On this Thursday, December 6, the Jewish Food Society hosts “Everything Is Gold: A Modern Russian Hanukkah Dinner with Chef Sasha Shor” at Casa Pública in Brooklyn. The five-course holiday dinner incorporates Shor’s infused vodkas—including one that she brings to Burning Man—and highlights her Russian and Jewish heritage as well as her experience running barbecue/Mexican restaurant Tres Carnes.
Shor talked with us about her culinary traditions and aspirations, as well as her work with the Jewish Food Society, whose work she described as “so frikkin’ important.”
The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity:
Edible Brooklyn: You were born in the Soviet Union and came to the U.S. as a young kid. What do you remember most vividly about your childhood in Russia?
Chef Sasha Shor: I think that most of my memories from when I was a child centered around a home setting. There was always a birthday or a New Year’s Eve, or someone got a new car—any excuse to celebrate. My parents had a lot of friends. There were always a lot of people at our house. My grandparents lived with us, my aunt and uncle lived with us; there were always 12 people in the house at all times.
I do remember a lot about being little in Russia, like being out on the streets and going to stores. I’d have to wait in line with my parents if they had to stop and get bread or stop at a store, so there was the quintessential Russian vision of waiting in line, up on my dad’s shoulders, and you would wave to all the other kids that were up on their parents’ shoulders. It was kind of like another level of social life.
EB: When your family left, Soviet officials seized your mother’s collection of menus. What happened?
CSS: When you went to a restaurant, it was always an occasion; it was not something you did daily, or even weekly. A lot of these meals were much more memorable and much more celebratory. She would collect menus partly because she loved beautiful printed things but also because it would help her remember the meal and what they ate. She just ended up accumulating tons and tons of them.
They took them away from her because, obviously it was during the communist time, so the government really kind of owned everything, technically. They took them away from her. She literally sacrificed one of her two suitcases and didn’t take any of her personal goods and filled it with menus. A lot of them were big. … They were like these leather-bound things, the kind of menu you’d get at Peter Luger’s. They confiscated that suitcase. On the one hand, she had one less thing to carry, but she was very, very sad. I remember there were tears.
EB: The Jewish community in Nashville helped your family get settled, but you didn’t really know other Russians outside your immediate family there. What was that adjustment like?
CSS: It was kind of interesting. You know, I was seven years old, and everyone around me was American. I went to a Jewish school, so I was basically learning Hebrew and English simultaneously. I had a pretty rough accent for a really long time. My first English teacher was British, so it was a total mess.
Everything was foreign. We didn’t really know how to really navigate culturally or socially. We’d go to grocery stores and we had very little clue about things like prepared foods or things that came in boxes. … We made everything from scratch, so luckily it was pretty easy to get onions, and potatoes and carrots, and the basic vegetables that we were used to cooking with. We’d make the most authentic borscht, and we’d make legs of lamb, and we would cook the same types of food that my parents grew up with that reminded us of home. One day a week, my mom and I would just cook for the whole day … and we’d cook all the food for the week.
EB: Can you find any of the food from your childhood in New York?
CSS: My husband and I have birthdays that are close together, and every year we get a big group of people together, 20 to 30 people, and we all take a big ride out to Brighton Beach. We all get dressed up. There are lots of sequins. It’s right on the boardwalk, so it’s really beautiful. These places are amazing, and a lot of people don’t even know that these places exist down there because mostly Russian people go there.
You get up and you dance—it’s like a bar mitzvah. I think there’s a DJ. A lot of them do a floor show. It’s like a variety show with multiple vignettes or acts, and there’s lots of singing and dancing and there are costumes. It’s very Vegas-y. It’s very glitzy and kooky. It’s almost like if Wes Anderson did a movie about Russian culture.
EB: How does your cooking now depart from the Russian and Jewish food you grew up with, or the Russian places in Brighton Beach?
CSS: My approach is sort of a reinvention of my family’s recipes, and making them a little bit more modern, fun and accessible. One of the first times that I picked up a cookbook that I was kind of floored by was Smoke & Pickles by Edward Lee. I remember reading the book and being like, ‘Oh my God.’ He’s living in the South … and he’s translating. He’s reinventing, he’s modernizing, and that was sort of my dream, to do that with Russian and Jewish food. In New York, it’s kind of tough to entice people with Jewish food because I feel like there’s so much Jewish culture here, in an amazing way. But I don’t feel like anybody’s doing for Russian food what people are doing for other foods.
It’s much more appealing to eat someone’s food after you know what their story is, and where they come from, and how they’ve translated their grandmother’s recipe … into something that’s cool and fun and hip. At the end of the day, it could potentially be that same recipe, it’s just presented in a better way. It has a story behind it. People are drawn to it emotionally and they understand who it is on that plate.
EB: You co-founded Tres Carnes, and it looks like you’re incorporating elements from various cuisines into your Russian Hanukkah Dinner popup with the Jewish Food Society. What draws you to these foods, or what ties them together?
CSS: I’m drawn to things that take time—recipes where “time” is one of the ingredients on the list. People are starting to see all the other sides of that that are so great. When you cook something for such a long time and you work on it so hard, you want everyone you know to come eat it, so you end up with a house full of people and you start having social activity around food. Whereas before it might’ve just been a meal before you go out to do something else. I love that people are starting to wake up to seeing food as a cultural and social experience, rather than just a need.
The Jewish Food Society is a new nonprofit organization that works to “preserve, celebrate and revitalize Jewish culinary heritage.” Through community events and a vibrant digital recipe archive, it aims to provide a deeper connection to Jewish life. It will be publishing two recipes on their digital archive from the Hanukkah dinner, including one for a brick-pressed Cornish hen with walnut garlic sauce from Shor’s father and a smoked trout latke recipe she developed. To stay up to date on Shor’s whereabouts and next steps, follow her on Instagram.