David Golovin (left) and Ilya Romanov (Photo/Brianna Danner)
David Golovin (left) and Ilya Romanov (Photo/Brianna Danner)

San Francisco culinary world mourns two who died too young 

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This is not the way I was planning to write about Ilya Romanov.

Romanov, bar manager at Nisei and its sister Bar Iris in Russian Hill, fell from a roof on Dec. 30 and died. He was 33.

It’s not typical that this space is used for obituaries. But Romanov was not the only person in the Bay Area culinary world who died far too young recently. Both had been at the top of their game, professionally speaking, and both also happened to be Jewish. They died six weeks apart.

Chef David Golovin appeared in one of my last columns before the Covid shutdown, on Feb. 14, 2020. I can still remember the day I spent in the city’s Mission District, interviewing him and another restaurant owner for future columns, all of us blissfully unaware of just how much the world — including the restaurant industry — was about to change.

Golovin was 39 at the time. An Atherton native, he had graduated from Cal with degrees in English and film and then found his true calling in the kitchen. After working at high-end restaurants such as Rubicon and La Folie, he attained what most chefs aspire to, to be executive chef of his own restaurant. Dear Inga, named after his German Jewish grandmother Inge, opened to glowing reviews in September 2019, with S.F. Chronicle food reviewer Soleil Ho writing: “While Dear Inga isn’t by-the-books authentic, it succeeds as a loving interpretation of the flavors the chef has carried with him all these years.”

“I’m very much culturally Jewish but not as religious,” Golovin told me in 2020. “It’s definitely shaped my life. My cooking is more influenced by European food than by Jewish food specifically, but there’s a lot of food that could be considered Jewish food.”

The restaurant had a short reign before the pandemic shut it down. One could say that Golovin’s reign was much too short, too.

I remember Golovin showing me around all of his ferments, which included at least 15 types of vegetables like pickled turnips, eggplant and leeks. He told me he had about 200 pounds of sauerkraut going.

While I didn’t get to eat at Dear Inga, I remember Golovin showing me around all of his ferments, which included at least 15 types of vegetables like pickled turnips, eggplant and leeks. He told me he had about 200 pounds of sauerkraut going, and I looked forward to trying it. I never got that chance.

Golovin died Nov. 17 of colon cancer. He was 41. He is survived by his parents, Jonathan and Susan Golovin, and his brother Joshua. His obituary described him as a “shooting star: brilliant and short-lived.”

Romanov had just appeared on my radar last month. My December column was about Nisei’s Jewish and Japanese chef, David Yoshimura; his San Francisco restaurant had just earned its first Michelin star. Nisei’s publicist, Madison Ginnett, who had told me that Yoshimura was Jewish, also told me about Romanov, too. I didn’t want to write one Nisei column right after the other, so I added Romanov to my list of people for a future column.

In my interview with Yoshimura, weeks before the accident, he told me that when he first met Romanov the two of them clicked right away, that they had  similar sensibilities and senses of humor. Coming from seemingly different backgrounds, Yoshimura chalked up the connection to the fact they were both Jewish.

Since I never interviewed Romanov, I don’t know much about his background other than what the Chronicle reported, that he moved here as a teenager from the former Soviet Union. He had just been named a rising star by the industry magazine StarChefs.

A post on Nisei’s Instagram account said, “He was a person of great character, always brought joy to those around him, and possessed an incredible work ethic. He did things his own way and always brought his team and friends up with him. Ilya excelled at anything he put his mind to, and we are honored it was Bar Iris.”

He is survived by a 3-year-old son, Ezra, and his mother, Mayanka Romanov. A GoFundMe has been set up to help his family.

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."