How the world’s first all-vegan Jewish deli is preparing for Passover

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Restaurateur Andy Kalish associated two smells with Friday nights growing up: his grandmother’s chicken soup and mothballs in his grandfather’s closet. Kalish’s grandparents, Sam and Gertie, were both immigrants – from Romania and Glasgow respectively – who had settled in Detroit’s Dexter Davidson Corridor, a historically Jewish neighborhood.

There, Kalish’s childhood was shaped by traditional Ashkenazi food, from sumptuous Kiddush tables of bagels and salmon to Gertie’s homemade Friday lunches, often served with platters of pickled herring, which Kalish made wiggle by gently nudging the table leg with his knee.

“Everything my grandmother made, and then everything my aunt Elaine — who ended up being the owner of my grandmother’s recipes and cooking for Hanukkah, Passover and Rosh Hashanah — made came from those recipes,” Kalish said. “These wonderful, wonderful meals just tasted the same forever.”

Related: Gefilte Fish Isn’t Just for Jews: The Passover staple makes a great daily snack

So it might come as no surprise to learn that Kalish, along with his wife and fellow restaurateur Gina Marino-Kalish, have decided to open Sam & Gerties — a Jewish deli in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood — in 2020. Though the offerings would be based on Kalish’s family recipes and childhood food, there was one big Difference. It would be the world’s first purely vegan Jewish deli.

“Everything we make vegan is meant to replace its animal counterpart in every way possible,” Kalish told me when I visited the deli (which is on a quiet tree-lined residential street next to it). Kalishes’ other two vegan restaurants, Kal’ish and the upcoming L/A Mex). He led me past a slowly forming line of customers ordering bagels with “salmon” — made with slow-smoked and thinly sliced ​​tomatoes — and non-dairy cream cheese.

As we sat at a table, he continued, “I mean, you didn’t ask the question, but I’ll give you an answer. ‘Why are we doing this?’ We have a 23 year old son and over his years the world has changed dramatically. If everyone does a little thing, there’s an attitude of him like he’s going to have a rich and wonderful and hopefully long life like my grandparents had… If we don’t do anything, the world will just unravel and burn in madness.”

Bread from Sam & Gertie (Sam & Gerties)

Kalish believes that eating plant-based meals is one of the easiest and most democratic things anyone can do to save the planet. It also fills a need for vegan Jews who want to enjoy traditional foods, often made with dairy or lard. This divide is evident on holidays like Passover, where dishes like brisket, matzo balls in chicken broth, and kugel are commonly served.

Because of this, Kalish began offering a Passover menu through Sam & Gertie’s. It includes a dizzying array of dishes like faux brisket; gefilte “no” fish; Matzo lasagne with tomato ragout and plant starch cheese; potato and onion ball; and frosted chocolate deli cake.

Finding a credible substitute for meat-based classics takes some work. During our conversation, Kalish likened it to a science experiment. “One that never really ends,” he joked.

Sam & Gertie’s breast, for example, consists of almost 15 all-natural ingredients. Kalish didn’t want to reveal any proprietary secrets, but it does contain a variety of beans and grains cooked to varying degrees of doneness to mimic the “rings” of fat present in a cut of beef.


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“Creating flavors is not complicated,” said Kalish. “Texture? A little bit more.”

In the end, this is Sam & Gertie’s version of a traditional Seder – with no egg and bones on the Seder plate.

“There’s the spirit of the law and there’s the letter of the law,” Kalish said. “We’re really focused on the spirit of the experience — and we’re going to be selling several hundred of these meals.”

Many of these meals are shipped en masse to Chicago suburbs like Skokie for large family gatherings. Many others are also being taken up by individuals who wish to celebrate the holiday in their own way, which resonates deeply with Kalish.

“I came here from college 30 years ago and couldn’t come home for the entire vacation,” Kalish said. “So I found places to go and feel at home. I hope the same goes for someone else.”

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