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Firefly chef-owner Brad Levy is the first to say his Reform Jewish upbringing in the St. Louis suburb University City (known by residents as “Jew City”) left something to be desired, but memories of brisket and matzah ball soup still resonate for him much more than those of his bar mitzvah. He will be offering a Passover menu at Firefly April 19-26.
Levy is a storyteller; give him one cue and out comes a disquisition on the cooking talents — or lack thereof — of both of his grandmothers.
“My maternal grandma, [her cooking] was so austere, like Cream of Wheat with no seasonings. Her specialty was poppy seed cookies that were so hard you’d have to bite them with your back molars and they’d take all the moisture out of your mouth. Her house smelled like boiled fish. If you were in prison, maybe you’d grow a connection to her food.”
In contrast was his paternal grandmother, for whom “everything was cooked with every inch of love that she had.” When making cookies, she’d make sure the chips and nuts were distributed just so.
For a long time after Levy started working in restaurants, he assumed he’d go on to do something else. He had started cooking when he was 14, inspired by his mother’s cookbooks. For his high school homecoming dance, he invited two other couples and his date to his house, where he cooked crab-filled crêpes for dinner. In college, he’d go shopping in Chinatown “and cook crazy, spicy meals for my friends.”
Her specialty was poppy seed cookies that were so hard you’d have to bite them with your back molars.
He headed to San Francisco in 1985 and enrolled in the California Culinary Academy, then got his start at a number of now-closed restaurants. It was at the Avenue Grill in Mill Valley where Levy began cooking Jewish and Passover food, and he saw how much it resonated not only with locals but also the many East Coast transplants to the Bay Area.
So when he opened Firefly in San Francisco with a partner in 1993, he kept the tradition going. It’s served him well now for 25 years.
“There are people we see every year who come in during Passover that we never see the rest of the time,” he said. They do so well during the holiday, in fact, it helps make up for slower periods during the year. Brisket, matzah ball soup and gefilte fish are all on the menu. “We make it so that someone who has never heard of Passover would still enjoy it.”
He adds, “Our servers like to push the gefilte fish because they believe in it, but we’re always a little nervous serving it to strangers.”
Levy describes Firefly as home cooking with no ethnic boundaries. In addition to its Passover menus, the restaurant also has become a favorite of gluten-free diners. Levy keeps a gluten-free home because celiac disease runs in his family. The Jewish chef de cuisine, Haley Sausner, also happens to be gluten-free.
“We don’t advertise that, but word of mouth has really helped us in the gluten-free community,” he said. “People know that we take their dietary restrictions seriously, and we go through a lot of hoops to avoid cross-contamination.”
Levy describes Sausner as “the most caring person in the world. She will develop relationships with our customers so that when they come back, she’s happy to see them, despite that they have a list of 30 things in their pocket they can’t eat.”