said.

But there was another reason, too: He’s proud of who he is, and always has been.

“A lot of my peers with refugee parents tried to assimilate, but I was always loud and proud about who I am,” said Nayfield, who grew up in Alameda the son of Jewish immigrants from Belarus, and the first in his family to be born in America. “So I wanted to find my identity within this cuisine.”

When he says “this cuisine,” he is not talking about ancestral foods, but rather his cuisine of choice — Italian, with a menu that includes several Roman Jewish dishes described as the chef’s “favorite peasant comfort foods.”

“If you’re going to be cooking something every day, it should be something you want to be craving when you look at it. When you see the food coming out of the kitchen, you should think ‘I wish I could eat that right now but I have to send it to a guest.’”

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Chicken heart and gizzard salad (Photo/Alix Wall)

Nayfeld is at the helm of one of the most highly talked about Bay Area restaurants to open this year. Che Fico means “What a fig” in Italian, but in slang has come to mean “How cool.” Located on Divisadero Street two blocks from Alamo Square, it had a ton of buzz — even in this food-obsessed city — well before it opened in late March. (It is a joint venture with partner Matt Brewer and award-winning pastry chef Angela Pinkerton, who will be opening a more casual café in the space below Che Fico. Brewer and Pinkerton are also partners in Theorita.)

The opening comes five years after Nayfeld left New York City’s Eleven Madison Park, where as senior sous chef he helped take it from a new restaurant to one with three Michelin stars and four stars from the New York Times, its highest possible ranking. (It’s also where he met Pinkerton.)

The Culinary Institute of America graduate has been working in restaurants ever since his first job at Alameda’s Village Café (a Greek-Italian place, now closed) when he was 13. Now 34, his resume includes time at San Francisco’s Aqua, New York’s Cru and Las Vegas’ Joël Robuchon.

Nayfeld said it was simply a matter of learning who the best chefs in the world were, and then setting his sights on working for them.

“If you want to be the best at something, you need to go learn from the best,” he said. “Once I learned that Robuchon was considered the best chef in world, I wanted to work for him.”

When Nayfeld left Eleven Madison Park, it was to return home to the Bay Area. He wanted to be close to his family (his mother’s chiropractic office is not far from the restaurant). But he didn’t know what kind of restaurant he would open. He thought about doing his own spin on Eleven Madison Park. But that changed pretty quickly once he was away from New York, and Che Fico is the result.

On a recent visit, the pastas and pizzas I tasted were of course sublime — I’m still thinking about the sourdough pizza crust weeks later — but I was more interested in talking with him about the Jewish dishes on the menu, in the section called Cucina Ebraica (or Italian Jewish cuisine).

Grilled chopped duck liver garnished with purple radish and wood-fired matzah (Photo/Alix Wall)
Grilled chopped duck liver garnished with purple radish and wood-fired matzah (Photo/Alix Wall)

While I was fully expecting to find deep-fried artichokes, Carciofi alla Giudia, perhaps the best-known Roman Jewish dish, Nayfeld said he has only one deep-fryer and hadn’t yet perfected them.

We tried grilled chopped duck liver with a wood-fired matzah, a chicken heart and gizzard salad that our server told us was the chef’s favorite dish on the menu, and supplí, a cousin of arancini, a football-shaped, deep-fried ball of rice, with tomato and fontina cheese in the center.

The duck liver and matzah is a play on traditional chopped liver (he adorns it with translucent slices of purple radish). With the chicken hearts and gizzards dish, he reimagined it as a modern Olivier salad, a classic Russian dish featuring potatoes, peas and other chopped vegetables in a mayonnaise-based dressing.

Also on the Cucina Ebraica menu right now are a caponata — an eggplant spread with roasted peppers and raisins and walnuts — and beef tongue with salsa verde and crispy capers, based on a sandwich Nayfeld had in Rome.

He traveled extensively throughout Italy, and in Rome was drawn to the Jewish area where the ghetto used to be. The fact that there were Jewish ghettos in Italy centuries before World War II was new to him. And in addition to schooling himself in Italian Jewish history, he also wanted to understand its cuisine.

Supplí, a fried rice ball with tomato and fontina cheese (Photo/Alix Wall)
Supplí, a fried rice ball with tomato and fontina cheese (Photo/Alix Wall)

“I thought, ‘I have to know about this and understand it,’ but I’m not a historian,” he said. “As a cook, the first way you learn about history is through the food.”

Nayfeld was struck by how such dishes as fried artichokes and supplí were so commonplace on Roman menus that they became emblematic of Roman cuisine, with no acknowledgement of their Jewish origins.

“It was both awesome and I also felt sad that although these dishes were on so many menus, they were not being called out as [being Jewish],” he said.

Nayfeld isn’t aware of any other American chef with Roman Jewish cuisine on the menu, except perhaps fried artichokes. But the American expert on this cuisine does live in his own backyard.

Nayfeld had coffee with Joyce Goldstein, author of the 1998 book “Cucina Ebraica: Flavors of the Italian Jewish Kitchen,” and considers her a major influence.

“I’ve drawn a lot of inspiration from her writing and from her as a person,” he said. “But at the end of the day, this is a very different style of food and restaurant. She’s the one who came before me, so I’m drawing inspiration from her, not the other way around.”

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."