Food coverage is supported by a generous donation from Susan and Moses Libitzky.
If you think about the Jewish holiday foods that are the most labor-intensive for home cooks — in other words, kind of a pain to make — you can assume that those items are big sellers at Oakland’s Market Hall Foods. (Spoiler: Horseradish and latkes top the list.)
“In the past, when we decided we were going to make our own horseradish, I stood in the back of the kitchen making it in the food processor batch by batch, making everyone cry,” said Sandy Sonnenfelt, director of prepared foods at the upscale food marketplace in the Rockridge neighborhood. “Now we’ve gone to making it in an upright vertical chopper. In making 150 pounds of horseradish, everyone still cries.”
Yes, 150 pounds. Before we go any further, a few other figures:
Each Passover season, Rockridge Market Hall sells about 800 to 1,000 pounds of cooked brisket, approximately 1,000 matzah balls and 800 to 1,000 pieces of gefilte fish. Executive chef Scott Miller uses 150 pounds of raw chicken livers to make his famous chopped liver, with a yield of about 300 pounds to sell.
For hosts who want to focus on being with family rather than preparing the food, the menu offers individual items to fill a table and a combination “everything but the plate” — house-made horseradish, haroset, roasted shank bone, parsley, a long-cooked egg and a box of matzah.
Does Sonnenfelt worry about the coronavirus shutdowns hurting the holiday business? “Our stores are very busy at the present time,” she said earlier this week. “How this will shake out for Passover is anyone’s guess.”
Ever since Market Hall opened in 1987, it’s been known for its prepared foods department. Long before people started using delivery services such as Uber Eats and DoorDash, they have been stopping at places like the Pasta Shop at Market Hall and choosing from an array of prepared dishes displayed in refrigerated cases.
Market Hall has been a resource for Jewish holiday foods since it opened, especially for those who want to host a Passover seder, Rosh Hashanah or Hanukkah dinner but aren’t able or willing to do all of the cooking. (It should be noted that while the store keeps to a kosher-for-Passover product list, its kitchen isn’t kosher, nor kosher for Passover, for that matter).
The menu planning is done by Sonnenfelt and Miller, who has worked at Market Hall since it opened (Sonnenfelt is a newcomer by comparison; she started there in 1995).
Miller, a Bay Area native with Jewish roots, said the chopped liver recipe he uses comes from his great-grandmother, but he mostly learned about Jewish holiday foods through his work as a chef. Sonnenfelt — whose pink-tinted hair makes her easy to spot on the floor — is originally from Benoni, South Africa. She spent five years living in Israel on a kibbutz and in Jerusalem before immigrating to the U.S.
“In Jerusalem I had neighbors from Kurdistan and Yemen,” said Sonnenfelt. “That’s where I first learned about Sephardic flavors. It gave me a very different culinary viewpoint than the Ashkenazi foods I had grown up with.”
While the side dishes in the holiday menus vary year by year, there are hardly any major changes because the holidays are when people feel nostalgic about the foods they grew up with.
“Not everyone wants interesting,” or the food trends du jour, said Miller. “People want what they want, and that tends to be pretty traditional, so these menus have mostly been the same for decades.”
Every once in a while, they’ll introduce something new. That happened a few years ago with their vegetable kugel.
“Someone on staff thought the old one was boring, so we came up with a new one, with spinach and green garlic,” said Sonnenfelt. She said it’s been quite popular.
So how do you teach a kitchen full of non-Jewish chefs who have no cultural reference for these dishes to cook food that is so personal to people?
“Everyone in that kitchen has an honorary Jewish degree by now,” Sonnenfelt joked. “That’s part of what Scott’s talent is, he writes very clear recipes.”
Additionally, “we do it a lot and we do it every year and so most of our people have a lot of practice,” Miller added. “We have some pretty high standards in terms of palates around here; we won’t sell it if it’s not good. And we have a lot of loyal and vocal clientele who will let us know what they think. The goal is to make them happy so they keep coming back.”
Because of Passover’s proximity to Easter, the two menus often overlap. Both, for example, have a spring chicken dish with artichokes. But the ham for Easter is brisket for Passover, and the kugels are strictly on the seder side. Roasted potatoes can work for either.
Major holidays may dominate, but Market Hall also celebrates lesser-known occasions. Sonnenfelt and Miller just released a menu for Nowruz, the Persian New Year celebrated this week. Both chefs are proud of the results.
“Our general manager is from Iran, and for years he wouldn’t let us do Persian New Year,” said Sonnenfelt. “He was afraid we couldn’t do it well enough because we’re not from his country — or his mom.”
But the chefs proved him wrong. “We had to have a huge tasting between him and his family members, and they were in tears,” Miller recalled. “It reminded them of their mom, which is the highest praise.”
Sonnenfelt said no matter what tradition dishes represent, anyone can enjoy them. That would answer the question someone once fielded from a customer inquiring: “Do you have to be Jewish to order from the Hanukkah menu?”
Both Miller and Sonnenfelt spoke of the challenges in preparing foods that are highly personal to people, but on a large scale and in advance. Both for practical reasons and matters of taste, Market Hall’s haroset recipe adds figs, dates, cardamom and lemon juice, giving it a Sephardic twist and avoiding the problem of browning apples (the lemon helps prevent that).
While Passover is the timelier holiday to discuss, it’s worth mentioning that Hanukkah is also robust. Market Hall makes thousands of latkes each year and sells around 1,000 per day during the holiday. One person is frying them all day long.
“We go through a crazy amount of potatoes and oil,” Miller said. “And we make them as big as we can get away with, because otherwise we would need to make 20,000. Standing over the griddle all day is a brutal job — one of the hardest jobs that happens during the year here.”