Scott Cameron says the idea of transforming a Rockridge property into an opportunity for local chefs came to him as a “shower epiphany.”
Cameron, who launched Guest Chef in November 2011 at 5337 College Avenue, has created the opposite of a pop-up, which tends to be something that moves from place to place. Guest Chef stays put, with its fully equipped kitchen and two-person staff, while the chefs rotate in for two week stints at the stove.
And for many of the guest chefs, it’s the realization of a dream: if they’ve ever fantasized about running their own restaurant, says Cameron, two weeks at Guest Chef will “give them a taste.”
Potential chefs have to submit a form online, come in for an interview with the owner, possibly present a dish or two, and get Cameron’s approval before they’re scheduled to put on an apron and get to work. “Anyone can have a shot,” he says.
Each guest chef creates a menu, sets the prices, and shops for the food. A chef will sometimes bring in sous chefs, friends or family to help out, but the front and back of the house is taken care of by Cameron’s permanent staff.
Past participants have included an “amazing variety of chefs,” according to Cameron. He mentions culinary students, an Oakland firefighter, a father/daughter team who love to cook together, and a grandmother with no restaurant experience who wanted to show off her chops at the stove — as well as a number of home cooks who enjoy preparing meals for friends. Chef Joseph Humphries, awarded two Michelin stars at Meadowood, came in for a stint while he prepared to open his San Francisco restaurant, Dixie.
Since its inception Guest Chefs’ offerings have run the gastronomical gamut from BBQ, Moroccan, Ethiopian, Asian/Italian fusion, French, Azorean, other regional Italian, Peruvian and indigenous American, to California cuisine. “Virtually every chef wants to come back, and we’ve asked some to return,” says Cameron. And some adventurous guests have returned every time a new chef comes in.
From now until Feb. 10, the restaurant is featuring an encore of a popular sister act. Sisters Susie Farber and Abbey Kletz have temporarily renamed the house “Simply Delicious.” Farber and Kletz cooked together at Guest Chef last June, and will be serving up some fan favorites — wild mushroom soup, pepita crusted halibut, and braised lamb shanks with mushroom bolognese — in addition to some new dishes. They have long enjoyed cooking together and promise “hearty plates, generous servings, and a fun, dinner-party environment.” On opening night, they were ably assisted in the kitchen by Abbey’s daughter and two granddaughters, and made good on those promises.
Guest Chef spreads the word about the line-up of chefs via Facebook and through their email list. The chefs themselves are also encouraged to use their social networks to gather a crowd in the cozy spot.
At the moment Guest Chef is in just the one location. Cameron has thought about expanding but has no immediate plans. He has been approached about doing a reality show featuring some of the chefs who put their culinary dreams on display. He won’t be part of the competition, though. “I’m not very good at yelling and swearing.”
Visit the Guest Chef website to find out about previous chefs, learn more about the Simply Delicious menu, and discover which chef or aspiring cook is booked to be running the kitchen next. If you want a peek at the action in real time, check out the kitchen cam.
The restaurant is open for dinner only, Tuesday through Sunday, and reservations may be made online. There is seating for 20, including four seats at the bar, where you can watch up close as the chefs create and plate their cuisine for their eager guests.
Guest Chef, 5337 College Avenue, Oakland, Tel: 510.658.7378.
Risa Nye, who writes the Ms. Barstool column on Nosh, is a freelance writer based in Oakland. She writes the blog Zero to Sixty and Beyond.
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