On the day that Chicken opened in Berkeley in 1979, Marilyn Rinzler gave out samples of chicken soup. Her version of “Jewish penicillin” became a freezer staple there, making it easy for customers to snag an order for a friend or relative in need.
“I knew I definitely wanted Chicken to be Jewish in some way, and I think of chicken as the perfect Jewish food,” Rinzler told J. after the shop closed July 14 after 44 years.
Chicken specialized in roast chickens but was essentially a gourmet takeout shop. It was also the type of neighborhood fixture that helped forge North Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto along Shattuck Avenue.
Rinzler sold Chicken to two employees in 2018, and they were the ones who made the decision to close the business. But the fact that Rinzler kept it going for 39 of those years is notable in the food industry.
Her life story is notable too. Her parents escaped Europe as the Nazis were closing in. Her mother was Viennese “and very proud of it and her high-class background,” according to Rinzler. Her father, who had a doctorate in law, was of Polish Jewish background but had been educated in Austria. The couple met in Paris.
“My father felt confident that Hitler would never invade Paris,” she said.
Nazi forces entered Paris in May 1940, and her parents managed to flee a month later. Rinzler believes her father may have had a diplomatic passport, which would have helped their escape via train to Marseilles. She doesn’t know more details than that. It was too hard for her parents to talk about.
I think of chicken as the perfect Jewish food.
Her mother got pregnant en route to the United States. Rinzler and her twin sister were born after they arrived.
After a short time in New York, the family moved to the Boston area. In the 1970s, Rinzler came West with her then-husband, who got a job working for Rolling Stone. After the marriage ended, Rinzler went to college and earned a master’s degree in social work.
It was during that time, as a mother of two and not so proficient in the kitchen, that she wished she could buy a good roast chicken somewhere. This was long before the rotisserie chicken became a mainstay of grocery stores.
“I wanted it to be a healthy, takeout food place,” she said. “I didn’t want to be a Jewish deli,” serving food that’s “fattening and not healthy.” Though she acknowledges that it’s a bit blasphemous to state, she said, “I’m not a friend of Jewish food, though I like to eat chicken.”
The shop’s name is French for “chicken.”
From the very beginning, Jewish holiday menus were part of Chicken’s offerings.
“I wanted our food to reflect some of the holiday traditions, and chicken was always a good fit,” she said. “We always had a lot of Jewish clients buying our menus for Rosh Hashanah, Hanukkah and Passover.”
Rinzler’s first chef was Bruce Aidells — also Jewish — whom she met in a car on her way to hear chef Julia Child speak. Aidells has founded since his namesake sausage company, which distributes its products nationwide.
Shai Yerlick worked at Poulet for a few years before opening his own place in Kensington known for its “sunset hummus,” created with turmeric and paprika. He now runs a bed and breakfast in Hawaii.
There was also the customer who asked if Rinzler would hire his daughter’s Israeli boyfriend who needed a job. That boyfriend was Ayal Amzel, who went on to open Yali’s Café in Berkeley in 1999.
Being open for as long as her shop was, Rinzler saw a lot of diet fads come and go.
“Especially at the beginning, Chicken customers were very calorie conscious and they didn’t want to eat food with a lot of fat or calories,” she said.
But things changed. In the later years, “we couldn’t give away the breasts, and everyone wanted thighs,” she said, adding that “food evolves, with fried chicken becoming a health food.”
Other trends are the norm today.
“Now it’s everyone being gluten free,” she said. “Food comes with a lot of anxiety for some, about what they can eat. Believe me, we saw everything.”