Celebrating Rosh Hashanah, or the Jewish New Year, looks much different now for chef Risa Lichtman than it did in her youth. She grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, where the Jewish community was so prominent that the public school system observed the High Holidays. Families would go to pick up round loaves of challah from the neighborhood bakery and attend shul.
These days, Lichtman lives in Portland, where Jewish businesses are few and far between. Around 3 percent of Greater Portland is Jewish, compared to the eight or nine percent of New York City, home to 25 percent of the country’s Jews. In recent years, the city has lost some of its few Jewish culinary hubs, including Beetroot Market (where Lichtman worked) and Kornblatt’s Delicatessen. So, she stays connected to her roots — and her community — through her food.
Lichtman is the chef and owner of Lepage Food and Drinks, a multifaceted food business that serves seasonally driven Jewish- and Mediterranean-inspired comfort food via small-scale catering, community-oriented food events, and even a soup subscription. Up until the pandemic hit, Lichtman worked in restaurants for more than a decade, cooking in kitchens like Blue Hill at Stone Barns and San Francisco’s Pizzeria Delfina. Since starting Lepage, she has offered holiday meals for Rosh Hashanah every year. “There’s definitely people who come to me specifically for Jewish holiday meals,” Lichtman says. “They can have the food that they grew up with at their holiday table even though they don’t necessarily want to make it.”
For Rosh Hashanah, Lichtman delves into several classic dishes, like matzoh ball soup, brisket, and round raisin challah; however, her approach to holiday cooking often incorporates her eclectic culinary background. Her menu isn’t strictly kosher — although she doesn’t use a lot of pork, she prefers to refer to her brand of nostalgic comfort food as “kosher-style.” She also integrates Pacific Northwest-grown produce from farms like Pablo Munoz, Eloisa Organic, and Flying Coyote, even offering a vegetarian version of matzoh ball soup. Her food reflects her relationship to her faith — nuanced and personal.
“The way that I observe my Judaism is largely through food and community, not necessarily the traditional ways of observing,” Lichtman says. “This is my way of offering a beautiful meal [for the] table. I make these meals but then I also take them home for my family and friends and we gather around the table and make memories… I love knowing that other people are doing the same with the food that I made.”
Lichtman has planned the following for Lepage’s pickup Rosh Hashanah menu this year:
Classic matzoh ball soup: chicken or vegetarian turmeric broth with carrots, celery, and herby matzoh balls.
Roasted beet salad with fennel, celery, apples, hazelnuts, and poppy vinaigrette — the Hebrew word for beets is similar to the word for “remove,” so beets are eaten in the hope that one’s enemies will depart.
Custardy noodle kugel with raisins, cottage cheese, and this summer’s berry compote.
Mom’s cola-and-wine-braised brisket with carrots and jus.
Round raisin challah made with honey and local whole grain flours — Challah is braided in a round shape for Rosh Hashanah to symbolize the cyclical nature of the seasons.
Honey cake with almonds — This dish is traditionally eaten during Rosh Hashanah to celebrate the sweetness of the new year.
Orders will be available starting tomorrow on the Lepage Food & Drinks website.