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Kosher Chef Turns Catering Into a Spiritual Practice

Brian Schwadron studied with indigenous healers around the world. Now he’s using what he learned to create wedding banquets.

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Batya Ellinoy and Robyn Bryers weren’t looking for a run-of-the-mill wedding caterer. The couple, who met at Prescott College in Arizona and ultimately connected on a school trip to Africa, wanted something more personal, a menu that might reflect their humanitarian, back-to-the-earth ideals. “As a pair, we value what we eat, where it comes from, the impact we’re making in our choices, how it makes us feel,” Bryers told me in a phone interview. “I believe strongly that the food we offer our guests at our gathering will be the life blood of the event.”

After Ellinoy attended Passover in the Desert—a week-long Wilderness Torah outdoor celebration—in 2013, she found a caterer who seemed in sync with their values: chef Baruch Schwadron of Hearth Healing Foods, an organic kosher caterer who makes custom wedding menus.

“Batya came home from Passover in the Desert raving about the foods created by this guy, Baruch, who infuses knowledge about herbal medicine into his food,” Bryers said. “She described someone who creates simple, nutritious, and filling meals that when you’re finished you feel refreshed as opposed to debilitated.”

“We never met with any other caterers,” said Ellinoy. “From the beginning I wanted to work with Baruch.”

The menu Schwadron created for their wedding—a three-day celebration starting Aug. 11 at the Saratoga Springs Healing and Retreat Center in Upper Lake, two-and-a-half hours North of San Francisco—is extensive. There will be anywhere from 35 to 80 people at each meal, and Schwadron will be cooking all the food, beginning with a breakfast of scrambled eggs with kale and black sage on day one, and ending with a brunch on the third day that includes shakshuka and a steamed beet salad with green onions, fresh mint, and lemon vinaigrette. In between, he’ll be preparing a massaged local kale salad with rainbow chard and marinated shaved fennel and carrots for Tuesday’s lunch, and rice noodles with oyster mushrooms, fresh vegetables, and a Thai coconut sauce with a side of juniper-roasted sweet potatoes with garlic and lime for Thursday’s dinner. In lieu of a wedding cake there will be baked apples with cashew cacao crumble.

Schwadron is not a typical wedding caterer. The kosher menus he offers his East Bay clients are infused with his knowledge of herbs and their healing properties. That’s because he is not just a chef—he is also a trained healer. In addition to nearly a decade of international cooking experience, he has spent years doing medicinal training with indigenous healers from Kenya to Peru to India and beyond.

“I serve different foods that are energizing, even things like ginger and mint, which are more stimulating herbs, but using the medicinal aspects of the food, too,” Schwadron explained. “It is kind of like magic making with the ingredients and intention that is put into the food—that’s what comes out when people eat it.” For example, the baked apple dessert he’s planning for Bryers and Ellinoy’s wedding includes herbs like cinnamon, nutmeg, and cacao that have a calming, settling effect at the end of the night, while kale keeps people hydrated and full of energy during the day.

All his local, seasonal menus are subject to changes based on the weather, the feel of the community, and whether there is a need for immunity boosters, energizers, or calming herbs. If it is hot, he adds more mint for cooling; if it’s chilly, more ginger to heat up the body. For a stressed-out wedding party, he incorporates skullcap, lavender, or lemon balm to ease tensions. To him, intention is everything. Think Like Water for Chocolate, the Jewish California version.

“He will often harvest wild foods the day of and bring them in,” said Jonathan Furst, the maggid, or religious storyteller, for Knesset HaLev, a “post-denominational” Jewish spiritual practice group in San Francisco; he occasionally serves as a wedding officiant alongside Baruch’s catering. “You can just feel the love and the care. I don’t know any kosher caterers who do fresh, wild food, who do their own harvesting and treat it as a spiritual practice—the cooking, the serving, the displaying.”

That’s why Ellinoy and Bryers chose him to cater their wedding. “His intention comes through the meals he makes,” said Bryers, “as demonstrated in the attention to detail, flavor, and impact on his surroundings.”

***

Schwadron’s training as a chef began in his rural Missouri hometown when he was just 8, after his mother passed away. “The biggest things that came out of her passing,” said Schwadron, “are certain kinds of self-reliance, some of which were gifts and some of which were wounds.” He learned to cook and care for his father and older twin siblings, and he also learned that there were ways to connect to his mother even though everyone told him she was “gone.”

“I knew that I was meant to be a healer my whole life,” said Schwadron, who comes from a long line of dentists, surgeons, and physicians. Before starting college at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where he pursued a B.A. in Cultural Medicine—a specialized program looking at the practice of indigenous healers in different communities around the globe—he spent a year in Peru.

Equipped with basic medical knowledge from advanced high-school pre-med courses, he
found himself working in a hospital in Tacna, in the Southwest corner of the country, learning how to perform appendectomies and skin grafts. “I knew from a young age I wanted to be a doctor and had heard of someone shadowing a doctor on a Rotary exchange before,” he explained. “In Peru I thought: I have this, I am good at this, I want to keep this going.”

He continued to study medicine first-hand. He started studying emergency medicine in Lima and then moved in with the chief of surgery in the burn unit in Tacna. Schwadron took his medical textbooks and studied the pictures of the steps of the surgeries the night before an operation. “It was an amazing experience,” he said.

At this point Schwadron wasn’t a hippie yet—he was a science-minded Midwesterner, never exposed to spirituality beyond the basics of Judaism at a Conservative synagogue in Missouri. Although today, at age 30, he makes his own shoes, grows his own vegetables, and even wears a small vase with a living plant in it pinned to his homemade felt hat, back then he was just a teenager interested in medicine living in South America.

Through a series of chance encounters and events, he was invited to the Amazon for a month, where he was brought to the house of a shaman, a local indigenous medicinal healer from the Shipibo tribe. “I showed up at this guy’s house,” Schwadron recalled, “and he said, ‘I am so glad you are here, I have been waiting for you, it’s time for your initiation.’ The first thing he said to me was ‘eres shaman.’ You are a shaman. And I responded, ‘Maybe you are crazy.’ I was shocked myself that it came out and that I said that.”

But he stayed for an entire month and learned through all-night trainings and teaching sessions. “He taught me how malleable the world is, with both words and actions,” Schwadron said. These teachings are the very fuel for his wedding catering today—a core belief that food can alter an event, that ingredients create the mood, that a community can be formed through intention and action.

The following year, Schwadron began University in Michigan and ran a program called For All Humanity, a nonprofit organization that facilitated international community empowerment projects, such as farmers’ cooperatives or community-interest collectives. “We were essentially working with communities to realize that together they have more power than as individuals,” he explained. By the time Schwadron got his degree in 2006, For All Humanity brought him around the world to projects in more than 14 countries. And in each country he headed straight to the kitchen and to the healers.

This was where Schwadron learned the diversity of his menu, dishes ranging from sundried tomato, tarragon, and turmeric chickpea stew with spices from around the Indian Ocean, to coconut mushroom millet with fresh mint, borrowing from African, Thai, Indian, and Peruvian influences. He was never formally trained as a chef; he took his cues from an early age learning first to navigate his own kitchen in Missouri, and later, as he learned from healers across the world, he also sat and absorbed their knowledge of food. “I was learning cooking and also … apprenticing with indigenous healers and shamanic healers,” he said. “I was also asking them questions about their community—who is being represented, who has power, what kind of issues are happening—just getting a sense of community participation.

“I was wanting to spend a lot of time with the women in those communities because they always had an honest and deeper story than what was being spoken elsewhere,” recalled Schwadron. “So, I would ask them to teach me how to cook their food because I loved food and was comfortable cooking and so I would learn it quickly.”

His first name was still Brian at this point, not yet connected to his Jewish identity and what would eventually become a fusion of indigenous earth-based ritual, food preparation, and Judaism. On a study abroad year in India, he found himself learning with a cousin of the Dalai Lama.

“We were able to ask questions,” Schwadron explained, “and I got to ask a question and the question that I asked was: The Dalai Lama was this incredibly wise figure—how does he not just have a throng of people behind him who want to do anything to help him and hear his words?” The cousin of the Dalai Lama said he always offered the same answer to this question: “Go home first, figure out your own tradition and figure out what your own people’s tradition is. Once you have figured out your own tradition and have no questions left, then come back and ask my about my religion and I will tell you about mine.”

Taking these words to heart, Schwadron went to a bookstore and looked for Jewish books and found a copy of Gershon Winkler’s The Magic of the Ordinary. “I was like, oh wow, Judaism has cool stuff in it,” he said. “It was a big moment for me.” A visit to Israel with Birthright quickly followed, where he remained after the 10-day trip doing peace dialogue and peace work before going on to Kenya, where he re-entered Judaism with the help of a Swahili Muslim community.

“I was living with these Muslim friends of mine who were simultaneously going through this experience of exploring and reopening to Islam and trying to figure out how the practice of Islam fit into their life and felt good,” he recalled. “And I was going through the same thing at the same time with Judaism.” So every Friday from sunrise to sunset his friends would practice Muslim prayer, and he went and prayed at the mosque with them and they gathered with people and ate. And then when the sunset came in they would bring in Shabbat together.

“That’s when I started using my name Baruch,” he told me. “They all had Western names that they used with strangers and tourists and everyone else and then they had tribal names. One day they were like, ‘Do you have a tribal name?’ and I was like, ‘Actually I do have a tribal name, it is Baruch.’ And they said, ‘We are going to start calling you that because you are like family to us and we are going to start calling you by that name.”

Schwadron kept the name when he moved to the San Francisco Bay area to attend Herbal Medicine School in Sonoma County. He eventually found a job cooking for Wilderness Torah’s Passover in the Desert retreat and began really using the skills he accrued in all of those international kitchens. Since then, he has become a caterer on his own, working Jewish events, weddings, and bar and bat mitzvahs while also doing private health consultations on the side.

***

Ellinoy works with education, spirituality, and community-building. Bryers is a wilderness educator, leading people on trips in the outdoors for groups like Outward Bound and Girl Ventures, a teenage girls’ wilderness empowerment program based in San Francisco. For them, a wedding meal rooted in Schwadron’s knowledge is a reflection of their own values.

For their celebration, Schwadron did what he does for all weddings: He sat them down and asked them their favorite foods, asked about the order of events at the wedding, and took inventory on location, weather, seasons, and expectations. “I custom-make a menu for every event,” he said. “I am not interested in stock menus, in such impersonalized catering. I mix these factors into one menu to make people feel really good. Success to me means the food tastes good, and after they have eaten the people feel alive and good. The food makes them feel healthier.”

Ellinoy said that’s why they wanted Schwadron as their caterer. “This is who he is and what he does—healing and an intimate relationship with the earth and what is nourishing. I seek that,” she said. “Our marriage is to celebrate our community and to bring the people we love together and to enjoy each other, and good food that makes us feel good and able to engage in those connections is the whole point.”

***

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Kosher Chef Turns Catering Into a Spiritual Practice

Brian Schwadron studied with indigenous healers around the world. Now he’s using what he learned to create wedding banquets.