As the owner of a hyper-local San Francisco restaurant, Yaron Milgrom doesn’t seem unique — after all, the city by the bay is the birthplace of the locavore movement. But Milgrom’s road to San Francisco restaurateur certainly is out-of-the-ordinary.
Milgrom moved from New York to California in 2008 for his wife’s medical residency. At the time, he was getting a doctorate in Medieval Jewish Mysticism from NYU. While he still hopes to finish his doctorate someday, he has turned his attention from the academia to food.
When he moved into the Mission neighborhood of San Francisco he noticed an abundance of taquerias, but recognized the need for a local, ingredient-driven restaurant. In March, 2010, he opened Local: Mission Eatery with chef Jake Des Voignes.
The restaurant, which turns out “European cuisine with rigorously sourced local ingredients,” has been so popular that Milgrom plans to open another non-restaurant food endeavor sometime this year, built around the same everything-cooked-from-scratch model.
And lest you think Milgrom has just a passing interest in the trendy locavore movement, note the names of his two children: His nearly five-month-old, Rimon, was born in the fall and named for the Hebrew word for pomegranate and his 3-year-old son, born in the winter, is named Cruv, Hebrew for cabbage.
How would you describe the concept of your restaurant?
There is literally no processed food in the restaurant. If it’s not a single ingredient, we make it. And everything is sourced from Northern California. We use purveyors as little as possible. I go to the farmer’s market twice a week. Jake [our chef] goes two or three times a week. We get everything there, not just specialty items like most people do.
The restaurant business seems a long way from Medieval Jewish Mysticism. How did you get involved with food?
While I was in college, my wife-to-be took me out for my first great meal at Jean-Georges. I couldn’t believe how incredible food could be, and I started to take my food more seriously. I interned one day a week at a molecular gastronomy dessert bar in New York, Room 4 Dessert. The way chef Will Goldfarb approached food was something scholarly, which I was really attracted to. Maybe there was some comfort with the fact that he was Jewish.
How did you come to meet the chef at your restaurant, Jake Des Voignes?
It was no question that it was my Jewishness that made it possible to meet Jake. [Though Des Voignes is not Jewish.]
One night, my wife and I were out to dinner at Coi [a local molecular gastronomy eatery] for my birthday and I was asking the server all of these questions about molecular gastronomy. He asked if I wanted to be involved in a molecular gastonomy Shtetl meal. It was one of the only times my two interests combined. [Unfortunately it never came to fruition.] That server was connected to chef Charlie Kleinman, who connected me to Jake.
[Local: Mission Eatery is not a molecular gastronomy restaurant, but Milgrom said he may one day open one.]
Did you grow up with a strong Jewish background?
My mom is a Rabbi and my father is in Jewish education. At my home we keep a kosher-style house. I don’t have meat and milk together, we have separate dishes and I don’t have treyf animals at home.
But Local: Mission Food isn’t kosher. Did you ever consider opening a kosher place?
My restaurant is very kosher in that it’s really representative of ethical eating. We get in whole lambs, whole chickens and there’s very little waste. In San Francisco, there isn’t a demand for kosher food.
Do you ever serve Jewish-style food?
We’ve had brisket on the menu. We’ve had smoked sturgeon. The first Pesach we were open, we had a braised lamb and matzo with horseradish and parsley. We made the matzo ourselves. We had it salted and unsalted. It was really good.
Now that you have your feet firmly planted in the restaurant business, do you see any connection between Jewish mysticism and cooking?
Jewish mystics saw connections between cooking and the interpretation of Torah. In a nutshell (so to speak), both took a raw ingredient (Torah text/flour, for example) and elevated into something greater (mystical exegesis/bread or pastries) while also remembering it began with the raw ingredient (Torah/flour).