Bobby Chang, Yrmis Barroeta, and Karl Nielsen, who are behind Mission: Heirloom Cafe, slated to open in Berkeley's Gourmet Ghetto this fall. Photo: Mission: Heirloom
Bobby Chang, Yrmis Barroeta and Karl Nielsen, who are behind Mission: Heirloom Garden Cafe, which is slated to open in North Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto this fall. Photo courtesy of Mission: Heirloom

About five years ago, Yrmis Barroeta learned she had two auto-immune disorders. Her husband, Bobby Chang, was having some digestive issues. Meanwhile, his daughter’s energy would often crash before lunch.

“It’s not that we were sick, but we were not functioning right,” said Barroeta. “A friend of ours told us we have to read Robb Wolfe’s ‘The Paleo Solution: The Original Human Diet,’ and that opened up a whole world of exploration for us.”

It was no small thing, given that Chang is of Taiwanese descent and, to him, giving up rice was unthinkable. Growing up in Venezuela, Barroeta had long ago learned she was allergic to legumes.  Yet, within two weeks of eating the Paleo way, in which grains, gluten and soy are avoided, they were feeling better.

That world of exploration led the two former design-world refugees — they both realized they wanted to do something more meaningful with their lives — to launch Mission: Heirloom Garden Café, a business they hope will become a new fixture in North Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto when it opens in September. The name implies that it’s something worth passing down to future generations. And, while you are welcome to consider it a Paleo eatery, Barroeta says it’s much more than that.

“We don’t want to be making blanket statements,” she said. “One of our main goals here is supporting different people in their journeys.”

Bobby Chang of Mission: Heirloom. Photo via Mission: Heirloom

The Paleo diet recommends foods that mimic what our ancestors ate in a pre-agricultural, hunter-gatherer society, with no grains, legumes, dairy or refined sugars or oils.

Mission: Heirloom Garden Café plans to follow that course, making exceptions for wild rice and buckwheat — both are gluten-free — and unpasteurized milk, as not everyone is lactose-intolerant.

“The Paleo diet is a great stepping stone,” said Barroeta, “but there will be people who want to do more than that, and some for whom it is isn’t right.”

That might include people on an elimination diet to find the cause of digestive distress, those on a cleanse of some kind, or people who follow the Gut and Psychology Syndrome Diet (GAPS), which was created by Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride for sufferers of major digestive issues. GAPS adherents are advised to sip on bone broths throughout the day, which Mission: Heirloom sells already as part of its “Counter Basics” line. Cinnamon rosemary lamb, lemongrass lavender chicken and spicy ginger beef varieties are sold in Mason jars, which can be sipped or used to make stews with separately sold pre-cooked meatballs and vegetables at home.

Barroeta and Chang are also hoping to cater to the parents of children with autism, as eating a clean diet is believed to help certain symptoms. They said they know firsthand that diet is not a one-size-fits-all affair.

Bobby Chang, Christian Phernetton, Andy O’Day, Juan Barrera and Ronald (RJ) Arcega. Photo via Mission: Heirloom

The Mission: Heirloom team started working on its customized kitchen last November, and began selling food to customers in May. Members of the group said they still consider themselves in beta mode, as they get ready for the launch of the café.

More than being “the Paleo place,” Mission: Heirloom is striving to give consumers food that’s as clean as possible, meaning free of all possible toxins. When the café opens at Shattuck and Vine, the food will be made in a state-of-the art facility at Berkeley Kitchens, which has been outfitted specifically for Mission: Heirloom with a negative ion air purifier, which not only controls mold but airborne diseases as well, and a zero-waste, reverse-osmosis water filtration system that runs on organic coconut shells rather than carbon.

When the group learned its neighbor at Berkeley Kitchens was a bagel-making outfit, it had a new ventilation duct installed to avoid cross-contamination, and a sign on the door warns those who enter to leave gluten products outside. Mission: Heirloom does its own laundry, as no East Bay restaurant laundry service offers an organic, no-bleach option (business idea alert!). The pots and pans are stainless steel with no aluminum.

Ronald (RJ) Arcega bottling heirloom tomato consommé at Mission: Heirloom at Berkeley Kitchens. Photo via Mission: Heirloom

In that kitchen, the oven cooks food at 100% humidity, and the team does not fry, sauté, grill or caramelize. Mission: Heirloom avoids these cooking methods so excess glutamate isn’t released within the protein, which would be akin to “being as harmful as if we were spreading the white powder ”— MSG — said Barroeta, sounding a lot more like a science teacher than a restaurateur. “If you explode the fat molecules, oxidation occurs, meaning you create around six compounds that are carcinogenic.”

The team even made its own cutting boards from untreated wood, since most food-grade cutting boards are treated with some kind of chemical.

The pantry includes flours the casual home cook is likely never to have heard of: plantain, mesquite, chestnut, banana, and house-made coconut flour.

Of course, it goes without saying that meats used by Mission: Heirloom are all pastured and local; the produce and fruit is organic and GMO-free.

The food the business sells for home use all comes in glass jars – since plastic can leach.

Many of the meals prepared by Mission: Heirloom are served in bowls, as they are seen to be “comfort food.” Photo: Alix Wall

The café will have indoor and outdoor space, and will be casual. The “Counter Basics” line will be sold up front. To start, the menu will include five bowls. A possible offering might be jerk goat meatballs with savoy cabbage and Padron pepper sauce, with an edible herb and flower garnish. The team likes the bowl concept because it sees Mission: Heirloom’s food as comfort food. Meatballs, that use all parts of the animal to balance amino acids, figure prominently on the menu.

A future wish is to have a “Genius Bar” modeled after the ones in Apple stores, where nutritionists and practitioners sanctioned by the owners can advise customers about which diet might best suit them.

“We hope to prove that there are enough people who want clean food, and that restaurants can be profitable making such food,” said Barroeta. “And we’re looking to create a replicable model.”

If the first café does well, the team hopes to open four more like it, with all the food being made at Berkeley Kitchens.

“Everybody has their allergies or dietary restrictions, and we wonder why menus are blanket statements, and restrictions are an afterthought,” said Barroeta. “We can avoid all of this and give someone a culinary adventure. We want this to be about what they can have, not what they cannot have, so they don’t feel what’s lacking.”

Rebekah Harris, Andy O’Day and Bobby Chang. Photo via Mission: Heirloom

Mission: Heirloom will also serve breakfast and dessert, which are often sticking points for people on restrictive diets. Breakfast may include a Spanish tortilla, coconut milk and chia seed pudding with nuts and fruits, or a buckwheat porridge. Desserts may include a pistachio crumble, using dehydrated fruit for sweetness, and a non-dairy line of ice creams, made with a Pacojet, which turns foods into mousses without any dairy. While these methods have earned them “the Paleo molecular gastronomy place” label in the media, Barroeta just laughs about that, as molecular gastronomy requires chemicals that go against Mission: Heirloom’s “clean food” ethos.

While the group has received private funding thus far, it plans to go directly to customers to grow in the future.

“We are empowering regular people to invest in their food supply chain,” said Chang, “something that we normally don’t have access to.”

Mission: Heirloom Garden Café will be at 2085 Vine St., and is slated to open in September.

Bakers, cooks and cakemakers spread their wings at newly opened Berkeley Kitchens (04.03.14)

Alix Wall is an Oakland-based personal chef and freelance writer, writing about food and other features for j. weekly, the San Francisco Chronicle and Bay Area Bites. You can find her at

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Alix Wall is an Oakland-based freelance writer. She is contributing editor of J., The Jewish News of Northern California, for which she has a food column and writes other features. In addition to Berkeleyside’s...