The curried tuna salad at Avi-ously Delicious is so simple in its preparation, you’d swear there’s some secret ingredient that Novato chef and caterer Avi Cohen’s not listing on the plastic tub of the stuff: Tuna, celery, red onion, mayonnaise, lemon juice, curry powder, pepper and salt. Anyone could throw those ingredients together in the home kitchen—but just try to replicate Cohen’s recipe. It’s downright sublime, if not mysterious. How does he do it?
“Whenever you see labels of any kind,” says Cohen, “tuna, lemon juice, etc., the secret is how much of the items you put in. A little more, a little less, and it’s not the same thing.” It’s an ethic that’s part and parcel of a catering business where everything is weighed by the teaspoon to exacting standards. “It always comes out the same,” he says, “and people like it that way.”
Cohen’s been running his catering business since the mid-80s, when he emigrated from Israel with his wife, Nancy, a North Bay native who was then teaching English in Israel. He worked as a pastry chef in his home country for about 10 years and worked as a pastry chef locally, too, before deciding to do some catering on the side that featured his Middle Eastern and Mediterranean recipes. He catered small events in Marin to positive reviews and in short order the events got bigger until one day he realized, “Hey, wait a minute, you’re missing something here.”
And thus Avi-ously Delicious Catering was born in 1992. He’d been plying his wares before then at the epic San Rafael farmers market and again, started out small. “When we first started, we had six or seven items that we introduced to Marin County people. Now we have almost 85 items there. Everything just grew and grew and grew.”
His business expanded to where he’s got a bustling kitchen in Novato and a full-time crew of four or five workers, and he’s jammed with two or three catering events every weekend that are heavy on the weddings and bar mitzvahs (Cohen’s equipped to dish out kosher and non-kosher fare).
He loves the farmers market and goes every week for a connection with Marinites that’s three generations and counting of customers lining up for his product. Another in-the-tub highlight worthy of a long wait is Cohen’s tzatziki, which he’ll serve at catered events with lamb chops and tahini. It’s a garlicky and dill-spiked classic yogurt sauce that’s positively addictive. Popular catered dishes include his pistachio-crusted salmon served with pomegranate glaze; lamb kebabs prepared Mediterranean style and served with that tasty tzatziki, and basbousa, a semolina chocolate cake that’s infused with rosewater syrup.
“When I see the lines at our booth,” he says, “50 or 60 people on line for two or three hours straight—for me, that’s the greatest satisfaction of all. And, when we have a sitdown dinner and I see the plates coming back empty, there’s nothing better than that.”
None of the dishes are Israeli, per se, he says, given that “there’s no such thing as Israeli cuisine, because in Israel there are people from about 70 countries. When they came to Israel, everyone bought their own speciality, which is why they call it a melting pot.”
At 72 years old and a grandfather with a 2-and-a-half-year old on his knee, Avi’s got no interest in opening a restaurant, despite years of pleading from Marinites wise to his fresh and flavorful offerings. He raised a family in Novato and would just as soon go to the movies, try a new restaurant himself, or spend time with his model trains, his favorite hobby. A restaurant? Are you kidding?
“It’s like committing yourself to almost a life in prison,” says Cohen with an effusive chuckle. “With catering, you can pick and choose, you can schedule a vacation. With a restaurant, you have to be there every day. That’s not for me. I like my freedom.”