Sara Fatell seeks better Jewish living via food

Sara Fatell, the national community manager for OneTable, wants people to know that they can cook for themselves.
Photo by Dan Schere

Sara Fatell is dicing jalapenos as she prepares for a nighttime cocktail party in her Mount Rainier home. The kitchen is filled with the scent of ginger cooking on the stove. Open on the counter is “Modern Jewish Baker” by Shannon Sarna — a recent wedding gift.

“I literally was reading this cookbook in bed the other night,” she said.

In March, the 32-year-old Fatell became the national community manager of OneTable — a New York-based nonprofit that provides workshops for Jews in their 20s and 30s so they can make and host Shabbat dinners and other events that involve food and cooking. She is a resource person for those throwing their own Shabbat dinners.

“It’s a pretty good gig,” she said. “I get to talk about Shabbat all day. I get to talk about food and hospitality, which is great.”

Fatell said she spoke to one host in Harlingen, Texas, who could not find challah in any grocery store. Fatell gave the host the recipe to make the bread from scratch.

“We want people to understand that you can do it yourself. You don’t have to rely on somebody else to do it for you,” she said. “If you can’t find challah, you can make it. OneTable is very nonprescriptive in how we talk about doing our Judaism, and that’s very important because a lot of young people grow up with a practice that they maybe were forced to do and maybe doesn’t move them right now. With food, you’re more invested in it if you shopped for the groceries and cooked it yourself.”

Cooking has been a second career for Fatell, who came to Washington 10 years ago to work on Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign after graduating from the University of Pittsburgh. She then worked for several nonprofit and social justice organizations before opening the Grassroots Gourmet bakery in 2011 in the city’s Bloomingdale neighborhood.

“I liked baking, and after a while enough people said, You’re really good at that, I would totally pay for a cake or whatever,’” she said.

Business was good. But Fatell was working 12-hour days with a small staff. She was paying her workers what she saw as fair wages, but was unsure she would be able to continue to do so. She tried to sell the company, but to no avail.

“I wanted to have a house and a family,” she said. “How is the shop going to run if I’m pregnant, or how am I going to support my partner if she gets pregnant?”

Fatell closed Grassroots Gourmet last December and went in search of a job that combined food and leadership. A friend sent her a job posting from OneTable.

“I looked at the job on paper. It was food and organizing and Jews, and I was like, ‘This is right up my alley.’”

Fatell said her job is a “combination of hands-on learning, Jewish learning and some cool food stuff.” A recent example was a pickling workshop she led in Pittsburgh last month: Noshpitality.

“They learned to pickle, they learned to make kraut and then we talked about why our people eat pickled foods,” she said. “What’s going on? Why do we eat fermented foods?”

As for Fatell’s own culinary talents, much is self-taught, and she recommends first-time cooks follow a couple of rules that she uses when cooking a new dish.

“I always tell people, if you’re making a recipe you’ve never made before, take the book and leave the kitchen, and go read the recipe,” she said. “And then read it again. And check your cupboard to make sure you have everything.”

Fatell and her wife, Kelsey Ryland, were married Oct. 14. They bought their house over the summer to be able to entertain. They are members of the community-supported agriculture organization Hungry Harvest, which delivers produce that has been rescued from other farms and would otherwise go to waste.

“It’s 10 bucks and you get a whole box of stuff,” Fatell said. “This week we got two apples, a whole bunch of little potatoes, onions, lettuce and broccoli. You know, just stuff that’s local and isn’t going to get eaten.”

As Fatell finished making a simple syrup for a cocktail she was pouring, she smiled at the thought of how things have turned out.

“I just feel like a foodie nerd,” she said. “You know people have hobbies, and sometimes hobbies turn into your job? I feel very lucky to be able to do that.”

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