Kim Alter says connecting with farmers is an important part of her work and provides "a better connection/respect for the food." Photo: Emilie Raguso
Kim Alter says connecting with farmers provides “a better connection with and respect for the food.” Photo: Emilie Raguso

Nosh touched base recently with Chef Kim Alter, who’s on the verge of signing papers for a new restaurant in San Francisco. The 34-year-old won acclaim at Haven, then headed up Plum — both Daniel Patterson Group (DPG) enterprises in Oakland. Since a shake-up in May at Plum, which briefly became Ume, Alter has been taking a much-needed break from cooking full time. Nosh joined her at the San Francisco Ferry Building farmer’s market to learn a bit about her approach to food and more. Photographs by Emilie Raguso.

Last we heard about you, in May, Plum became Ume, and you were going to take a bit of a rest while helping out at other DPG restaurants until you got your own restaurant in the city. What’s the latest news?

I was going to the markets for Haven and Ume, until July when my transmission failed. Now I just go casually. I still help out at the DPG, but the helping out isn’t super defined right now. Until not long ago, I was working at Plum Bar doing all the liquor production for all the restaurants, and I was cooking at the bar a few nights a week. There are some changes in the next few weeks, where my role will be more defined.

So what, if anything, can you tell us about your new restaurant? 

I am getting a restaurant in SF (I will hopefully sign the lease in the very near future). I will be under the DPG umbrella, but it will not be a DPG restaurant. My new place will still be market driven, like most of the restaurants in San Francisco. For now, we are being quiet about the concept and our approach. I have been looking at spaces since I left [Plum] and am in talks with people… that is all I can say!

Can you say anything as far as highlights or lessons learned from working at Plum?

It was a different experience. Good and bad, you always learn something. I think my team and I did a good job when we were there and I am glad it happened.

Says Alter, “I never pre-order garnish because I never know what it will look like.”

Speaking of market-driven restaurants, you’ve estimated you can spend 20-30 hours a week visiting farmers markets. Tell us about your typical routine. 

At Haven, when we were open seven days a week, I would sometimes (most times) go six days a week. There are no markets on Monday. Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday is the Ferry Building in San Francisco. Thursday is Marin as well. Wednesday is Civic Center. Sunday is Marin and Claremont in Oakland. Friday is the Old Oakland market. When you estimate driving to Marin, some days it’s a 3- to 4-hour affair. On a Wednesday, it’s more like 45 minutes. So it varies.

Is it common for chefs to do that, or is it usually something that’s delegated?

I see the same chefs at the market every day. I know chefs who have their sous chefs go. Sometimes my sous would go, but I enjoy it. It’s that time when you can talk with the farmers, see what’s new and what will be coming.

Alter says going to the market is “that time when you can talk with the farmers, see what’s new and what will be coming.”

You’ve said it’s important to you to build strong relationships with farmers. (Some you mentioned as favorites were Zuckerman’s Farm, Dirty Girl ProduceIacopi FarmsStar Route Farms, Allstar Organics, Balakian Farms and Marin Roots FarmsK&J Orchards was also high on your list.) What’s the benefit of getting to know them, particularly when you must have a very busy schedule when you’re cooking?

I like them, I enjoy getting to know all of the farmers. It gives you a better connection with and respect for the food. I love being able to develop personal relationships with them. I have some farmers who want to be investors in my new spot. It’s about community and understanding. At the market, you get to pick the size you want, the color you want. If I can’t find it there, sometimes I have to go to Whole Foods, and then it turns into a nightmare. That said, I’m not choosing relationships over the product, because all the product’s amazing.

When you’re cooking, what’s a typical day’s schedule for you?

I wake up around 8, go to the market, drive to Oakland, unload all the produce, organize. Establish what has been accomplished and what needs to get started. Work on the computer for a minute. Prep/butcher, work on the menu/new dishes, have the staff meal. There’s line up, then all the cooks put up taster plates, and service starts. I normally expedite, sometimes work a station. I’m always running between the bar and the restaurant. After we finish service, I clean up. We have a staff meeting about positives and negatives about service, what we need at the market the next day, new dishes, ideas, etc. Normally I have a drink, and work on the computer, do invoices, orders, etc. I drive home and try to have some time with my boyfriend. It varies sometimes, but that’s a normal day.

Alter, loading up her 1970 vintage Mini Cooper. Note the steering wheel on the right.
The Ferry Building farmers market is popular with chefs due to the availability of parking and handcarts, as well as the selection.

How much of what you buy at the markets is pre-ordered, as opposed to seeing something you love and deciding on the fly?

Staples are always pre-ordered, and some things you have to order ahead, like I would always order 50 pounds of potatoes from Roscoe [Zuckerman] a week, or cases of asparagus, etc. On the fly happens, but you have to be aware of food costs, so I normally talk myself out of random purchases. Also time plays in. If I am super busy, I normally don’t have time to play around with food.

Does it ever happen that something you’ve ordered doesn’t look the way you want it, and you have to go a different direction? 

That happens a lot. Or it didn’t get ordered, or the order got left at the farm. You improvise. It’s kind of what being a chef is, you can never know what the day will bring the next day.

When she ran Haven, Alter said it was typical to spend $500 a day at farmers markets. “I don’t want to say I’m controlling, but I know exactly what I’m looking for,” she said.

Are you still fermenting and preserving ingredients? How does that fit into your vision for food? 

Building flavor is how I see it. I’m always adding different textures and flavors in everything, to make it interesting.

How did you end up in this business?

I wanted to be creative, work with my hands and make people happy, be a host.

Alter: “I’m not choosing relationships over the product because all the product’s amazing.”

What do you do on your time off — and what kind of time off do you get? 

Now I have more time then I ever had, as I’m only working part time with the DPG. I do the Bar Method, hang out with friends, run Crissy Field, normal stuff.

What kind of meals do you eat on a typical day?

When I was working, no meals, just tasting food all day, and fruit. Now I am trying to be healthy. Normally fruit in the a.m., brown rice and kimchee seems to be lunch every day, and dinner varies. I always like Ron, my boyfriend, to cook for me!

Connect with Kim Alter on Twitter.

Bites: Townie, Coloso Coffee, Plum, Standard Fare (05.16.14)
Bites: What’s new on the East Bay food scene, XIV (03.14.13)
Nosh on the town: Haven in Jack London Square (12.20.12)

Berkeleyside’s Uncharted: The Berkeley Festival of Ideas is two days of provocative thinking, inspiring speakers, workshops, and a big party — all in downtown Berkeley in October. Read all about it, be part of it. Register on the Uncharted website.