With DC Pride approaching, I interviewed a few of the city’s most influential LGBT Jews involved in the local food scene. Here is part two. View part one here.
Ace comes from a long line of businessmen—four generations, in fact. Ace, partner and assistant general manager at the new Mexican spot Espita Mezcaleria, is all about the back-end of his restaurant. He’s passionate about the food industry, but the business side is really what gets him going.
Growing up, when the Shabbat table was set, there was always a beautiful bottle of Italian wine uncorked, provided by his father. A small touch, perhaps, but this is why food and culture are so important to Ace: the centrality and intertwining of quality ingredients and time with family.
When Ace moved to DC, he was drawn right to the 17th Street Corridor. He found in it perhaps the best spot in the city for a bachelor pad, in the heart of what’s described as DC’s gayborhood. At his job a few blocks away at Espita, he brings his passion for ingredients, food and community together. He admits that he’s the one who keeps the lights on so that his talented mixologists can work on the restaurant’s goal: turning customers on to the smoky, intoxicating beauty of mezcal.
Espita, though true to its Mexican roots (no fajitas with flour tortillas here!), aims to introduce mezcal to guests without being preachy. Ace takes enormous pride in the mezcal he serves. He likens mezcal to barbecue in that makers are reaching for a holy grail in production, but there are several ways to get there. He takes pride in the fact that he has a relationship with all of his mezcal providers, sometimes knowing the families personally.
And speaking of pride, he beams when talking about living in DC. As a general manager, he has personally experienced that in many restaurants, there’s a preponderance of servers and staff who are gay. He explains that gay servers tend to be more engaging and empathetic, working to understand what people want and providing that, with a wink and a smile. In fact, he says, restaurants can often be home for workers when other homes reject them.
Ace marvels at how far DC has come when he attended his first Pride at age 18, an anxious kid. This year, Buho, a mezcal supplier to Espita, is actually a DC Pride sponsor. Talk about mixing business with pleasure.
“Growing up gay felt lonely, especially when I was younger. I believe that created a need within me to make others feel welcome, which makes hospitality a natural fit.”
Like many of us in DC, Sara came from a community-organizing background. And like many of us in DC, winning was not always in the house of cards. But one way she saw victory was through baking. Coming home from a long day, she could follow recipe directions and have a delicious result. Baking for Sara centers around sharing and about creating community.
After all, a recipe doesn’t result in just one cookie. In her early days of baking, Sara would bring confections into the office, brightening everyone’s day, and call that victory truly sweet. After all of the encouragement and compliments, Sarah took a leap, branching out to become a baking entrepreneur. She started baking out of her home, practicing her craft, and two years later built out a cozy spot along bustling Rhode Island Avenue, mere blocks from her home. She opened the aptly named Grassroots Gourmet, a neighborhood bakery, on Thanksgiving of 2012.
In the organizing world where she came from, people care very much about how they spend their money. Given her talents, Sara’s burgeoning Bloomingdale baking business was the perfect match—organizations could support a small, women-owned, labor-conscious business for office parties and happy hours, knowing she supported them, too.
Therefore, being out as a business owner was really important for her. In the food industry, adding that piece of public queer identity has been very important to her. Given that Grassroots was involved in so many weddings (and other family occasions), and that the wedding-industrial complex is infamously difficult to navigate, having a queer caterer made her LGBTQ clients and allies finally comfortable.
At Grassroots, Sara incorporated her Jewish background as well. She baked rockstar rugelach, hamantashen for Purim and Passover-style goodies on Pesach. When she decided that the 24/7 pressure of running a business on her own was too taxing, and she wanted to prioritize family and spend more time with her fiancée Kelsey, she realized it was time to close Grassroots. She looked for ways to combine all parts of her identity as a Jew, chef and community organizer, in her next gig.
Sara soon landed at OneTable, where she now talks about Shabbat dinner on a daily basis, considering food, hospitality and community building. She brings home the idea that Judaism can be practiced anywhere, including around the dinner table. She’s creating political power by making Judaism accessible, regardless of denomination, sexual orientation or any other barriers. And nothing yet seems to be making her prouder.
“The intersectionality of life is real and should be celebrated. I’m not just a chef, a baker, a woman or queer person. I bring my whole self to table. And being able to unite the communities of all my identities makes my heart sing.”
Growing up in the Boston ‘burbs, food was important to Josh and his family. Specifically, going out to eat. His parents might have been confused for foodies of their generation, if that term existed then. Through this exploration, Josh gained an early appreciation for what a good restaurant really means.
After graduating from business school, the opportunity presented itself to move to DC to work with his uncle, who ran Grillfish and needed a manager. Josh came along for the ride, and soon enough, he was planning the Logan Tavern opening in 2003. He then oversaw the opening of Commissary in 2005, The Heights in 2007 and The Pig in 2012.
Through all of that, he moved up to being a partner in the EatWell Group, which oversees these restaurants, and where he is today. That is, until he leaves this month to run his own summer camp in Maine. After all, you can take the Jewish teenager out of camp, but you just can’t take camp experiences away from the Jewish adult. Through it all, from opening to opening to upper management positions, he’s been driven by an entrepreneurial spirit grounded in family and tradition. The passion of serving others has always been important. Time with family, whether cooking, eating or working, was always central. And his association with JFE® has also been special, bringing him back to his roots and allowing him to reconnect through various events over the years.
Growing up in Barney Frank’s congressional district may speak to how Josh himself has gone through life. Working alongside his uncle, David Winer, who is also gay, was incredibly significant. They were able to meet and welcome many people in the community, two decades ago, when the city was not as welcoming. Their Logan Circle location, however, provided them with the opportunity to thrive in a diverse, welcoming, gay-friendly space. They embraced it, making their workspace open, warm and judgment-free. Grillfish and the other restaurants became home to gay staff when they had no other place to turn. Plus, being such a magnet for diverse staff meant that patrons felt at home, too. Customers have seen the EatWell restaurants as community-driven, safe spaces: much more than a place to share a sandwich. Josh makes sure that across the family of restaurants, everyone is still treated like family.
“In risky, scary times, we can still come together over food. No matter who they are, I try to make people happy. And that’s what makes make every day so rewarding.”
Forty years cooking, and still going strong. For Ruth, food has been an integral part of family and tradition. Both of her parents inspired her to take the food path in life, though in different ways. While her father owned a grocery store, her mother spent time kitchen à la Julia Child. Ruth felt at home among all this cooking and food—especially on Shabbat. Friday night was the family’s centerpiece. A challah was at the table every week, no matter what—and it was homemade, of course. Living in a house filled with intoxicating aromas, it’s no wonder Ruth fell in love with cooking and made it her profession.
Ruth moved out west to become part of the burgeoning American food movement, centered at the time in California. But there was more than one reason that California called her. San Francisco at the time was also home to a vibrant gay and lesbian population. The city was, therefore, important to her on multiple levels: there, she felt at home both in the kitchen and in the city’s atmosphere. That confluence helped her focus on her career in a welcoming space, working at several high-end and fine-dining French restaurants.
For Ruth, the food industry was something of a fringe industry, especially at that time. There was a preponderance of Jewish and gay staff and businesspeople all across the restaurant and bar scene. Echoing, Ace, Sara and Josh, that’s exactly why she felt so comfortable there.
Still, Ruth felt the need to leave the high-end scene and be somewhere a bit more casual than fine French cuisine. She wanted to work and play in someplace approachable and fun. When she moved back east to DC, she decided to do just that. Ruth opened Pizzeria Paradiso in 1991, establishing a casual, welcoming neighborhood restaurant that elevated pizza (but not too much), and created a DC institution.
Ruth sees Paradiso as a home for herself, and for others. Paradiso and its sister restaurants place an emphasis on being inclusive and welcoming, even after 25 years. It participated in and supported the Day without Immigrants and Women, taking to heart the philosophy of the restaurant business being an industry of outsiders. Ruth makes sure that she is committed to not only her paradisiacal pizzas, but also her staff and her guests. It is that Jewish-inspired commitment to family and social justice that is just as well baked as her pies.
“The restaurant business is an outsider business. And for that, it’s so beautifully welcoming. And it’s where I belong.”