Delancey Street Restaurant on San Francisco’s Embarcadero. (Lisa Landers)
Matzoh balls aren’t for everyone. Neither are Velveeta cheese sandwiches or baba ghanoush. But for some, the taste and smell of these dishes are like a dose of “home” straight to their veins. Offering foods that remind people of home is Mimi Silbert’s main criteria for the menu at Delancey Street, the restaurant she opened on San Francisco’s waterfront in 1991.
When I sat down to talk with Silbert last month, she was still putting the finishing touches on the restaurant’s new menu. She excitedly described some of the latest additions, like the nacho slider topped with pickled jalapenos. Just like the food most of us prepare and serve in our own homes, the menu at the Delancey Street Restaurant is not beholden to any particular themes or deliberate marketing strategies. It’s mostly an evolving hodgepodge of dishes that Silbert has enjoyed throughout her seven decades of life, and added to her personal recipe book.
And the menu isn’t the only thing that’s eclectic about this restaurant. So is the staff. The waiters, maître-d’s and cooks are not unified in their desire to work at a restaurant, but rather, by the fact that they have all hit rock bottom and are preparing to make a new go at life in the house that Silbert has built.
The Delancey Street restaurant is just one facet of an extensive residential self-help organization that Silbert founded in 1971. Former felons, substance abusers, gang members and others ready to embark on a new life path apply to live at one of the Delancey Street campuses around the country where they work to build the skills they need to lead more honest, productive and hopefully, happier lives.
On average, residents remain at Delancey Street for four years, during which time they acquire an academic education as well as a minimum of three marketable skills. They gain these skills by working rotations at the many Delancey Street enterprises, which includes a moving company, furniture store, barbershop and bookstore, to name just a few.
“Most people here have never even worked an honest job,” says Silbert. Sometimes they try something out here and it fits -- and you say ‘oh my god they’re going to develop a talent.’ And sometimes it’s just a dead end.”
While the 400 residents at the organization’s San Francisco campus get introduced to a wide variety of vocations, Silbert says that many of them do find their calling at the restaurant -- the heart of the operation.
“Delancey Street is a home for me. I raised my kids here,” says Silbert. “Most of our people [at Delancey Street] have never had a real home until now. When I grew up, home revolved around the kitchen. My grandmother and my mom were at that stove the whole time and when people came in, they came into our kitchen. A home is about nourishment, and food is physically and spiritually nourishing. It makes you want to hug people. We have a lot of customers who keep coming and coming and coming -- and we’re hugging them and they’re hugging us.”
Many of the recipes that Silbert teaches the staff come from her own family’s culinary traditions. A first generation American, Silbert’s parents left Eastern Europe to escape religious persecution and establish a new life in New York’s Lower East side. Delancey Street -- the restaurant’s namesake -- is one of the tenement-lined streets in this neighborhood where Jewish immigrants like Silbert’s parents settled down to make a fresh start.
Her parents likely left behind most of their physical belongings, but carried with them some of the old world recipes now featured on the restaurant’s menu, like the steaming bowl of Granny Dena’s chicken soup sitting on the table in front of me. I slurp a spoonful of the rich dark broth, loaded with cabbage and celery, a dense matzoh ball plopped right in the middle of it. Just like my grandmother used to make.
Although Silbert had been eating and making this soup for ages, she had never followed an actual recipe. But ‘winging it’ was not going to work for her staff. The soup was utterly unfamiliar to them; the matzoh ball was like some kind of alien life form. A recipe was required. So Silbert wrote down that it needed a little of this and a little of that (and a lot of cabbage), and eventually they all figured out how to get it just right.
Silbert recently took her cook staff on a field trip to New York City to visit places like Katz’s Delicatessen to sample authentic Jewish foods like pastrami and schmaltz (poultry fat used for cooking or spreading on bread). “We have a smoker in which we make brisket, but I’m trying to develop the feel for making pastrami,” explained Silbert. “I wanted everyone to taste it and see it we could do it just like that.”
Of course, there are plenty of things that Silbert does have recipes for, including those dishes she solicits from the family traditions of the residents themselves. As evidence of this, she calls out to one of her dapper waiters (they all wear crisp white shirts and bow ties) to bring me a slice of sweet potato pie. It’s a recipe that comes from the mother of a Delancey Street graduate who had sent the pie to Silbert as a holiday gift – and it was love at first bite. Silbert requested the recipe so they could add it to the menu.
My mouth waters as my spoons sinks into the thick orange filling, and all I can manage is a deep “mmmmm” when the lusciousness hits.
I also inquire about the origins of the sweet and spicy cauliflower plate, which Silbert says is a dish she made up for her friend, California Attorney General Kamala Harris. “Kamala is from India and she married a Jewish man -- and they were coming over so I made that up to go along with the blintzes and other things that I was serving.”
Whether you order the chili rellenos or Kimi’s pesto pasta or a new entree that Silbert has been cooking up in homage to a resident whose family hails from Palestine, you can be sure that there is a story behind every dish.
Among the mayhem of menu options, one item jumped out as me as suspiciously trendy: kale. Silbert was quick to explain, “I really didn’t want to put it on – you should’ve heard me complaining!” She added the kale in honor of a friend who had cancer and was eating lots of vitamin packed greens to try to boost his health.
“I won’t have goat cheese or kiwi though,” Silbert is quick to add.
Whether it’s crispy Parmesan kale or ½ slab of baby back ribs with collard greens, Silbert says she just trusts her gut when deciding what goes on the menu and what doesn’t. That’s also how she makes decisions about how to run the entire operation; no professional managers, chefs, marketers or other experts have ever stepped foot there. The residents simply follow the strong clear lead of their matriarch, train and learn from each other, and figure the rest out together. This family-style management model is why Silbert throws up her hands when people ask her to help establish restaurants for other kinds of communities.
“People ask me if I’d open a restaurant for them and I say ‘nah.’ This is our home. If it’s not our home it’s not our restaurant. You have to come up with what fits your group -- you have to go to the people who are going to be there and say, ‘what can you cook?’ Otherwise it just won’t work.”
It seems to me that the way Silbert makes Delancey Street work is just like her recipe for Granny Dena’s soup; with a little of this and a little of that, a dollop of chutzpah and just the right amount of schmaltz.
Delancey Street Restaurant
600 The Embarcadero [Map]
San Francisco, CA 94107
Tel: (415) 512-5179
Hours: Tue-Fri, 11am-11pm; Sat-Sun, 10am-11pm; Closed Monday
Price Range: $$ (Entrees $11-$17)