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Matt Gandin, executive chef of Comal in Berkeley, had two major food influences growing up Jewish in Orange County. There were the holiday dinners with his large extended family where traditional Ashkenazi foods like gefilte fish and matzah ball soup were always served with a sweet-and-sour brisket as the centerpiece.
And then there was the Mexican food.
Gandin’s father had grown up in Oxnard, a coastal city south of Santa Barbara that at the time had a large Mexican population. So when the family went out for dinner, Mexican fare was often the first choice.
Now, when Gandin offers his Hanukkah menu at Comal, the upscale Mexican restaurant in downtown Berkeley that he’s led since it opened in 2012, brisket is still the star of the show. But he has made changes to the recipe he recalls from his childhood and now adds several kinds of Mexican chiles to the braise.
This year, Comal will celebrate “Oaxanukkah” (Gandin’s play on Oaxaca, one of the states in Mexico most known for its food) for the fifth consecutive year with two family-style dinners in its abajo, or private dining room, on Dec. 22 and 23. Though the private dinners are sold out, the holiday brisket will also be on the menu in the main restaurant.
Offering Passover and Hanukkah menus was an easy decision for Gandin. He worked for many years at San Francisco’s Delfina, the Italian restaurant where Jewish chef-owner Craig Stoll has been doing Jewish holiday menus for the 20 years he’s been in business.
But different chef, different restaurant, slightly different take.
“Prior to [World War II], there was a large Jewish population in Italy that had a strong food culture of its own, mostly in Rome but also in Venice and in other parts of Italy, and they really developed a Jewish-Italian cuisine,” said Gandin.
The same cannot be said of Mexican-Jewish food. While there is a sizable population of Jews in Mexico City, Gandin said their history in the country is much shorter. “Most of them came in the 20th century, so for these holiday menus, my reference point is the Ashkenazi food I grew up with. But I’ve taken a bit of free license to add to it some of my favorite Mexican flavors.”
This year’s menu will include tequila-cured salmon with avocado, endive, radish and cilantro oil; latkes with jalapeños (come Passover, jalapeños find their way into his matzah balls, too) with crema and spiced apple salsa; and the aforementioned brisket, with sides of rapini, rice, black beans and tortillas. Dessert is buñuelos, sweet Mexican fritters, served with jam from pluots from Gandin’s own backyard.
Gandin attended a Reform synagogue growing up and said his family was more culturally than religiously Jewish.
It might have been all the Mexican food he ate as a child, but he decided to live in Mexico for a summer during college at UCLA and then travel around. He especially fell in love with the food and culture of Oaxaca.
“I had no clue in college that I’d become a chef, but looking back, all my first jobs were in restaurants, and there was something about the atmosphere and the energy of working in this industry that always appealed to me,” he said.
Although he’d been a history major, ultimately what made Mexico come alive for him was the language, culture and especially the food. During a short stint at home where he was cooking for himself and trying to figure out his direction, he began to think about culinary school.
He moved to San Francisco to attend the California Culinary Academy, and upon graduating, took some Italian-language classes at City College and bought a one-way ticket to Italy.
He ended up living and cooking in the Reggio Emilia province for about a year. When he returned to the Bay Area, he landed the job at Delfina, where he stayed for nine years.
When he began thinking of going out on his own, Gandin knew he wanted to “take the same philosophy and approach used at Delfina with regional Italian cuisine and apply it to regional Mexican cooking.” He figured it would take several years to write up a business plan and find investors. But within a week of leaving Delfina, some mutual friends introduced him to the people who would become his business partners, who were looking to open the same kind of place.
“It just happened to be the right place and the right time,” he said.