A not-so-secret society for Jewish foodies

The food was exceptional that evening in Berkeley. Not only was it being served at Covenant Winery, where co-owners Jeff and Jodie Morgan would have it no other way; it filled the plates and stomachs of a rarefied group of Jewish food professionals who tinkled glasses as they traded business cards and restaurant recommendations.

Bakers of bread and brewers of beer, nutritionists and deli owners, food justice activists and those who write about them — some five dozen folks with little in common besides being Jewish and making their living in some way related to food had answered the call of J. food writer Alix Wall and gathered the night of April 5 to eat, drink, learn and network.

“Who here created a bagel company that still bears his name?” Wall shouted out to the crowd, looking straight at Noah Alper, founder of Noah’s Bagels.

“Who cried when she heard that President Obama tasted her cheese?” Wall continued. Bohemian Creamery’s Lisa Gottreich sheepishly raised her hand.

“Who won a James Beard Award?” Wall persisted, as several in the crowd pointed to a beaming Alice Medrich, the Berkeley chocolatier credited with introducing the chocolate truffle to America.

They call themselves the Illuminoshi, and like that other, better-known secret society of the 18th century, this fledging group of enlightened imbibers is dedicated to ending superstition and obscurantism — but in the world of Jewish food rather than European politics.

“Most people think Jewish food is either Ashkenazi or Sephardic,” celebrity chef and cookbook author Joyce Goldstein told the crowd, “but in the last few years Israeli chefs have been cooking Mediterranean Jewish food and people are saying, ‘Oh my god, Mediterranean Jews eat food.’”

Goldstein can afford to sniff at these yoni-come-latelies — more than 30 years ago she was cooking up Mediterranean delicacies at her Square One restaurant in San Francisco before the rest of the Jewish food world knew its muhammara from its mijavyani (look it up).

This was the group’s second gathering — the first, a much smaller affair, took place in January at Charles Chocolates in San Francisco, hosted by owner and fellow Illiuminoshite Chuck Siegel.

Wall created the group as a home for herself and other local Jewish food pros after attending a Jewish food professionals conference in Colorado last fall funded by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation (which also funded this month’s Illuminoshi gathering.) It all testifies to the growing Jewish food scene in the Bay Area, which has been reported on by the New York Times and other publications.

That sense of being at the center of something new and cool permeated the room. “All around me, I could hear people taking interest in each other’s work and talking about future collaborations,” Wall said. “We live in a place where we are spoiled with some of the best food in the world. I thought it would be fun for us to know who these producers are (those that are Jewish, anyway), to hear their stories and support each other.”

I spoke to a number of people that night who said they weren’t very Jewishly involved. One woman told me this was the first “Jewish community event” she had attended since her bat mitzvah. Another said she never goes to synagogue, but loved this chance to kibitz with a roomful of other Jews.

Others there were deeply engaged in Jewish life. In one corner of the room, a young man involved in making marijuana-laced baked goods was discussing the evils of prosecuting “victimless crimes” with a woman who works for a food justice organization. In another corner, a small crowd chatted about the difficulties involved in making — and marketing — kosher wine.

It was exciting to watch this new community forming before my eyes. And I was proud that J. is so much at the center of it.

As Wall finished her public announcements of who did what in the Jewish food world, she stopped and smiled broadly. “Who is here tonight because I wrote about them?” she asked the crowd.

Just about everybody raised their hand.

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of J. She can be reached at [email protected].