Famed chef and cookbook author Joyce Goldstein talked about Mediterranean Jewish food to the Illuminoshi, a new group of Jewish food professionals, at Covenant Winery on April 5. Photo: Jesse Friedman

Joyce Goldstein probably couldn’t have picked a tougher crowd to showcase recipes from her newest cookbook than the 75 people who gathered at Covenant Winery in Berkeley on April 5.

The people who munched and mingled in the large room right next to where Covenant makes and blends its kosher wine were self-described Jewish food professionals. They had come together formally for the first time that night as the “Illuminoshi,” a name they chose after deciding the “Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals,” was too bland.

There were winemakers and grape growers and caterers and writers and specialty food producers. There were personal chefs, food justice workers, teachers, PR mavens, and culinary tour operators. Noah Alper, the founder of Noah’s Bagels, was there. Alice Medrich, the chocolate and dessert maven, was too. The man who helped invent Cap’n Crunch, Chaim Gur-Arieh (who is now a winemaker), was also mingling. Others on the invite list included Mike Rose, the co-owner of Semifreddi’s, the restaurant owner and caterer Hugh Groman, Dafna Kory from INNA Jam, Andrew Stoloff of Rubicon Bakery, and Tal Safran, the co-founder of Josephine.

In short, Goldstein was facing Jews who knew their food.

But the 80-year old, who was once the top chef at Chez Panisse Café and the owner of the ground-breaking San Francisco restaurant Square One, was sanguine about the challenge. After all, she had poured all of her knowledge and experience into The New Mediterranean Jewish Table: Old World Recipes for the Modern Home. The book, just published by UC Press and available for Passover, has 420 recipes — but no glossy color photos — and features Jewish recipes that most might not expect. Goldstein is on a crusade to show the world that Jewish food is not just brisket, kugel, gefilte fish and latkes. Those are dishes made by Ashkenazi Jews and represent just one of many Jewish subsets. Goldstein, long a master of Mediterranean cooking, wants to showcase Jewish cuisine from other parts of the world, cuisine she characterizes as fresher and healthier.

The cookbook has recipes from Maghrebi Jews, who lived in the North African countries of Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, and Egypt, as well as from Mizrahi Jews who have lived in Muslim lands since biblical times. There are also recipes from Sephardic Jews — descendents of the Jews expelled from Spain in the 15th century.

“I wanted to change people’s mindset away from Ashkenazi cuisine with its focus on meat and potatoes,” said Goldstein, who described that type of cooking as “cold-climate cuisine. It’s not a terribly healthy diet for your lifestyle. I grew up in Brooklyn and all around us fathers were dropping dead at 39, 40 from following this lifestyle… [But] there are hundreds and hundreds of wonderful Jewish recipes from the Mediterranean. You can cook this food. It’s delicious. It will take you on an adventure.”

And it did. The food was completely unexpected, miles away in taste from familiar Jewish recipes like matzo ball soup and chopped liver. There was Samak al Sahara, an Egyptian dish of fish covered with green tahini. The fish was delicate and the cilantro-tahini sauce a piquant surprise. The Moroccan-inspired lentil salad contained a refreshing mix of carrots, dates and mint. Fasulyas is a Lebanese dish of slow-cooked green beans. The spuma di tono con crostini from Italy looked like hummus on toast, but the creamy fish exploded on the tongue.

Fish with tahini from a recipe from Joyce Goldstein’s new cookbook. Photo: Jesse Friedman
Fasulyas is a Lebanese dish of slow-cooked green beans. Photo: Jesse Friedman
Stuffed dried apricots with labneh (yogurt cheese) and pistachios. Photo: Jesse Friedman

Adding to the atmosphere were the Covenant wines. Jeff and Jodie Morgan, the winery’s co-owners, served a 2014 Mensch White Roussane, a 2014 Mensch Zinfandel, a 2015 Red C rosé, among other wines. They even opened their top of the line 2013 Covenant Cabernet Sauvignon.

Alix Wall, who writes about food for Berkeleyside, The J Weekly, The Forward and other publications, was the organizer behind the Illuminoshi. She realized there wasn’t, and never had been, a professional group for Jews in the food industry before. So she decided to start one.

“I have always been a connector,” said Wall about her reasons for starting Illuminoshi. “Throughout my time in the Bay Area, I’ve met so many people in the food world doing interesting things, and because I know them all, I assume everyone else does too… I started a Facebook group in December, and very soon, people were adding friends of theirs, people I didn’t know. The first person to offer to host an in-person meet-up was Chuck Siegel of Charles’ Chocolates. We had never met before. About 25 of us met at Charles’ Chocolates in SF in late January. One person — who I had never met — told me this was maybe the first Jewish group she had ever come to check out in her many years of living here, as nothing really appeals to her.”

Covenant cellarmaster Eli Silins poured rosé and other wines for the Illuminoshi members. Photo: Jesse Friedman
Alix Wall, in the grey dress standing before the crowd, addresses the group of Jewish food professionals known as the Illuminoshi. Photo: Jesse Friedman

Wall asked, and received, a grant from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation Grassroots Initiative Program to put on the gathering and pay for some of the wine and food. The chefs who prepared the food included Wall, Mica Talmor of Ba-Bite and Savoy Events, Sandy Sonnenfelt of Market Hall Foods, Ezra Malmuth of Sababa Snacks and Bay Laurel Group, Elianna Friedman of Bay Leaf Kitchen, and Daniella BenSimon of Dani BenSimon Catering.

Many of those at the gathering said they weren’t quite sure why they were there, but they were glad they had come. They thought that some unusual collaborations might result by bringing together people who knew one another by name, or through Twitter or Facebook, but had never met in person.

“I like the face time,” said Jodie Morgan. “I don’t do Facebook. There’s nothing like looking at someone and saying ‘you are the one,’ and having the time to brainstorm. That can only happen in person.”

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...