An instant hit in San Francisco was Wise Sons Deli, the love child of two young Cal grads, Leo Beckerman and Evan Bloom, who have reinvented the Jewish deli via fresh, hand-made classic dishes. I interviewed Leo about the holidays, cooking and the treasured role of Bubbies (a Jewish grandmother but the term can apply to anyone who shows love through food).
(Published by the San Jose Mercury News and its affiliates on December 6, 2012.)
Whether it’s Aunt Harriet’s famous bean casserole with crumpled potato chips or traditional dumpling recipes made in Chinese-American kitchens, the holidays mean family noshing. The customary treat in Leo Beckerman’s family is homemade potato latkes that barely make it out of the frying pan before being devoured.
Co-owner of popular Wise Sons Deli in San Francisco’s Mission district, Beckerman is now making a career out of nostalgic — but carefully hand-made — Jewish food. And this kind of food’s enduring symbol has to be Bubbie, technically a Jewish granny but, in fact, anyone’s nanna, auntie or nurturing friend who loves dispensing cheek pinches and keeps the cookie jar full.
Beckerman is one of many contributors to a new website, Beyond Bubbie, which features the recipes and stories from the Bubbies in everyone’s life. He’ll be one of the food celebrities at a launch event for the site in January. And with the holidays approaching, he also shared thoughts on families and food traditions.
Wise Sons Deli in San Francisco has been packed since it opened.
Q: What are some of your favorite holiday food memories?
A: In my family, making latkes would be an entirely kitchen event. There is no sitting down to eat latkes. There’s no travel on a platter from the kitchen to the dining room. It’s all in the kitchen. It’s all, burn your fingers, burn your mouth. How many can you get in at once? There was never a big enough frying pan. There was never enough space on the stove to make sure everyone got it at the same time.
Q: What does your typical Hanukkah meal look like?
A: To me, a Hanukkah meal is obviously heavy on the fried food. The latkes — that’s a big one. But every Jewish holiday has a brisket, so Hanukkah isn’t different from that. And ideally, something to help you cut through all the grease and oil. And now that I think of it, I wonder if we ever got that far. Normally, if latkes are the appetizer, we never got to the meal.
Q: Talk a little about a classic Bubbie experience.
A: It would have to be in Bubbie’s home. And at this point, Bubbie’s home is probably an apartment in the old folk’s home. From a food perspective, it involves more food items and more preparation than you could imagine. The kid runs in and has one day or a couple of hours to spend with Bubbie but Bubbie’s been cooking for three days for this. Plying people with food. All these items that are very traditional or have meaning beyond sustenance.
Q: How does the whole Bubbie thing fit into a multicultural region like the Bay Area?
A: Around here, it’s about the love and care of parents and grandparents. They may bother or annoy you but in the old way, it’s important to feed you and care for you. It’s much more than just Jewish. It’s the same thing as good home cookin’ and who does better cookin’ than grandma? It’s mom squared.
Q: What if a Bubbie has the love part down but can’t cook?
A: To me, with a Bubbie, there’s a lot of food involved because stereotypically, that’s how you expect a Bubbie to show love and affection. “You’re skin and bones, eat something!” That kind of thing. There are plenty of characteristics and cooking is just one of them.
Q: What about your Bubbie? What things did she cook?
A: My Bubbie — I called her Grandma — she was a great baker. One of the things we sell in the deli is babka. Babka comes from the same root as Bubbie. Literally, like “grandma cake” or “grandma.” Hers was very different from what we serve in the deli but when we first started, we had babka wars — “whose Bubbie made the babka that’s the right babka?” What we have now is it’s own thing, but when we first started, that was something that was personal to me. Although it’s not the same as what we offer, I have strong memories of my grandmother making a babka, and some pies as well.
Q: Did your Bubbies contribute recipes that you use for dishes you make at your restaurant?
A: The recipes came from my mother and grandmother. My mom’s mom. My dad’s mom was famous for opening canned vegetables. I have some of my mom’s mom’s recipe cards. You remember before recipe books, people had recipes on 3×5 notecards. Before she died, I made a point of going through those with her. There are a lot of family recipes in there. That’s sort of the treasure chest of little recipes.
Q: Did you actually use these recipes precisely or did you re-imagine and re-invent them?
A: There are no recipes we use that are 100 percent unchanged. Everything has been tinkered with. We have some recipes that we started with from my grandma’s recipe cards or parents’ recipes. We even have a number of community cookbooks. “The Sisterhood of So-and-So Synagogue Cookbook.” One of the greatest things about those is that you have six recipes for the same thing. Mrs. Cohen’s Matzoh Ball Soup. Sandra’s Husband’s Favorite Matzoh Ball Soup. And they’re all different. It’s unbelievable. We definitely have drawn upon quite a few sources for those recipes.
Q: Does the Beyond Bubbies project have anything in common with your restaurant?
A: Wise Sons Deli creates nostalgic food. Many of our dishes are reminiscent of a different time or memories people have associated with delis. There’s a lot of personal history associated with delis and the food that delis serve. The joke we have — it’s literally on the menu — is “we have matzoh ball soup but it’s not as good as your Bubbie’s.” It’s the type of food that’s a conversation starter. “Oh, the ball’s too big.” “The ball’s too small.” “It’s too hard. “It’s too soft.” “It should sink.” “It should float.” ” It should be round.” “It should be oblong.” “It should be yellow.” “It should be white.” “It’s too salty.” “It’s not salty enough.” It’s a very personal thing and everyone brings their own personal experience to the deli. I know this happens to delis across the country.
Q: Neither you or your co-owner, Evan, have formal cooking experience. How did you learn this stuff well enough to run a successful restaurant?
A: Through a lot of hard work and trial and error. I like to say, mostly error.