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A good way to get to know Heshy Fried, the force behind the Oakland-based kosher caterer Epic Bites, would be to ask him what he hates about a lot of kosher food.
“People in the frum world want it as sweet as possible,” he said about dishes meant to be savory. (Frum is a mostly self-referential word to describe those who are Torah-observant.) “I don’t know why, but the frumer you get, the more sugar you get. Frum baba ghanoush has a lot of sugar, as well as mayo. In some kosher delis, what’s called a ‘healthy’ salad is made with NutraSweet.”
That kind of snark about his own community and his unconventional voice made Fried a bit of an internet sensation before he became a caterer and one of the go-tos for Jewish events.
From 2006 to 2013 he wrote on his blog, Frum Satire, which took a critical look at the Orthodox world from the perspective of someone inside it. It started when he stayed with a friend in Toronto who was into blogging at a time before Fried even knew what that was.
“At first I just thought it was a cool way to store my writing, but what I wrote made people start showing up and commenting on it,” he said. “Mostly it was my musings on life as a single male in the Orthodox world, and at first it was like a foreign language unless you came from our community.”
The content changed as time went on and he began to take on all kinds of topics seen as controversial. At the blog’s height, it was getting 100,000 page views a month and had outside advertisers, providing some income.
But by 2013 Fried had an 80- to 90-hour workweek catering and no time to blog, so he just stopped. After a while, “I realized I didn’t miss it at all,” he said.
Fried grew up Orthodox on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. His mother died when he was 6. While his father wasn’t much of a cook, he occasionally liked to make an elaborate Chinese meal. Shabbos meals were always eaten with family or friends.
He moved to the Bay Area at the end of 2009 when he heard someone needed a mashgiach, or kosher certifier — a job he says nearly any Orthodox person can do. He was offered $15 an hour and had no idea how expensive it was to live here; he was mostly drawn to the area “because I can go mountain biking all year round with no snow.”
Fried’s first years here weren’t easy. Through a personal connection he got a job at The Kitchen Table, a kosher restaurant in Mountain View that closed in 2012.
He began with almost no kitchen experience but proved to be a quick study. Soon he was learning how to make pita and focaccia, about brining meat and proper knife skills. They offered him more days.
“It was the first job I ever had where I didn’t watch the clock. I could really focus, and thought, wow, this could be an actual career.”
He also liked the fact that it was a meritocracy, where hard work was recognized and rewarded, no matter one’s pedigree.
The Kitchen Table led to work with the now-defunct Twelve Tribes, a company that did kosher family meals, and then Fried started working with Isaac Bernstein, the chef who started Epic Bites in 2012. Bernstein made bacon out of lamb and liberally used goose fat to flavor his dishes. He was also into molecular gastronomy.
“How Isaac cooked was like nothing I’d ever seen before,” said Fried. “He was so efficient, so good at what he did. He was making crazy good food with no recipe or cookbook or measuring cups. Whatever made it the best is what he did. It didn’t matter how much sugar, fat or salt he used.”
They didn’t get along so well at first, but they got over that.
“We’re both strong personalities and we grew to love each other,” said Fried. “It was very much like a Rebbe-Talmid [teacher-student] relationship and still is. I hold him in such high regard and look at him as such a master.”
Fried took over the Epic Bites name in 2014 when Bernstein returned to New York for a job and has been catering under it ever since. Fried still calls him occasionally when he has a question.
Obviously, Covid-19 has thrown a wrench into things. Fried had built up a reputation and his business all came from word of mouth. Epic Bites briefly became quite the powerhouse when longtime Bay Area kosher caterer Wendy Kleckner began working with him at the end of last year.
Client Jessica Minkoff of Oakland was hiring Epic Bites for three to four events a year before the pandemic. He did everything from tapas to barbecue for her.
“He gets excited by the variety and being pushed out of his comfort zone,” she said. “We’ll give him our dietary restrictions but give him free rein, and let him do whatever’s in the back of his mind. We don’t need to micromanage him.”
This might mean duck ramen with a perfectly soft poached egg, or shredded lamb brisket, “things I wouldn’t even think I wanted, but he makes them and I love them.”
Epic Bites went from having its busiest year ever in 2019 to a year’s worth of canceled events (though Fried has started doing weddings again with strict Covid protocols in place and a very low guest count). He’s been surviving by cooking weekly Shabbat meals out of the kitchen at Beth Jacob Congregation in Oakland. He’s done deli themes, Chinese and Mexican.
And despite the fact that Fried says the frumer people are, the sweeter they want it, that isn’t necessarily true for the Northern California kosher crowd. That’s why his tsimmes is nothing like the traditional version, but instead might be roasted carrots with lemon thyme, chamomile and lavender.
“Things that are more herbaceous than sweet. I like that kind of surprise,” he said.
“My goal, as it was with catering, is to provide restaurant quality, high-end, really good food,” he said. “I’m not trying not to do what other people are doing. I want it to taste, like, really yummy.”
Epic Bites offers takeout meals in the East Bay with delivery to Berkeley and Oakland, and now with pickup available in Sunnyvale and Palo Alto.