By Mat Weir (Including above photo)
Photo credit: Molly Gilholm at Golden West Photography
As a California native from half a family of Romanian Jews via New York, believe me when I say it’s hard to find good Eastern European food in the Bay Area. The food I grew up on–crispy latkes with cold applesauce or sour cream, doughy, potato-stuffed knishes, warm, cheese-filled blintzes, and savory kasha varnishkes that pack an umami punch–is so severely lacking that I’ve all but given up. The couple times I have found a menu with the Ashkenazi cuisine of my youth–usual one or two items at most–it’s nothing to feel verklempt about. Not bad enough that Nana would kvetsch over it if she were alive today, but she might make a comment or two about the goys in the kitchen.
Enter Jessica Yarr, a true mensch.
If her name sounds familiar to longtime residents, there’s no surprise why. Yarr has worked in local kitchens professionally since the age of 15 when she got her start at Felton’s La Bruschetta. She’s won awards for her self-taught pastry baking at Cafe Gabriella, crafted flavors for Penny Ice Creamery and was recognized by the Good Times in 2017 as one of the “Six Master Chefs Under 36” when she was executive chef at the now closed Assembly.
Her newest venture is Chicken Foot, a weekly pop-up blending traditional Ukranian food with a modern, plant forward, sustainable attitude. It’s a boutique menu that hits the soul food mark with loving memories of family and heritage. However it evolves the classic flavor profiles with a new, adventurous twist.
And it’s taking the county by storm.
“I’ve been in this business 20-some-odd years and I’ve never had people respond to my food in the way they have now,” she says. “I’ve had multiple people pick up their food in tears of joy or email me with stories about their grandmother.”
If it’s reminiscent of bube, that’s probably because Yarr cooked up the idea after the passing of her Ukranian grandmother last year, at the incredible age of 103.
“Learning about her through stories, memories and photos really opened my mind to that cuisine,” declares Yarr, who says she’s always had “nods” to her heritage on the Assembly menu. “But I thought, ‘What if I just make pierogies and knish and stuff you can’t really find around here?’And it just clicked.”
Diners can find the weekly menu at her website or on her Instagram and place their order before the Saturday pick-up. Pierogies and knishes are the staple dishes with a rotating cast of appetizers, sides and desserts.
I was lucky enough to order the same week Yarr joined forces with Hallcrest Vineyards in the Felton hills for an afternoon picnic of blue skies, acoustic music and plenty of flowing beverages. The pierogies–of which there are six in an order for $21–are rich and creamy, with a perfect ratio of filling (sweet potato, sour cherry and cheese my week) and tender casing. After we split an order and a half, a friend in my group even paid her compliments to the chef saying she could “eat them all day.”
Not your average side dishes, Yarr’s sunchoke & leek latkes ($8) brought a spring twist to the traditional dish and paired perfectly with her meyer lemon aioli. Lentils are a cornerstone in Eastern European cooking and the pickled beet with beluga lentil “caviar” ($8) is everything you’d hope for in the description. It has the right touches of sweet, nutty and savory to be refreshing on a cool spring day.
And if it’s dessert you’re craving, Yarr has you covered. Not for the faint of heart, the chocolate red beet cake with sour cherry sauce ($12) is a dense concoction of semisweet chocolate and a hint of beet. The sauce adds both elements of sour and traditional sweetness for a decadent finish to a filling lunch. For those who like to end on the lighter side, the brioche donut holes ($8/pair) hit all the right marks of a funnel cake without the heaviness and were lightly powdered in sugar and chamomile.
However, it was the knishes ($7.50 each) that left the biggest impact on my group. Flaky on the outside, and perfectly warm in the center, these are by far the best knishes I’ve had in my 19 years of Bay Area living. The German butterball potato, kale and caramelized onion with goat cheese reminded my friend–a fellow Jew–of an everything bagel (quite the compliment). The potato cream cheese and red beet kraut with poppy seed knish would have even good-ol’ Nana kvelling in delight.
If it’s just a nosh you crave, Chicken Foot pastries and doughnuts can be found every Saturday morning at 11th Hour Coffee off Center Street in Downtown Santa Cruz. She also sells snacks to pair with the natural wines at Apéro Club on the Santa Cruz Westside. Between pop-ups and her day job as a corporate executive chef at a prominent tech company, she finds the time to host a regular cooking demonstration and story-telling show via Zoom called Community Stove Talk. For now patrons can sign-up for free via email but it’s something she hopes to do in-person very soon now that it’s safer for society to reopen.
“In my book there are no secret recipes,” she proudly states. “The only way we keep traditions alive is by sharing them.”
Starting in May she will also have a breakfast booth–keeping in the Ukranian with a twist style–at the weekly Scotts Valley Farmer’s Market.
If all that isn’t enough, Yarr has also been branching out into television. Last year she was asked to film an episode of a popular Food Network show she’s not at liberty to disclose yet, but will air later this year.
“They approached me through my Instagram,” she laughs. “And once you get into the circuit, you’re in the circuit.”
She says she’s using her newfound celebrity momentum to showcase the Santa Cruz culinary scene, recently filming an audition reel for a reality show she’s pitching to networks.
“I want to showcase Santa Cruz food and show it’s just as good as Napa,” states Yarr. “We’ve got an amazing food scene here and I want to put it on the map.”
To say the least, Yarr is an inspiration and like all inspirations, it’s her passionate determination that drove her to the level she’s at today. She always knew she wanted to be a chef, but when she wanted to go to Le Cordon Bleu for culinary school as a teenager, she was often told by older, conservative chefs to get out of the lifestyle and “make a baby” instead. Once graduated, she eventually did that as well–while continuing to work–and is now the proud mother of three.
“We’ve really come a long way in terms of fair and equitable treatment than when I was being raised,” she says before adding there’s always more to be done. “It’s really hard being a single mother trying to be an equal in a male-dominated industry.”
She believes three mottos led her to where she is today. First, her personal mantra: “fake it till you make it.” She constantly pushes herself to new levels and takes on jobs she might not have the most experience in. She says it’s only then that she’s found herself in the spotlight. She also never cooks angry because that negative energy announces itself in the food.
“If you’re not happy, you’re going to cook food that doesn’t taste happy,” she proclaims.
And if all else fails, she takes a lesson from master chef and television legend, Julia Childs.
“Never apologise, even when you burn the $#!+ out of it,” she laughs.
This week Chicken Foot will feature a special Passover-themed menu in time for the first night on March 27th.