At a recent Illuminoshi event in Oakland, Chef Lee Davidson instructed people on the finer points of making a fatayer – a stuffed pastry with spinach and onion filling or potato leek – that’s commonly made in the Arab world. Guests took a spoonful of the filling that she made in advance, and placed it in the middle of a circle of dough, and then pinched the corners together. Finally, they brushed it with egg wash.
With so many independent chefs out there, one has to have a particular niche to get noticed. Davidson is continuously refining her niche, as her business evolves.
While the chef, whose business is called Made2Gather, began with events where everyone participated; part performance, part team-building exercise, she is still doing that, but now with food as meditation, as well as food as medicine.
“I’m a food healer or I’m a curator of food healing spaces, and I really want to start pushing those boundaries,” said Davidson. “There are a lot of cooking classes, and they are healthy and nourishing, but people are not there when they cook a lot of the time. They’re not present.”
Davidson believes that cooking can be used as a tool to aid people in their meditation practices, as it “can help you be engaged and use your senses.”
Plus, there’s an additional outcome to all of this that acts as an additional motivating force: “You get to eat.”
Davidson, 31, of Oakland, believes that her interest in food began when she was young – like in a baby seat young, hanging out in the kitchen – where there was always the “smells of stews and all of this food going around.”
Given that Davidson was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, to Israeli immigrants who both worked, she had successive black nannies, who mostly brought her up.
With a lot of singing and cooking going on in the kitchen, “I think inevitably I must have absorbed a connection to it,” she said.
At 11, her mother took her and her siblings back to Israel, where two out of her four grandparents – her father’s father and her mother’s mother – were amazing cooks.
While her mom’s side of the family was more traditional foodwise, her dad’s side was comprised of adventurous eaters, she said, who were always bringing back exotic salami and cheeses from their travels abroad.
Ironically, Davidson’s first job was at a McDonald’s in a Tel Aviv suburb; not necessarily something that is a harbinger of a future in food. That led to jobs at pizzerias, and finally a three-year stint at a bakery at Chanukah time, when they sell sufganiyot – jelly-filled donuts.
Despite this long-running interest in food, Davidson took awhile to figure out that being a chef was what she was meant to do. She studied art and graphic design in London after serving in the Israeli army. Even after using cupcakes for a design project and spending three months figuring out various ways to decorate them, “I still didn’t understand or put it together that that’s where my heart is,” she said.
She moved to Los Angeles, where she had family members. While she helped them manage their juice bar business for a spell, a visit to San Francisco during Pride weekend convinced her that this is where she wanted to live.
That was six years ago, where she first took a nanny position working for Anya Fernald, CEO of the sustainable meat business Belcampo.
While Davidson was mostly taking care of Fernald’s daughter, with Belcampo just getting started, there was a lot of travel and dinner parties involved, and Davidson began cooking for them as well.
Later, when she began cooking for a woman with thyroid disease, whose condition dramatically improved with her help, she realized she should take this cooking thing seriously, and enrolled in a 12-week course at Kitchen on Fire to refine the skills she already had.
“Being able to support this woman’s healing made me wonder how I could turn this into something more,” she said.
When asked to describe her cooking style, Davidson had a bit of a hard time. No doubt Israel’s Mediterranean diet has had a big influence, as its emphasis on fresh vegetables is not unlike the Northern California ethos.
As for the South African influence, that’s a bit harder to detect.
“South Africa doesn’t have a specific palate,” she said. “But there’s such a big influence from the Dutch and Indian food there.”
Of course, there’s a lot of Indian influence in London, too, where she also lived.
Recently, she also visited Japan and is integrating Japanese flavors into her California-Mediterranean mash-up.
Davidson is a popular chef on the Feastly platform, and lately has been offering a Shakshuka Brunch Cooking Class, in which diners help make the Shakshuka (Shakshuka is a popular brunch dish in Israel, in which eggs are cooked over a bed of stewed tomatoes cooked with peppers, onions, and spices) but in her version, other vegetables like broccoli and chard are used. (Another popular meal she has done on the platform is called Israeli Food for the Soul.)
She also serves homemade pita and seasonal dishes, like an asparagus, avocado and beet salad, and a power tea of her own design, with fresh turmeric root, black pepper, sage, oregano, honey, and mint.
Feastly diners love her, giving her over 200 reviews, many of them five stars.
“She allowed us a lot of freedom to ‘make this meal our own,’ and not feel self-conscious if our techniques were right or wrong,’” wrote one, with another saying, “Lee’s energy was contagious.”
Davidson maintains that in this era where chefs are often seen as gods, it’s hard for the not-so-experienced home cook to feel competent in the kitchen.
She hopes those attending her workshops will come away with more confidence.
“I want to push this idea of intuitive mindful cooking and creativity, with not worrying so much about how the food will turn out,” she said.
The fact that so many chefs are executing highly technical dishes on television ruins it for the rest of us, she maintains.
“This doesn’t mean that you can’t be a cook, too,” she said. “Robots are coming around the corner, but they won’t be able to be creative and improvise in cooking. Whether it’s being a chef or just cooking for yourself to nourish your body, I want to inspire people.”