Za’atar salmon, one of many Neshama Foods offerings.
Za’atar salmon, one of many Neshama Foods offerings.

Israeli street food is inspiration for new kosher catering outfit

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

Spencer Brodie was always interested in food. On any Jewish holiday, there would be those gathered in the living room, talking about subjects over his head, and those who chose the kitchen, where his mother and grandmother prepared the holiday meal. There was never any question in his mind about where he belonged.

“I wanted to be shoulder to shoulder with them,” he said. “Whether it was stirring something in a pot or cutting a carrot, I always just told them, put me to work.”

Brodie, 26, who grew up in San Mateo, is the founder of Neshama Foods, a South Bay-based kosher catering company that was just raising its profile when Covid-19 hit.

He said his cuisine is influenced by his love of street food in Israel, a country he has visited five times. And because he identifies as “a passionate Zionist,” he saw specializing in Israeli cuisine was the most obvious way to combine his two interests: food and Israel.

“Israel is such a passion of mine that I guess it makes sense that it’s the food that most inspires me,” he said. “Israeli food has a lot of nuance to it. It’s not just one flavor going on, but there’s a lot going on in every bite.”

Brodie elevates familiar dishes, such as Israeli salad. Many people make it with chopped tomato and cucumber, maybe adding a bit of parsley if they want to be fancy, with lemon juice and olive oil. He said most versions he’s tried here are “lazy.”

“I put a lot of love into my Israeli salad,” he said, adding both lemon zest and preserved lemons — the sharp lemon condiment as opposed to regular old juice.

Many chefs have stories about kitchen mishaps when they were young, and Brodie is no exception. “I would always see my mom cry when she chopped onions,” he said. “So I thought to myself, that’s not going to happen to me, I’m going to outsmart the onion.”

The young Brodie found his father’s safety goggles in the garage and proceeded to chop an onion. But the goggles didn’t have an air-tight seal. The onion fumes made their way inside, and what he experienced was much more intense than normal. Needless to say, the onion wasn’t outsmarted.

Spencer Brodie of Neshama Foods.
Spencer Brodie of Neshama Foods.

As a child, his kitchen exploits often began with boiling some pasta and using jarred sauce. But he soon graduated to pesto and more complicated dishes, and only grew from there. He is largely self-taught, having dropped out of culinary school for a variety of reasons, he said.

When it comes to his Judaism, Brodie said he doesn’t like to attach himself to any one particular movement, but feels most comfortable in a Chabad setting, and therefore aims to make food that any Jew can eat regardless of observance level. His kosher certification is from Sunrise Kosher, also known as Vaad Hakashrus of Northern California.

Brodie started Neshama in March 2019, while he was a student at San Jose State University. He had always worked while attending school, he said, and because he was studying business, he figured launching his own would give him the practical experience he needed.

He began by catering the Shabbat dinners at Hillel of Silicon Valley, where he was a participant. “I wasn’t making a ton, but it was laying the groundwork for what I have now,” he said.

With Passover coming so soon after the shutdown started, like many other caterers he offered a holiday meal in takeout style. He then closed the business for a bit to regroup and rethink his model.

Lately, he’s been cooking Shabbat meals — offering such staple items as chicken schnitzel, brisket and the current Israeli hit cauliflower steaks, along with sides such as schmaltz-roasted potatoes and roasted seasonal vegetables — and delivering them throughout the Bay Area.

For Hanukkah he did a good business selling sufganiyot and specialty latkes. For the sufganiyot, Brodie learned how to make the filled Israeli doughnuts on the fly, doing nearly everything himself to limit exposure to the coronavirus. And the latkes, though not particularly Israeli in style, included maple syrup and beef bacon.

One taster I know who ordered them remarked, “The Bay Area is full of wonders.”

Bob Zeidman, a donor to Hillel of Silicon Valley, used Neshama Foods to cater a small reception at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View before the pandemic; shakshuka and Moroccan carrot salad were on the menu.

“Spencer is always easy to work with and accommodating, which to me is just as important as the food,” said Zeidman. “Of course, the food has to be good, and everyone enjoyed it, but he’s just really flexible and easy to work with.”

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."