Chef Idit Oz at work on a dish for her catering company, Oz Catering. (Courtesy)
Chef Idit Oz at work on a dish for her catering company, Oz Catering. (Courtesy)

Beets are at the root of this local caterer’s food memories growing up in Israel

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When Israeli caterer Idit Oz starts talking about beets, it’s clear that her passion for the humble root vegetable is red hot. 

It comes from her happy memories of childhood. Her mother was an excellent cook, she said, and one of her specialties was beet latkes cooked in beet juice. She’d fry the beet patties and then cook them in their own juices. It was a way to use the entire vegetable and not put anything to waste, Oz said. Although beets lose their crispness cooked this way, she said, “they’re still fantastic.”

Oz doesn’t have her mom’s beet latkes on her catering menu, but she does serve beet hummus nestled in cucumber cups, as well as leeks cooked in beet juice inspired by a restaurant dish she ate in her native Israel.

Oz, 62, has been catering for some years now. Her business, Oz Catering, started slowly about 14 years ago, but it’s really taken off in the past few years. She’s becoming better known on the b’nai mitzvah circuit and recently catered a fundraiser at Oakland’s Temple Sinai.

She’s also reached a special point in a caterer’s career where she’s handled multiple lifecycle events in generations of the same family.

“I’m thriving on it,” she said. “I don’t put a time limit for how long I’ll be doing it.”

Oz was raised on the moshav of Beit Zayit, just outside Jerusalem. Both of her parents were born in Israel, with family roots in Georgia and Russia (perhaps the source of their love for beets).

She was the youngest of four girls. From a very young age, she would sit in the kitchen while her mother cooked. Oz’s parents ran the bed and breakfast at Beit Zayit, and her mother would cook for its guests.

“I learned a lot from her, all the basics,” Oz said. When her mother attended culinary school in Jerusalem, her daughter picked up information by working alongside her.

“She was my inspiration,” she said. “Her sister, my aunt, was also a great cook and a fabulous baker, so I learned a lot from her, too.”

Idit Oz’s leeks in beet juice. (Courtesy)

When Oz was 15, she got a job working for an American woman who had moved to Beit Zayit and started a catering business. Three years later, the woman hired Oz, then just 18, as the chef at a cafe she’d opened. 

From there, Oz worked in catering, as the chef at a creperie and with a well-known pastry chef at the Jerusalem Hilton.

By the time she met her second husband, who lived in Marin County and had been in Israel visiting family, she was ready to try living someplace new. 

“I’m someone that likes my personal space,” she said. “In Israel, everyone knows your business. You’re at the ATM, and someone is right over your shoulder.”

In 1990, she moved to San Rafael to be with him. It was a hard time in her life. In Israel, she had many friends and family. Here, she had only her husband, and they were still getting to know each other.

They had a son and while he was young, she mostly stayed home with him. Later, after she was divorced, she began taking catering gigs, cooking out of her tiny apartment kitchen. She also started working for established caterers in the Bay Area. It paid the bills, but what she really wanted was to work for herself. So as soon as she felt ready, she struck out on her own. 

In 2010, she began renting space in a kitchen in Novato. She still uses it today, sharing it with Israeli caterer Avi Cohen of Avi-ously Delicious Catering. 

When we spoke, Oz was simultaneously prepping for a memorial service on one day and a celebratory event on the next, both for over 100 people.

Oz said her go-to cuisines are Mediterranean and Asian, influenced by California and its exemplary produce. Most of her menus are gluten-free. She serves Israeli food on request, mostly for b’nai mitzvah, but stressed that it’s only a small part of the cuisines she offers.

Oz doesn’t tire of talking about food. By the time we’re wrapping up our conversation, she is animatedly describing a salad with fresh goat cheese she ate while on a recent trip with her third — and last, she jokes — husband in a restaurant in France. The cheese incorporated nuts and dried fruit.

Since returning, she has been working on perfecting her own version to serve at smaller dinner parties.

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."