A Southeast Asian kale and pinto bean chili, made by Chef Sean Chow, a line cook at Hawker Fare, was voted the judges’ winner in a Healthy Corner Store Chef Challenge held Monday. Photo: D Samuel Marsh Photography

A Southeast Asian kale and pinto bean chili, a pita topped with za’atar, olive oil and fresh vegetables and a barley salad with tomatoes, green beans and feta were the finalists in a contest called HOPE Collaborative’s Healthy Corner Store Chef Challenge this week in Oakland.

HOPE stands for Health for Oakland’s People and Environment, and the HOPE Collaborative is a grassroots network of public agencies, community professionals and Oakland residents who are working toward bringing healthier food options to low-income neighborhoods in Oakland without easy access to healthy and nutritious food, like fresh produce.

Founded in 2007, HOPE was established by invitation by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s Food and Fitness Collaborative Initiative.

With its Healthy Corner Store Project, it has partnered with six markets in East and West Oakland, to bring in produce, as well as sometimes rearranging the store, putting healthier items in the front, but providing ready-made prepared foods that are healthy and cheap is a bigger challenge.

Chelsea Charles, who owns One Stop Liquor on the corner of 84th Avenue and International Boulevard in East Oakland, said children often come in with several dollars, asking for something to eat because their parents don’t cook for them.

A kale and yam couscous salad made by home cook Sarah Kassem won the audience favorite dish of the night as well as second place by the audience vote. Photo: D Samuel Marsh Photography

Charles said she can see real changes since working with HOPE Collaborative, and that its staff and volunteers have gained the trust of the local community. “They know how to work with us, and not talk to us in a patronizing way,” said Charles, who served on the judges panel.

With HOPE’s help, Charles has done such things as move the sugary drinks to the back of the store, emphasizing beverages that are 100% juice, and now carries healthier snack options like fresh fruit, oatmeal packets and power bars.

“The kids are going for it,” she said.

In addition to this, HOPE has been working with Bay Area chefs to come up with recipes that can be easily made in a corner store. For this event, which was held Monday night at Oakland’s Humanist Hall, HOPE put out a call to local chefs, asking them to come up with a healthy meal that could be easily made without a full kitchen and could be sold for around $5.

The chefs ranged from professional restaurant chefs, like Dennis Lee from San Francisco’s Namu Gaji, to Mike Scoggins of Walnut Creek’s Home of Chicken and Waffles, to Mary Downs of Berkeley’s Bartavelle Coffee and Wine Bar, to several personal chefs, a farmers market chef, a Laney College culinary student, a chef who’s also studying to become an herbalist, a freelance pastry chef, an enthusiastic home cook and two chefs who work with the 18 Reason’s Cooking Matters program.

The dish had to fall into one of five categories: a sandwich or wrap, a soup or stew, a side or main salad, a smoothie or juice, or a rice or noodle bowl.

Oakland residents turned out in force Monday to sample dishes cooked by a diverse group of Bay Area chefs for HOPE Collaborative’s Healthy Corner Market Chef Challenge. Photo: D Samuel Marsh Photography

The dishes were as varied as the chefs; there were red beans and rice; vegetarian grits; a chicken pasilla chile stew in bone broth with a basil, cilantro za’atar sauce; a chicken and rice stew with ginger and garlic; an oatmeal and potato patty; a chicken salad sandwich with apple chips and a Jambalaya wrap.

The goal of the event was to raise broader public awareness and support of the Healthy Corner Store Project, but also to “leverage the amazing foodie and restaurant community here in the Bay Area to better support food access for low income people,” said Sabrina Wu, HOPE’s project director.

Charlie Hallowell as emcee, and a food justice classroom

The event, which was emceed by Charlie Hallowell, chef/owner of Oakland’s Pizzaiolo, Boot & Shoe Service and Penrose, attracted a crowd representing the diversity of Oakland. Michele Simon, who teaches a “Politics of Food” class at the Stockton-based University of the Pacific, brought her students to the event in lieu of attending class that evening.

“Rather than sitting in a classroom talking about food justice, I thought we’d come and be part of an event with people who are working in food justice every day,” said Simon. “Problems around food justice can be rather depressing, and this event is positive in that you hear about how important even minor changes are. It’s easy to talk about what’s wrong, but with HOPE you can really see how a community group is changing things.”

Attendees got a chance to meet each chef and try each dish and vote for their favorites, and a panel of judges chose their favorites based not only on taste, but on nutritional value, ease in making it in a corner store and being culturally appropriate.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the judge and audience picks did not match up.

Donald Theard of 18 Reasons’ Cooking Matters program made a broccoli, cheddar, shrimp and mushroom soup, which the audience voted first place. Photo: D Samuel Marsh Photography

The chili, which was garnished with fried shallots and fresh cilantro, came from Chef Sean Chow, who teaches immigrants in the International Rescue Committee’s New Roots Program how to run a food business. Chow is also a line cook at Oakland’s Hawker Fare. Chow said he was going for a Burmese flavor profile with the chile, since he is half Burmese. His dish came in first place with the judges and third place by the public.

The public chose a kale, apple, roasted yam and raisin couscous salad with tahini dressing made by home cook Sarah Kassem for second place, while the judges chose a barley salad with tomatoes and green beans by Bartavelle Café’s Mary Downs. A broccoli cheddar mushroom and shrimp soup created by Donald Theard of 18 Reasons was voted first place by the public, but the public’s overall favorite dish, when asked, was Kassem’s kale and couscous salad.

Meanwhile, the judges liked a “mana bread,” consisting of pita bread with za’atar and olive oil, with fresh tomatoes, cucumbers and olives made by Mario Hernandez of the Pacific Coast Farmers Market Association, who thought about the fact that many liquor store owners are of Arabic descent, so this would be an easy dish for them to make, and the vegetables could change with the seasons. His came in third place by the judges.

Mary Downs of Bartavelle Café in Berkeley made two vegetarian salads, with her barley salad being chosen as second place by the judges. Photo: D Samuel Marsh Photography

With several dishes chosen, the HOPE Collaborative will now hold tastings — both of judge and audience favorites — in their partner markets.

“These community tastings are an important step before putting the winning recipes on the menu as they will allow us to get input directly from customers at the corner stores and residents who live nearby to ensure that the menu items are culturally appropriate and affordable for those communities,” said Wu. “The recipes will be prepared on site at the stores so they will also allow us to test how feasible the recipes are for replication at the stores, given the infrastructure constraints the stores face. We will then invite the winning chefs to train store owners and employees on how to prepare the recipes.”

Both Kassem and Chow seemed surprised by the outcome, with Chow shyly saying, “Thank you for liking my food.”

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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...