By Juan Manuel Jr. Reyes
Victory Kitchen founder Zoe Minikes arrived late to her kitchen in Berkeley and was rushing to prepare ingredients for the soup du jour: a Ghanaian-inspired spinach stew.
The first guest came walking through the big yellow front door shortly after 7 p.m. Minutes later a second guest walked in. By 8:30 p.m., the tomato-based soup was simmering and the tiny dining room was filling up for the bi-weekly Friday event called Stone Soup.
“Some days I expect ten and it’s two, some days I expect two and it’s… ten,” Minikes said. “It’s been surprising, never quite know what to expect when I get here.”
Minikes launched Victory Kitchen in July as an art project with a vision to bring people under the same roof for family-style dinners. She hosts Stone Soup in a small building in the Folger-Murray Properties lot in Berkeley.
Minikes came up with the idea after she noticed that Berkeley didn’t have many places where anyone could walk in and share interests like cooking and crafting. By opening the kitchen, she thought she could contribute to Berkeley’s thriving craft community.
Minikes funds the Stone Soup dinners out of her own pocket, offset by some contributions. The first event took place in August last year when Minikes made a vegetable soup with squash that was given to her by a friend who grew it at home in Oakland.
The name, Stone Soup, is ironic because Minikes is giving away food rather than tricking people into sharing their food like in the famous folk tale. Minikes said she’s done a lot of community-based art and design experiments and worked in soup kitchens since the fifth grade.
“I’ve always liked to cook and bake,” said Minikes, a West Berkeley native who works at Google as a visual designer. “It was a big thing in my house growing up.”
The 26-year old said she wanted to recreate atmosphere of the family dinners she used to have as a child. She remembers her father’s cooking fondly in particular.
“I have missed that in my adult life, just this place to be together and share,” Minikes said.
She said her biggest challenge was to convince people to come to her dinners because there are so many other opportunities when choosing to go out in the Bay Area. Minikes created a page on the Meetup.com website where she posts open invitations.
Minikes said there are a couple of regulars who tend to stop by for dinner and new people who come in after learning about Stone Soup online.
“Trying to get people to come out to dinner where they don’t even have to pay is a lot harder than I thought it would be!” she said.
To spice things up in the kitchen, Minikes introduced theme nights. On this particular Friday, she celebrated Farmers Day in Ghana. The stew included Ghanaian ingredients like galangal, paprika, plantains, tomatoes and pumpkin seeds.
“(It was to) celebrate with people who work with the land,” Minike said.
In the past, Minikes has made Wampanoag autumn sobaheg, a turkey, bean, and hominy stew, and pork pozole, a soup that is famous in Latin American countries like Mexico.
Victory Kitchen volunteer Mac Akin, who has experience working in a restaurant and a summer camp kitchen, helped Minikes with prep and making the stew.
Akin said he found cooking Stone Soup dinners to be different than cooking in a restaurant kitchen because people just come in, eat and leave. He doesn’t have a chance to get to know the diners like he would at a summer camp.
“It’s almost the best compliment when they don’t say anything because they’re too busy eating and laughing and having a good time with each other,” he said. “That’s the most rewarding to me.”
Stone Soup is about arts and crafts too. Minikes showed her guests how to roast fresh coffee beans over a stovetop flame. After the beans cooled down she taught the group how to use them as an ingredient in soap.
Minikes said crafts were traditionally a community event. In Korea, everyone gets together to make kimchi. Latinos prepare the traditional corn masa to make tamales together.
“I just wanted people to feel empowered to create beautiful flower arrangements or just be expressive and know that it’s safe for everybody,” Minikes said. “It doesn’t have to be perfect.”
On Friday, Dec. 18, Minikes had guests decorate cookies and assembled 50 brown-bag lunches to pass out the following morning on the corner of San Pablo and West Grand avenues in the McClymonds neighborhood. Minikes kept the menu simple with a three-bean chili and cornbread.
“I think there’s something really healthy about mashing people together,” Minikes said. “It can be uncomfortable or awkward, but who cares? It’s good for you. It’s like vegetables. Social vegetables.”
Below: Listen to a short recording of the conversation and sounds as Victory Kitchen founder Zoe Minikes works with volunteer Mac Akin in the kitchen during the Dec. 4 Stone Soup gathering:
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