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The Restaurant Scene of Tomorrow Will Look a Lot Like Oakland Today

When the revolution comes, don’t be surprised if it starts in a kitchen in Oakland.


Editor’s Note
: This is one of many stories San Francisco is publishing over the next month as part of the June 2018 East Bay Issue. To read stories as they become available online, click here. 


It’s been
about a decade since the culinary cognoscenti awoke to the richness and vibrancy of the Oakland restaurant scene, with its dense concentration of risk-taking, trend-making, wildly diverse eateries. But the truth is, the Town is one of America’s great food cities for reasons that go beyond what’s on the plate. Despite the old adage about not mixing dinner and politics, the Oakland food community has long been a wellspring of radical activism—a legacy that goes back at least as far as the Black Panther Party’s free-breakfast program for West Oakland schoolchildren during the 1960s. It should come as no surprise, then, that in today’s hyper-politicized age, Oakland restaurants and food businesses are on the vanguard again. A handful of restaurant owners have been outspoken about their desire to fight against gentrification, even as they’ve benefited from an influx of affluent customers ready to plunge into the Oakland food wilds. One local coffee shop made national headlines for its policy of refusing service to cops in uniform. And an entire brigade of brilliant female chefs is helping to lead a national conversation about the toxicity of restaurant workplaces—a culture epitomized by disgraced Oakland restaurateur Charlie Hallowell, who was recently outed as a chronic sexual harasser. These aren’t contradictions. It’s just the reality of a city where complicated battles are being waged actively, day after day. Here are five ways that the revolution is already brewing.

1. COFFEE SHOPS ARE ON THE FRONT LINES OF THE CULTURE WAR
On a Thursday afternoon in April, two black men minding their own business at a Starbucks in Philadelphia were led away in handcuffs. Their crime? A store manager had called the cops because they’d been sitting for too long without first placing an order—or, as some put it, waiting while black. A viral video of the incident sparked calls to boycott Starbucks, followed by an apology from the megacorp and a vow to conduct trainings in implicit bias.

In East Oakland, just one month earlier, another, very different café-cop confrontation took place. At Hasta Muerte Coffee, a Latinx worker-owned coffee shop, a staff member asked an on-duty Oakland police officer to leave the premises—revealing, in a subsequent Instagram post, the café’s policy against serving uniformed police. Pushing back against a law-enforcement establishment that “routinely criminalizes and terrorizes black and brown and poor folks,” the post explained that the policy is meant to protect the “physical and emotional safety” of the shop’s largely black and brown customer base.

Photo: Courtesy of Red Bay Coffee/Keba Konte

The stance did not come without consequences. Right-wing activists seized on the anti-cop narrative, spammed the coffee shop’s Yelp page, spent a Sunday morning picketing the storefront, and made threats online. At the same time, the café’s supporters have also come out en masse, and during a recent visit, there was a steady stream of customers all morning long.

In Oakland as in the rest of the Bay Area, new-wave coffee shops have become a bellwether of gentrification and hipsterization—the kinds of places where wealthy tech bros come to congregate and iterate. But the East Bay coffee scene has also cultivated some antiestablishment antibodies. There’s the Qulture Collective café, part of a downtown art hub focused on supporting the queer community. There’s Mamacitas Cafe, whose pop-ups and catering events center on pour-over coffee, doughnuts on a stick, and job training for young women of color. Across the border in Berkeley, there’s 1951 Coffee Company, a coffee shop dedicated to training and employing newly arrived refugees.

Perhaps most notably, Fruitvale-based Red Bay Coffee was built on founder Keba Konte’s determination to reclaim coffee from the purview of enterprising white hipsters and to properly acknowledge and celebrate the drink’s African origins. More than that, the company has been a model of progressive employment practices: The coffee director is a black woman, 60 percent of the company’s management and executive positions are held by women, and 100 percent of its employees are, Konte says, people of color. “All of these other coffee companies are just chasing delicious,” Konte says. He says he cares about that, too. But he cares more about Red Bay’s impact on his community. “Everyone can tell where your values are at.” No one would ever call the recent missteps of Starbucks fortuitous, but Konte is ready to take advantage of them. The first Red Bay location outside of the Bay Area will open in Philadelphia on the Fourth of July.


2. THE MOST INFLUENTIAL CHEFS ARE MOSTLY PEOPLE OF COLOR

If you survey the restaurant landscape of any major metropolitan area, chances are that the chefs and restaurateurs with the loudest voices—the most Michelin stars, the best odds of gracing a magazine cover or appearing on TV—still tend to be white men. Oakland might be the exception.

You can go down the list: There’s Dominica Rice-Cisneros (Cosecha), who spearheaded the resurgence of Old Oakland as one of the hippest spots in the city to eat; Sarah Kirnon (Miss Ollie’s), whose searingly flavorful Caribbean cooking sets tongues and hearts on fire; Chikara Ono (AS B-Dama, Delage), builder of a mini-empire of soulful and surprisingly affordable Japanese eateries; and Preeti Mistry (Navi Kitchen), outspoken in both her politics and her bold California-Indian flavors. Oakland’s most decorated chef is James Syhabout, a Lao refugee; its most famous chef is probably Brown Sugar Kitchen’s Tanya Holland, a recurring guest on the Today show; and its most celebrated chef of the moment might be Reem Assil, a daughter of Palestinian and Syrian immigrants, whose year-old Arab bakery, Reem’s, landed her a James Beard Award nomination.

Naturally, Oakland’s food makers of color, especially those who are women, face all the same barriers to success that they’d find in other cities—access to capital, the proclivities of a mostly white food media, and the dining public’s tendency to pigeonhole certain cuisines as cheap, “ethnic” fare. Still, despite the usual paradigm, there’s no doubt that their new projects generate the most excitement. Caleb Zigas, the executive director of the La Cocina kitchen incubator, several of whose alumni have opened restaurants in Oakland, attributes this in part to the fact that the chefs themselves feel inspired by the city’s creative environment and its openness to different flavors. “You get to cook to your crowd,” Zigas says. “And if you can make money cooking to your crowd, you’re always going to cook more exciting food.”

The key to their success, the chefs uniformly say, is that their restaurants aren’t businesses that just happen to be owned by people of color. They project a wide set of values that are still rare in the restaurant community. Many of them go out of their way to hire people of color and the formerly incarcerated. These restaurants, Assil says, “almost always come with a second mission. It’s not like we can open a restaurant because we just want to make good food and that’s it. We’re trying to give voice to the voiceless; we’re trying to employ our community. We want to honor our culture, honor our parents.”

Nigel Jones, chef and co-owner of Kingston 11, a Jamaican restaurant in Uptown Oakland, says that businesses run by people of color are part of the fabric of America—but that the East Bay has embraced those businesses in a way you don’t find in very many other places. “Within people-of-color communities, a lot of people would be hard-pressed to point out a celebrity chef. They don’t give a fuck,” Jones says. “But they can tell you about a business they love that also matches their political and social aspirations.” Here, people just want to wrap their arms around a restaurant that reflects their values, Jones says. “The community sees us as an extension of them.”
 

3. WOMEN CHEFS AND RESTAURANT OWNERS ARE FINDING A NEW WAY FORWARD  
Erin Wade, the chef and co-owner of Homeroom, a popular mac-and-cheese restaurant in North Oakland, recalls reading about Charlie Hallowell in the New York Times one morning this spring—not for anything admirable the Oakland chef had done, but for his track record of sexually harassing female employees. In the wake of a whole spate of sexual misconduct cases, it seemed to Wade that the media was mostly interested in hearing where men stood on the topic. What did Mario Batali have to say for himself? What did Anthony Bourdain think? Not many publications seemed to be asking women what ought to be done.

And so Wade decided to write an op-ed for the Washington Post telling people how she had dealt with the problem Homeroom had had with customers sexually harassing female servers. After all, she and her staff had solved that problem—three years ago. The article was so well received, and so widely shared, that Wade was propelled to the forefront of the ongoing national conversation about toxic work environments in the restaurant industry. She was asked to speak at conferences. Restaurant owners from around the country asked her to develop training materials that they could use. All of this, Wade says, because she decided to move past the reluctance that many women feel to publicly promote their own successes. “In this industry, Homeroom is a leader,” she says. “Let me be proud of what we’re doing and put it out there.”

The anti-harassment system that Wade and her staff developed is elegant in its simplicity. The system is based on verbally cued color codes: If one server says to her manager that table 2 is yellow, it means that a customer is giving off a creepy vibe. Orange means she’s received comments with sexual undertones, like compliments on her appearance. Red is reserved for overtly sexual comments, touching, or repeated orange-level behavior. At Homeroom, all a server has to do is tell her supervisor that she has a yellow or orange at a certain table and the manager will take over the table, no questions asked. If she reports a red, the customer gets kicked out.

The beauty of the system is in the trust that it places in women to make those judgment calls—the way it allows them to extricate themselves from uncomfortable situations before they escalate without having to make a lengthy, awkward explanation. And, Wade says, in the years since Homeroom implemented the system, red violations have been eliminated almost entirely. At a time when the need for female leadership in the restaurant industry is more glaring than ever, Oakland is uniquely positioned to move the conversation forward. That’s because the women who run restaurants and food businesses in Oakland have made it a habit to speak up—whether it be the brave accusers who blew the whistle on Hallowell or established chefs like Tanya Holland and Dominica Rice-Cisneros who, for years, have been shining a light on the inequalities that women face in securing capital investments.

The broader public seems to be listening, for once, to what women chefs have to say. The hope is that this won’t wind up being just a passing fad born of this particular political moment. Preeti Mistry, whose Oakland flagship, Juhu Beach Club, closed earlier this year, says it’s easy to sing the praises of “badass female chefs.” It’s easy to put a few of those women on the cover of a magazine. It takes a lot more commitment to financially support those women’s projects—especially when the “safe bet” has always been a straight white male chef cooking a cuisine with an established track record.

Ultimately, that’s where Wade wants to steer the conversation: “To me, that is the best possible outcome of all of this heartache—not focusing on what place at the table certain men might have, but what kind of incredible table can we create where women are, finally, prominently seated there as well?”


4. FRUITVALE IS THE TRUE HEART AND SOUL OF THE FOOD SCENE  

As recently as a decade ago, Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto was seen as the East Bay’s most important food neighborhood. But in 2018, that title belongs to Oakland’s Fruitvale district—the city’s long-standing Latino-immigrant-centered business district that has, in many ways, emerged as the food scene’s creative epicenter.

Consider the area around the central Fruitvale Public Market, where a day of grazing might begin with a caramel-filled churro from the old-school Churros Mexicanos cart, washed down, perhaps, with pour-over coffee from Red Bay Coffee’s East 10th Street headquarters. From there, grab a fresh-baked man’oushe from Reem’s, the California-inflected Arab bakery, or a bowl of peppery rice-noodle soup from Nyum Bai, the hip Cambodian joint located next to the churro cart. Or stroll a couple of blocks to La Casita for the tastiest Jalisco-style menudo in town. For dessert, a scoop of hand-churned elote (sweet corn) ice cream from Nieves Cinco de Mayo, the Mexican ice cream shop, can’t help but hit the spot.

One reason Fruitvale speaks so eloquently to the way people in the East Bay eat right now is that many of its businesses—even the new, splashy ones—are run by first- and second-generation immigrants who have cultural ties to the neighborhood. There’s also the way that the old and the new seem to happily, if tenuously, coexist—the way the buzzy new restaurant or third-wave coffee shop moves in without kicking out the churro cart or taco truck. There’s the way that Nyum Bai owner Nite Yun offers a teacher and student discount, so that a high school kid can get an after-school special starting at $10.

The fact that Fruitvale’s Latino character has mostly stayed intact in spite of the district’s recent influx of economic prosperity has led one set of UCLA researchers to speculate that the neighborhood could serve as a model for urban development without gentrification. That might be overly rosy: “Gentrification is real, and it’s happening right here in the Fruitvale,” says Red Bay owner Keba Konte, though he and other business owners have tried to mitigate its effects by hiring locally and paying a living wage.

Still, the current vibe in the neighborhood is so unique that Konte suggests it’s a little bit like Wakanda, the magical kingdom from Black Panther that’s somehow insulated itself from the ravages of global capitalism. “Maybe it’s the coffee that’s the vibranium,” he offers. Or “maybe it’s the culture and the food together that’s the vibranium.”


5. THE BLACK PANTHERS' LEGACY LIVES ON

Though the most lasting popular images of the Black Panther Party involve black shades and leather jackets, the group’s greatest cultural legacy may be…breakfast. In 1969, the Panthers started serving free breakfast to schoolchildren in West Oakland and, eventually, 18 other cities. The program ultimately helped inspire the federal government to develop its own free-school-lunch program­­—or, rather, “shamed the federal government” into acting, says Jocelyn Jackson of the People’s Kitchen Collective. Once a year, Jackson’s organization hosts its own free breakfast in West Oakland—a hot, nutritious meal of grits, collard greens, eggs, and tofu scramble. The collective is one of a slew of Oakland-based food justice groups taking up the mantle of what Jackson calls “radical hospitality”—using food as a means to lift up and liberate marginalized communities, whether by planting an urban garden, passing out sandwiches to the homeless, or just hosting a block party. Here are five groups helping to carry on their good work.

The Town Kitchen
Office lunch delivery procured online might seem like a mundane feature of the tech economy, except that the Town Kitchen hires and trains Oakland youth—many of them products of the foster care and juvenile justice systems—to prepare and deliver its boxed lunches. 

Mak-’amham
This Ohlone-run “guerrilla restaurant” seeks to honor and revive the tribe’s precolonial cooking traditions. Dishes like acorn bisque and roasted venison backstrap serve as reminders that the East Bay is, in fact, Ohlone land.

Planting Justice
The Oakland-based nonprofit hires youths and the formerly incarcerated and pays them fair wages to plant backyard gardens. 

West Oakland Punks with Lunch
Every week, the self-described “guerrilla not-for-profit harm reduction outreach organization” passes out sandwiches and needle kits to the homeless in West Oakland. 

People’s Kitchen Collective
In addition to its breakfast program, People’s Kitchen creates custom menus for other community organizations’ events, playing the part of the Bay’s most culturally sensitive caterer. Museum of the African Diaspora resident chef Bryant Terry has called them his “house band.” 

  

Originally published in the June issue of San Francisco 

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