At his pop-up restaurant Serene, chef Jonathan De La Torre wanted to bring the same flavors and good feelings he remembers from his childhood growing up in Oakland. He recalls time spent gathering around a single table, connecting over food, sometimes with people seen every day, other times with those whose only shared connection was geography.
“The courses and seating emphasize family style,” said De La Torre, describing the format at Serene. “Everyone sits at one big community table, so everybody is talking to other people. It’s a very communal thing.”
Serene is a monthly — twice-monthly, starting in March — series of pop-up prix-fixe dinners hosted at Berkeley’s Hidden Café. With the help of business partner Ryan Haile, De La Torre hosts two Serene seatings per event, at 5:30 and 8 p.m., with 16 reservations available per seating. The next Serene dinner takes place Tuesday.
When De La Torre first thought to open his own restaurant, he planned to offer straight California cuisine focused on vegetables, grains and fish. It was a style he felt comfortable cooking after years of training and professional experience. In 2011, De La Torre graduated from City College of San Francisco’s culinary training program, and he worked in kitchens throughout the Bay Area, including stints at fine-dining restaurants like Nopa, Commis, Quince and the now-closed Blackwater Station, where he first came up with the idea for Serene. But a conversation with a mentor convinced him to take a detour.
“[My mentor] asked me, is California food what you really want to do? Is that something you’ve really thought about? Is that what your biggest memory of food is? And it wasn’t.” — Chef Jonathan De La Torre
“They asked me, is California food what you really want to do? Is that something you’ve really thought about? Is that what your biggest memory of food is? And it wasn’t,” De La Torre said.
California cuisine derives heavily from Mediterranean styles of cooking, but it still tends to prioritize culinary traditions from European countries. De La Torre shifts the focus south, to the opposite shores of the Mediterranean. The food still centers around fresh and seasonal vegetables, grains and fish, but takes heavy influence from North African spices and technique — California by way of Casablanca.
“I’m not from there,” said De La Torre, “but most of my childhood food memories are from those cultures.”
De La Torre is of African-American, Mexican and Japanese descent, but he grew up in a neighborhood near Laney College that was primarily Moroccan, Egyptian, Ethiopian and Eritrean. “Every Friday night all the neighbors would gather in the common area, do a traditional Ethiopian coffee service,” De La Torre recalled.
The conversation with his mentor helped De La Torre realize that what he most wanted in a restaurant was to recreate the flavors and feelings of community from that formative time of his live. “That [question] is what made me delve deeper into that style of food. That’s the biggest reason why I went to Mourad in the first place,” he said. De La Torre was executive sous chef at Michelin-starred Morroccan-style restaurant Mourad in San Francisco. “After spending a year and a half [at Mourad] I got to re-associate myself with those flavors. It brought a lot of memories back from being 7 or 8 years old.”
De La Torre started Serene in 2018, hosting his first pop-up at Parlour in Oakland. Past menus have featured dishes like a brassica curry, stewed lentils and cabbage with slow-baked fish and spiced tomato. The dinner on Tuesday at Hidden Café will feature kale with za’atar, quinoa and preserved lime; smoked roe with potatoes, red onion and labneh (thickened yogurt with a cheese-like consistency); chickpea salad; a cauliflower and broccoli tangia (a Morroccan stew); and finally dates, almonds and farina cake for dessert. A selection of low-ABV cocktails will also be available, prepared by Haile, who also bar manager at Parlour.
De La Torre considers cooking in general, and Serene specifically, as an expression of his identity, but he finds explaining what that means through his food comes easier than putting it into words. “I’m still trying to figure out how to verbalize [it],” he said.
The chef says he’s still working on making the dish or menu that truly reflects his identity, though an upcoming menu this spring may come closest. “Probably the upcoming April menu is where I actually dig into myself,” he said.
For the April menu, De La Torre plans to showcase the Italian influence on Eritrean food. Italy colonized the present day nations of Eritrea and Ethiopia for nearly 60 years, which is why, for example, lasagna is a dish as Eritrean as it is Italian.
“Italian food does have a connection to Eritrean food specifically,” said De La Torre. “You’ll see pasta dishes and Italian influenced desserts.”
“And also it will be spring, so it will be a good chance for me to use some of my favorite foods, like peas and favas.”
For now, Serene is a pop-up, but eventually, De La Torre would like to open his own brick-and-mortar restaurant. While he’s grateful to Hidden Café for the opportunity to establish himself as a restaurateur in his own right, De La Torre projects that in a year or so, depending on how well the dinners do, he wants to find a permanent place for Serene to call home. And he wants it to be in Oakland.
“It’s one of those childhood things, you know,” he said. “You go off, return home, and then you want to do something great.”
Serene is currently hosted at Berkeley’s Hidden Café, 1250 Addison St. at the Strawberry Creek Design Center at Strawberry Creek Park in Berkeley. Serene offers two seatings per pop-up, at 5:30 and 8 p.m. The next dinner is Tuesday, Feb. 25. Tickets are $65.