In the Bay Area, Cooks Are Breaking the Rules


Melissa Schneider/flickr

The more I think about it, the more I realize how remarkable the Bay Area food culture is. The recent success of OPEN restaurant, urban farming and homesteading, and the various other offbeat food and art projects all indicate that we are at a unique place in space and time. A gateway has been opened to looking at food in a new way, and creative people are doing a lot to change the paradigm of what it means to feed ourselves. At once, we are taking huge steps forward and turning back to the age-old values of community and generosity.

Ever since last August, when we closed Eccolo, the Berkeley, California restaurant where I was sous chef, I've had the incredible luck and pleasure of collaborating with friends and colleagues on a variety of food-related projects in hopes of narrowing my focus as a cook, writer, and teacher. At Eccolo, I'd befriended Oakland-based urban farmer and journalist Novella Carpenter, and almost immediately we began scheming about ways to share our farmer/farmwife interests with a wider audience.

Now I spent my sleepless nights worrying if the fire marshal would approve our permit application for spit-roasting an 800-pound steer.

We started by teaching Chicken and Rabbit 101, classes for aspiring urban farmers about how to humanely raise and slaughter, then butcher and cook meat animals. The classes were a hit, and with the release of Novella's book Farm City, we took our act on the road, culminating in a trip last November to Brooklyn, where together with Meatpaper magazine, Diner Journal, and Marlowe & Sons restaurant in Williamsburg, we put on a series of rabbit-related events aptly named "East Meats West." We taught Rabbit 101 in Brooklyn to a diverse class of strangers unified by their hunger to truly understand what it takes to feed themselves. Teaching across the country with Novella began to give me a glimpse of the need to empower and encourage Americans to return to the kitchen, and I sowed the seeds for a series of cooking classes I call Home Ec, aiming to demystify the simple acts of making pasta, butchering a chicken, or putting up tomatoes for the winter.

I found myself back at Chez Panisse, where I'd been taught to cook, and whose kitchen I will always consider my home. I was filling in mostly for my friend Jerome Waag, who'd been awarded a grant to build a pop-up restaurant Kyrgyzstan and would be gone for the next six weeks. Jerome, along with pastry chef Stacie Pierce and maitre d' Sam White, is a founder of OPEN restaurant, an indescribable undertaking that aims to undress what it means to be a restaurant by putting on events that combine elements of food, performance art, and politics with a healthy dose of debauchery. They were planning OPENfuture, a celebration of the 100th anniversary of F.T. Marinetti's Futurist Manifesto hosted by SFMoMA, and they reached out to me for some help with planning.

I jumped in, and suddenly my biggest work-related problem was no longer how to use up 40 pounds of pork shoulder, or trying to write a menu to attract more lunch customers. Now I spent my sleepless nights worrying if the fire marshal would approve our permit application for spit-roasting an 800-pound steer at Alemany Farm, an urban farm at the lip of Route 280 in San Francisco, or if the tricycle that Sam had bought from a homeless person in Oakland was sturdy enough to transport the cooked steer across the city to the museum, where a team of female butchers would be waiting to disassemble the creature in front of over 400 spectators. Talk about changing gears.

Though these collaborations energized me, I missed cooking and the sense of connection that the simple act of feeding people thoughtfully brought into my life. Chris Lee, my mentor and chef and owner of Eccolo, and I dreamed of finding a way to make and share the foods we so love to cook without carrying the burden of a restaurant on our shoulders. As we approached the holiday season, we remembered the cassoulet, boudin blanc, and tortellini we made every Christmas at Eccolo and how much our customers loved to eat it.

We wondered, Why can't we just make this food and sell it directly to folks? A friend lent us his catering kitchen and we were in business: Pop-Up General Store, our avenue for sharing our craft with appreciative customers, was born, and we began to bring in other professional cooks and food artisans, many of whom we've been working with for 10 years or more. We quickly realized that something about this simplified format of cooking the foods we love and meeting our customers face to face was filling some sort of need in the community, creating the sort of deep connection we all crave.

The same struggling economy that crippled Eccolo has also been a gift, forcing us to think creatively about how we can continue to cook the kinds of foods we love without entering certain financial ruin. As this country's ailing food system continues to crumble with weekly food recalls and horror stories of agribusiness's political sway, people are awakening to the sensibility of shortening the food chain and understanding where their food comes from. And through it all, our heritage as the students of Alice Waters guides our actions; our support of our local farmers and ranchers is unflagging, as is our commitment to teaching others about eating seasonally and locally.

As I've been pushed over the past year to think and rethink about what it means to be a thoughtful cook working to change the status quo, I've realized that I couldn't have lost my job at a better time, in a better place.