San Francisco’s indie Jewish community, The Kitchen, celebrates its second birthday this month. The Kitchen supports weekly DIY Shabbat dinners and other holiday food gatherings including a Purim party and a 100-person Sukkot feast. The Kitchen recently reserved a 500-person space to hold High Holy Day services. Additionally, The Kitchen hosts events for young singles called Kitchen 24/7, and has a Kitchen Mama’s program, bringing together 60 parents with young children for an earlier Shabbat services and dinner gathering. The organization places a high priority on food because “we recognize that so much of religious life is social and happens around the table. Food is this local currency and language in San Francisco, and we see it as a very important part of what we’re doing,” The Kitchen’s founding rabbi, Noa Kushner, said. In my Q&A with Kushner, she shares her dining do’s and don’ts when it comes to her kitchen table.
Emma Goss: Food writer and novelist Laurie Colwin wrote, “Certainly, cooking for oneself reveals man at his weirdest.” What do you eat when you’re alone?
Noa Kushner: To be honest, cereal. Regular cheerios with raisins and milk.
EG: How do you eat or cook differently now than you did when you were younger?
NK: My husband is an excellent cook and baker, so I eat better. I have higher standards. And I eat breakfast. I never used to eat breakfast. I grew up in Boston, bust since I live in California [for at least 15 years], I drink water now. I never used to drink water.
EG: What principles guide your eating or cooking? (For example, Tamar Adler writes in “An Everlasting Meal” that we should “look at meals’ remainders with interest and imagine all the good things they will become.”)
NK: I really do try to think about eating to live and to serve as opposed to just eating to eat. For me eating is a means to a greater end. Eating allows me to have the energy to do holy work. There’s a story of a peasant eating. His friend says, “what are you doing?” [He replies,]I’m eating. “What are you eating?” I’m eating black bread and vodka. “Why do you eat?” Well. I eat to live. “Why do you live?” I live to eat. And then he [the peasant] said [to his friend], “Well what are you doing?” [His friend said] I’m having black bread and vodka. “Why do you eat?” I eat to live. “Why do you live?” I live to serve. I live to serve God.
EG: Which food writer most speaks to you?
NK: Thomas Keller [cookbook author and the head chef of Napa Valley’s gourmet restaurant, The French Laundry.] I really admire his commitment and the fact that he doesn’t settle. He changed the way we look at food.
EG: Share with us a simple tip for cooking or eating that never fails you.
NK: A white tablecloth makes everything taste better. In my house when it’s Shabbat the white tablecloth has to come out.
EG: What’s a food trend that totally mystifies you?
NK: Bacon in everything. I’m a kosher girl, kosher vegetarian. [The weirdest bacon combination] is bacon and chocolate.
EG: What’s a mistake you consistently make in the kitchen or at a restaurant?
NK: Making too much food and ordering too much food. My eyes are bigger than my stomach.
EG: What’s your favorite Jewish food, and why?
NK: I’d have to say my bubbie’s rugelach. She used to do cinnamon. I also just think as a dessert it’s really special. It’s hard to prepare. You know, it takes some time. It’s no cupcake.
EG: If your personality could be characterized by a food, which one would it be and why?
NK: Hopefully something local, organic, and authentic, with a lot of taste. Maybe a really good apple.