The air is somewhat cold and there is an intoxicating scent of fish and salt water. Inside the South San Francisco warehouse is a beehive of activity: people answer phones, work on their computers, some with hairnets carry large coolers. There is a fresh catch in from Hawaii, a shipment of kampachi or Hawaiian yellowtail, a fish similar to the popular tuna.
On the second floor a neatly dressed man in a blue button-down and yamaka sits in his office and checks the latest invoices to order. There is a box of bamboo sushi rolling mats on the floor. Photo strips of family and friends adorn the wall along with receipts and a calendar whiteboard. It is just another day at work for Rabbi Alex Shandrovsky, the owner of L’Chaim Sushi, a kosher and sustainable catering service.
“I’m a rabbi, I’m not a caterer, I’m not a sushi expert, I teach wisdom,” says Shandrovsky, laughing. Why is a rabbi working in a catering business?
The twenty-seven year old educator started business last year in January with Royal Hawaiian, a sustainable seafood supplier, with whom he shares his space, after realizing there were no kosher sushi options in the Bay Area. A year ago, they mainly served families, those in the Jewish community, and students in Shandrovsky’s classes. Now they serve over 2000 people a month with dozens of Bay Area tech companies, one of their clients being Google.
A spiritual awakening
Originally from the former Soviet Union in Kishinev, Moldova, Shandrovsky moved to the San Francisco when he was nine years old because his mother needed a liver transplant. Despite his Jewish background, Shandrovsky’s parents did not raise him on the kosher diet.
His eyes light up when he talks about being a sushi-addicted sixteen year old, frequently taking a Muni bus with his family to Japantown to sample various sushi restaurants. One particular visit to a sushi boat restaurant, where plates float through a rotating conveyor belt, greatly impacted him. He remembers the day vividly, recalling that the conveyor “moved like the ocean.”
According to him, everything was beautiful, the lighting was perfect, and the sushi looked amazing. What happens next, he says, is something similar to the headache one gets from a hangover–he overeats. While watching plates of the sushi-go-round and round the conveyor belt, Shandrovsky starts reflecting on his life. He had everything, he was popular, had good grades, and a good family, but he felt like something was missing. “I was looking for this deeper sense of purpose. I felt like I was part of a script, not part of me,” he says.
When he was eighteen, he received a full-ride scholarship to Williams College in Massachusetts. He was one of three thousand applicants awarded with the QuestBridge scholarship, but turned it down. His parents thought he was crazy. He moved to Israel to explore his spirituality instead because he wanted to get in touch with his Jewish roots.
Shandrovsky enrolled in a rabbinic ordination program and became ordained at Aish Htorah in Jerusalem. He later organized personal development seminars through a project called SelfDiscovery and taught Jewish wisdom to international students through Taglit-Birthright Israel, a Jewish campus organization.
He moved back to San Francisco in 2012 and joined Congregation Adath Israel, an orthodox synagogue in the Sunset District. For a year he worked as the Jewish Study Network’s Director of Special Projects, teaching Jewish literacy classes. But returning to the Bay Area was a bit difficult for Shandrovsky: while San Francisco was full of such diverse foods, there were no kosher sushi restaurants. And he missed eating his beloved unagi (eel) roll, which a kosher diet prohibits.
So with the support of the ROI Community, an organization that promotes Jewish engagement, and Rabbi Joel Landau of Congregation Adath Israel, Shandrovsky set out to start L’Chaim Sushi. It started as a once-a-month pop up restaurant at Congregation Adath Israel and occasionally, Oakland Kosher. Now, the business resides inside Royal Hawaiian Seafood’s warehouse packing up hundreds of orders a day.
The process is simple, customers can call or go online to order rolls or platters of the sushi they desire. They can either pick it up or get it delivered, though delivery comes with a $120 minimum.The price, of course, if you want kosher and sustainable sushi.
Adhering to Jewish law
Kosher is a Jewish diet known for its selectiveness, and according to biblically based laws, only fish with easily removable fins and scales may be eaten. Shandrovsky says it is all about ensuring transparency and mindfulness in the preparation process. Popular shellfish like shrimp, crabs, mussels, and lobsters are strictly forbidden.
L’Chaim sources a wide variety of fish, for example, tuna, yellowtail, arctic char, and seabass. To make up for the no-shellfish rule, they have taken a “non-kosher” fish and transformed it into a kosher substitute with a similar taste. Instead of using actual crab meat, they use surimi, which is an Alaskan pollock, a type of cod fish.
“Most people have a lot of misconceptions about kosher,” says Shandrovsky. “It’s blessed by a rabbi, or the fish has a beard, people like that one, or it has to be served on a bagel.” But the kosher aspect comes into play based on the food’s strict preparation.
In a small red-tiled kitchen is a shelf that holds a bottle of soy ginger marinade dip, Mid East sesame tahini, and black pepper, all of which display the Star of David. Dressed in a white chef’s jacket with grey joggers and black Converse shoes, L’Chaim’s only chef, Jagun Ney, lays a piece of kampachi on a large cutting board in preparation for a catering event.
Using a broad bladed knife, he makes a small, precise incision inside the backbone. In one swift, sawlike motion, he delicately pushes the knife along the backbone while firmly holding down a towel to pull out the scales. He must be extremely careful, if the flesh comes off with the scales, the fish cannot be used. For a fish to be kosher, the scales must be easily removable. Each time the flesh comes off with the scales, the knife must thoroughly cleaned again.
After removing the scales, Ney examines the fish and slices off uneven flesh. He holds a sharp knife at roughly a forty-five degree angle, and gently cuts through the fish to separate it into equal fillets to make a kampachi roll. Inside the small cooking station is a video camera laying on top of a shelf where an observer from Sunrise Kosher, a kosher certifying agency, may be watching to ensure that all sushi is prepared according to Jewish law. Occasionally, someone from the certification staff visits, sometimes Shandrovsky watches.
“It’s kind of weird,” says Ney about the tedious process he goes through just to make the sushi. He must use only kosher certified ingredients and tools. The nori, the seaweed wrappers used for sushi, are not necessarily kosher as they may contain bugs. Ney must carefully examine each wrapper with a light to remove any insects.
When they first started ordering, Google wanted to know more about the company’s kosher aspect, and more importantly, their sourcing before ordering anything. Shandrovsky laughs, and remembers thinking it was funny that Google asked what his business did. “They should know that already, like why do you do that? You have all my information,” he says. But on a more serious note, as an educator, Shandrovsky saw L’Chaim as an opportunity to teach others an important lesson.
“We’re trying to be responsible so that we can source the high products without destroying the environment,” says Shandrovsky. Every fish that Royal Hawaiian Seafood provides is ranked and approvd by the Seafood Watch Program at Monterey Bay Aquarium. For Shandrovsky, the sushi business was not about the money, it was all about the values. He was on a mission to advocate mindful eating through kosher and sustainability was just another lesson to add. So he contacted Casson Trenor, a sustainable activist, and founder of San Francisco’s first sustainable sushi restaurant, Tataki, and asked for his guidance. Trenor and Shandrovsky teamed up to create L’Chaim’s sustainable, kosher menu.
As it turns out, eating kosher was actually sustainable since the diet ruled out popular fish like shrimp, lobsters, eel, and crab, which are unsustainable due to overfishing. With the help of Trenor, L’Chaim was moved into Royal Hawaiian Seafood’s warehouse.
Shandrovsky grabs an arctic char roll with his wooden chopsticks and dips it into some soy sauce. As he sits in his office enjoying a brief lunch break, there is a blissful look on his face. He moves his head side to side, it looks like he is dancing in his seat. After finishing the roll, he smiles and says, “we’re really able to have this high quality cuisine, without compromising our values. I think that’s one of the reasons, I think people feel like being mission driven.”