Philip Gelb making bagels. Photo: Rebecca Martinez
Philip Gelb making bagels. Photo: Rebecca Martinez

Imagine a cookbook that encompasses the following cuisines: Japanese, Spanish, Jewish, Mexican, Thai, Italian, Laotian, Chinese, Indian and Middle Eastern.

Now imagine that all of the recipes are vegan.

Such is the recipe collection of the Oakland-based chef Philip Gelb, whose cookbook, Notes from an Underground Restaurant: Improvisations Through Food and Music, has just been published.

For years now, Gelb, who also is a musician (he plays the Japanese bamboo flute, called the shakuhachi) has been holding dinner parties called “Sound and Savor” in his West Oakland loft. Attendees sit down to a several course meal, and are treated to the intimacy of a house concert with musicians who usually perform in much larger venues. The book is a peek inside these dinners.

In the first few pages of his book, Gelb describes how these events came to be, the musicians who have played, and the menus he’s created.

Philip Gelb making fresh pasta. Photo courtesy: "Notes from an Underground Restaurant" by Philip Gelb
Philip Gelb making fresh pasta. Photo courtesy: Notes from an Underground Restaurant by Philip Gelb

Opening his own restaurant was prohibitively expensive and wouldn’t allow him to tour as a musician, he wrote, so he’s much preferred the freedom these events afford him. Also, as a self-described anarchist, he appreciates creating what he calls a “TAZ,” or “Temporary Autonomous Zone,” which he describes as “creating something in the moment, something that will only happen on that occasion, not to be replayed again.”

Perhaps most important to Gelb is that a TAZ creates community; he has a number of regulars who attend his events, and the atmosphere is such that new connections and friendships are easily made.

Holding these events in a loft allows diners to watch Gelb and his sous chef in action, and they can ask questions as he cooks or plates.

“There were two shows, the kitchen and the music!” he writes.

Gelb’s enthusiasm is apparent as he describes the many events that have taken place in his loft — and this enthusiasm is felt throughout the book in his overuse of the exclamation point.

Socca with toppings and salad. Photo courtesy: "Notes from an Underground Restaurant" by Philip Gelb
Socca with toppings and salad. Photo courtesy: Notes from an Underground Restaurant by Philip Gelb

His introduction is long-winded and probably includes way more information about these concerts than the casual reader may care about, especially when the main point he’s trying to get across is that “food feeds the body, music feeds the spirit.”

One thing the introduction does not do is explain the how and why he became a chef. Most chefs have a background story about what or who got them into the kitchen in the first place. Gelb is no exception; he just chose not to talk about it in his book. So I had to ask him in person.

For Gelb, that culinary matriarch was his Aunt Rose. Gelb grew up Jewish in Brooklyn, and all the Jewish holidays were spent with his father’s sister’s family. From a young age, Gelb enjoyed her company, so he often found himself in the kitchen with her. In so doing, became her helper.

“That’s where things started, the inspiration of wanting to cook things and loving to feed people,” he said.

In the headnote for his latkes recipe, Gelb writes: “This is the first dish I learned how to make! … I took over the latke duty early on as a child.”

By age 17, though, Gelb had become a vegetarian, much to the consternation of Aunt Rose, who not-so-gently told him that they didn’t have to eat that way anymore. About a decade ago, he became vegan.

However Gelb doesn’t use the word much, and he points out that many of those who attend his music events are omnivores.

“Every culture has food that happens to be vegan, which is why I don’t dwell on it,” he said. “Most people who go out for a falafel don’t say, ‘I’m going out for vegan falafel.’”

Notes from an Underground Restaurant cover
Front cover of Philip Gelb’s cookbook, Notes from an Underground Restaurant, republished with permission from the author.

As a chef, Gelb is entirely self-taught. It began in full force when moved to a small town in Florida for college. Frustrated that he couldn’t find a decent bagel, Gelb saw only one solution: learn how to make them himself.

This is why, until recently, he also made all of his own tempeh and tofu. Both products are now made in Oakland to his satisfaction, so he doesn’t make either anymore.

“The reason for making as much as I can homemade is there’s a freshness of taste, of course, but also the more packaged ingredients we use, the more of an ecological disaster we’re creating, as all of these things have to be produced, shipped, refrigerated, recycled or thrown away,” he said. “Every time I make my own almond milk, that’s one less box that needs to be dealt with.”

On my first look through the book, I was impressed by the sheer number of cuisines he covers. From larb (Laotian), dumplings (Chinese) and dengaku (Japanese) to romesco sauce (Spainish), mole (Mexican) and rugulach (Jewish), it’s all in there.

But upon actually testing some recipes, I found that Gelb — who self-published — could have used a better editor or recipe tester (not just to pare down all of those exclamation points). For example, in his roasted cauliflower-watercress-miso chowder, the instructions called for the cauliflower, potato and onion all to be diced with no differentiation in size. I consider “dicing” to be what you do to an onion; since the cauliflower and potatoes were to be roasted in an oven, they should have been cut into a larger dice or cubed. Also, the recipe called for both of the vegetables to be roasted together, and the cauliflower was done much faster. I would have roasted them on separate pans. Instead, I had to remove the cauliflower from the baking sheet and then put the potatoes back in.

Knish. Photo courtesy: "Notes from an Underground Restaurant" by Philip Gelb
Knish. Photo courtesy: Notes from an Underground Restaurant by Philip Gelb

I also made his collard rolls stuffed with peach-roasted tempeh, wild rice pilaf and pumpkin puree. I substituted tangerines for the peaches, as that’s what I had on hand. (Plus, it was one of his seasonal variations.) This recipe called for eight collard leaves, one recipe pumpkin puree, one recipe wild rice pilaf and one recipe peach-roasted tempeh, but I had way too much of all the ingredients leftover to stuff only eight leaves. Also, rolling collard green rolls doesn’t come easily to everyone. Although I quickly figured it out, I would have appreciated more detailed instructions other than: “Roll up and fold tightly.”

While we felt the flavors were excellent on both recipes, we would have preferred some kind of sauce on the collard rolls. For example, the tempeh for the collard rolls was marinated in a tasty mixture of tamarind, pomegranate molasses, miso, stock and mirin, all spiked with cumin and smoked paprika. (Such is the mind of Gelb, using Indian, Middle Eastern, Japanese and Spanish ingredients all in the same recipe.) Because it was not used to marinate raw meat, I could have easily reduced it to to make an excellent sauce after baking the tempeh. I only wish I had thought of that before tossing it out.

In short, while the recipes could use some editing, they still offer a delicious (and healthy) source of ideas for dinner. Beginning cooks may find some instructions confusing, but for those who are more advanced, they’ll definitely find some creative new ideas for eating more plant-based cuisine at home.

Recipe: Roasted Cauliflower Watercress Miso Chowder

Serves 4-6

1/2 pound small creamer potatoes, diced
1 head cauliflower, diced
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 tablespoon safflower oil
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, diced
1 leek, diced
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 carrot, minced
1 stalk celery, diced
3 cups vegetable stock, preferably homemade
1/3 cup raw cashews
1/4 cup white miso, preferably Saikyo
1 small bunch watercress
Freshly cracked black peppercorns
Very good quality olive oil, for garnish

In a roasting pan, add potatoes and cauliflower. Sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon sea salt and the safflower oil. Cover with foil and roast at 425℉ for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a frying pan, heat olive oil and add onions and leeks. Over medium-low heat, cook about 10 minutes till slightly caramelized. Add garlic, carrot, and celery and cook 5 minutes over medium heat, stirring occasionally.

Add half of the sautéed vegetables and half of the roasted vegetables to a blender.  Add stock, cashews, miso, and watercress to the blender and puree till very smooth. Add the mixture to a pot with the rest of the sautéed and roasted vegetables. Bring to a simmer but do not boil! Season to taste with black pepper. Garnish with a small amount of very good olive oil.

Buy a copy of Gelb’s cookbook and find out about his catering business at Sound and Savor with Chef Philp Gelb.

Connect with NOSH on FacebookTwitter and Instagram, and subscribe to the free NOSH Weekly email for all your East Bay food news.

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...