Orit Hendler Leib's Deja Vu Foods challah.
Orit Hendler Leib's Deja Vu Foods challah.

In South Bay, Israeli chef builds pastry business around tastes of home 

Food coverage is supported by a generous donation from Susan and Moses Libitzky.

A year ago, Orit Hendler Leib was getting ready to open for business in the café at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto. Then … well, then March happened.

The pandemic’s impact on all food businesses has been huge. At the same time, the situation has opened new opportunities that might not have come otherwise. That has been the case for Leib, the Israeli-born chef-owner of Deja Vu Food, a South Bay–based kosher catering company that focuses mostly on sweets, but also specializes in savory baked goods and Israeli food.

While she waits for life to return to normal, Leib has been doing some pivoting to sustain herself and her business. She’s been offering cooking workshops for kids, has added a Shabbat menu (mostly sweets), and is planning mishloach manot, the gift baskets traditionally given to friends and neighbors on Purim (Feb. 26).

A pastry is happiness on a plate for Leib, it’s as simple as that. “A pastry or piece of cake with my coffee, this is life for me,” she said. “It makes you feel alive.”

Incidentally, she comes from a background that celebrates cakes and pastries, with a mix of German and Hungarian on her father’s side. (Her mother is of Yemenite descent, but Leib said she favors her Ashkenazi roots when it comes to food.)

As a child, she remembers sitting at the counter while her grandmother or mother baked, wanting to sample the raw batters and doughs before they went into the oven.

Orit Hendler-Leib, chef and owner of Deja Vu Foods, hard at work. (Photo/Courtesy)
Orit Hendler-Leib, chef and owner of Deja Vu Foods, hard at work.

Leib grew up in Modi’in in central Israel and moved to Tel Aviv when she got married. She and her husband came to the Bay Area five years ago with their three children; their fourth was born here. They live in Sunnyvale.

While at first her plan was to acclimate to life in the U.S. and raise her children, the idea to open her own baked goods business moved from the back of her mind to the front pretty quickly.

“When we moved here, I was homesick, and I wanted to bring the tastes and smells of home,” she said. Deja Vu offerings are meant to conjure distant taste memories, such as the taste of babka for New Yorkers or savory Yerushalmi kugel for the Israelis.

Leib is entirely self-taught. Earlier in her career, it bothered her that she hadn’t attended culinary school, but it definitely wasn’t a deterrent. Her baked goods spoke for themselves and her name got out there.

“My grandma used to say as long as you put the love in, it will taste good,” she said. “In Israel we say you need to make hummus with love or don’t make it at all, just buy it at the grocery store.”

She began with a permit that allowed her to bake at home, but she outgrew her own kitchen in a matter of months and moved into a commercial kitchen. The move was fortuitous, as it connected her with other local chefs and small-business owners, who together made up a community that has supported each other during the pandemic, she said.

Deja Vu, which is certified by Sunrise Kosher, otherwise known as the Vaad HaKashrus of Northern California, grew quickly. Before the pandemic, Leib established relationships with a number of tech clients; her website shows photos of her French macarons decorated with company logos made for Apple and Microsoft, among others. To serve her fellow Israelis who might be missing the tastes of home as she was, she made challah, babka (oogat shmarim in Hebrew), borekas, Yerushalmi kugel and Jerusalem bagels.

For Hanukkah, Leib went all out with her sufganiyot; her nontraditional flavors, such as cookies and cream, were written up in the San Francisco Chronicle.

While the pandemic changed the nature of her relationships with tech clients, they haven’t stopped ordering from her completely. Some are still having boxes of her sweets sent to employees for special occasions.

And looking forward, hopefully not too far in the future, she is still planning to open the café at the JCC as soon as it’s allowed.

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."