Evan Bloom is one half of the pair behind San Francisco’s beloved Wise Sons Deli. He co-founded and co-owns it with his University of California at Berkeley classmate, Leo Beckerman, and together, they have built a business devoted to traditional Jewish foods and to local, sustainable agriculture and artisans. They bake their own bread, smoke their own meats and fish, and do much to support Northern California farms.
The Wise Sons Deli brand has become a cult favorite in the Bay Area, and its creators are celebrated in Jewish food circles as leaders of a national deli revival, along with such restaurateurs as Noah Bernamoff and Rae Cohen of New York’s Mile End.
Bloom is a busy guy. Between running Wise Sons’ food stand at San Francisco’s iconic Ferry Building on the Embarcadero, and the restaurant’s first brick-and-mortar restaurant on 24th Street in the Mission District, Evan and Leo just opened the doors of their newest location at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, where museum-goers and nearby office workers enjoy house-cured pastrami sandwiches on freshly baked rye bread, bialys and bowls of matzah ball soup.
The days leading up to the High Holy Days are an especially busy time for these proverbial Wise Sons, as they rush to prepare catering orders for their many customers having special meals for the chagim, or holidays, between Rosh HaShanah and Sukkot.
Sukkot in particular is important to Bloom, and he sat down with a reporter and a cappuccino one busy, pre-High Holy Day afternoon at Wise Sons’ museum location to tell me about it. Surprisingly for a piece about such a famous foodie, in this story, food is not the focus.
“My grandparents — my Saba and Safta — were Orthodox Jews who lived in a big house in West L.A.,” he begins. “My father and his three siblings grew up there, and they had this really big backyard. For Sukkot, the whole family would gather there — there were 30 of us, my dad’s three siblings and all their kids; there were 16 grandchildren.
“My grandfather had built this sukkah that they kept in the garage and set up in the backyard for Sukkot. He was an engineer, so it was absolutely perfectly made — everything fit just so. It had trellises and dangling plastic grapes. He was so proud of it. So, every year we would set it up, bring in tables, and somehow, all 30 of us fit inside. We’d cram in there, in 70-degree Los Angeles weather.”
When asked about the food in the sukkah, Bloom stresses that the food, while good, wasn’t the point of the gathering.
“We were there to be together,” he says. “I remember some of it. There was always fruit. My grandmother loves fruit. Whenever I would visit her, she would immediately put a bowl of fruit in front of me. And babka. There there was always babka,” he said, referring to the iconic coffee cake made of a yeast dough swirled with nuts and often chocolate.
“There was also this salad my grandfather used to make — it was very simple. Just iceberg lettuce, onions, peppers, tomatoes and cucumber, with this crazy combination of three store-bought bottled dressings that he absolutely loved. And it always, always tasted the same. It was his signature dish.”
The family members would pass around platters of fruit, Bloom’s Saba’s special salad and a number of other rotating items. They’d sing and laugh and talk in the warm Los Angeles night.
As Bloom’s grandparents got older, the food was more frequently brought in than home-cooked. “One year, we even had kosher Chinese food takeout,” he says.
But that didn’t make it any less significant an experience. “It was still special — always special,” he says. “We always put up that sukkah, no matter what.”