TV win gives chef validation she’s still on her game

Heidi Rae Weinstein of Millbrae is the latest Jewish chef from the Bay Area to compete and win on “Chopped,” the Food Network’s popular cooking competition. Was her family background a contributing factor in her win?

It would appear so. “I come from a family of foodies,” she said. “It’s in my DNA.”

Weinstein’s grandfather owned Bodenstein’s Jewish Bakery in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood, which sold traditional Jewish baked goods like babka, mandelbrot and rye bread, while her father managed a kosher mustard and vinegar company called Baker Brands. All of the hot dog carts and baseball stadiums in the city used her father’s mustard, she said, while kosher delis carried his vinegar pickles. He eventually sold the business to Eli Zabar, owner of the famed Upper West Side gastronomic temple Zabar’s.

Weinstein, 55, grew up in the Pelham Parkway section of the Bronx in a family of cultural Jews. While her home was kosher, the family’s summer home in New Jersey was not.

“I think it was just something you did in the ’60s. My mother did it to honor her parents and grandparents,” she said. “But our weekend house was all about bacon.”

Weinstein studied theater arts in college and moved to Los Angeles to try to launch an acting career, but like so many in that industry, she earned her living in food. She worked for the California Pizza Kitchen on and off for seven years, helping the chain open restaurants throughout the country.

Since moving to Millbrae five years ago with her husband and two kids, Weinstein has worked as a personal chef.

Competing on “Chopped” wasn’t just about bragging rights. After beating breast cancer six years ago, Weinstein said she wanted to prove to herself “that I’m still on my game.”

Heidi Rae Weinstein promotes the importance of family mealtime. photo/jennifer graham photograpy

Also, she missed performing and thought she would enjoy being in front of the camera (she has done a TedX Talk and appeared in a cooking segment on the CBS show “The Talk”).

For those who have never seen the show, “Chopped” presents mystery baskets containing four random ingredients, and chefs have just 20 or 30 minutes to make a composed dish using all of them. In Weinstein’s first round, one of the ingredients was duck tongues; none of the contestants had used the product before. Weinstein decided to make a salad, incorporating another of the mystery ingredients, baba ghanoush, to make a vinaigrette.

For the main dish, Weinstein cooked a Vietnamese-style pho, similar to chicken soup, which she called “Asian penicillin.”

The episode, “On the Quack Burner,” was filmed nine months ago and aired on Oct. 6. Weinstein had to sign a nondisclosure agreement not to tell anyone the results until it aired.

Her website includes a link to the episode, along with the TedX Talk she gave at her son’s school about the importance of family mealtime (she currently is the personal chef for 11 families).

“It’s really important that people make appointments to sit down to a home-cooked meal, with homemade, thoughtful food and the conversation that comes from it,” Weinstein said. “I grew up with Jewish grandparents who cooked, and my mother cooked every night. It’s ingrained in my DNA to pass it on to my children.”

SMALL BITES: A retreat called “From Leaven to Lev” took place in San Rafael earlier this month. With support from a Moishe House retreat program that helps Jewish young adults organize around themes of their choosing, recent Bay Area transplant Sarah Nathan put this one together around Jewish food and sustainability.

Nathan, 29, participates in the Moishe House Without Walls program, which encourages nonresidents to host community-building events.

Over the course of the retreat, the dozen or so participants made goat cheese and did a text study on the topic of food waste.

“My goal was to elevate our table conversation,” said Nathan, who works at ReGrained, a company that uses leftover grains from beer brewing to make granola bars. (It was profiled in this column in 2015.)

“I wanted people to think about how food connects with their Judaism, and talk about the different traditions important to our families, and how we fit them into our lives.”

One participant was an Israeli traveling through the Bay Area who found the event on the website of OneTable, which lists Shabbat dinners in urban hubs around the country and sponsored the Marin retreat’s Shabbat dinner.

“He didn’t know anyone and was just out of the army,” said Nathan. “A lot of what we were talking about was completely new to him, and he was excited to take that back to Israel and start these conversations at his own dinner table.”

Woodside’s Erin Gleeson, who dazzled readers with her artsy blog and first book “The Forest Feast,” is out with her third cookbook, “The Forest Feast: Gatherings.” (She was the subject of this column in 2014.) And San Francisco’s Simone Miller, who was profiled in February for her kosher Paleo cookbook “The New Yiddish Kitchen,” is also out with a new book, “Paleo Soups & Stews.”

And while cookbook author and blogger Molly Yeh is not local, she’ll be stopping by Omnivore Books in San Francisco at 3 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 5 to promote her book “Molly on the Range.” Yeh is of Chinese and Jewish heritage, and she left Brooklyn to move to the Midwest to be with her then-fiancé, a sugar beet farmer. Her debut cookbook is full of all kinds of ethnic influences, with Middle Eastern food and Jewish classics playing a significant role.

Last … I will interview two Jewish business owners who are having a major impact locally and globally at an event at the JCC East Bay at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 15. Andrew Stoloff, owner of Rubicon Bakery, which employs people in need of a second chance, and Caryl Levine, co-founder of Lotus Foods, which is having a major impact on the way rice is farmed around the globe, will join me in conversation.


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."