So here is one surreal reality from the Bay Area food scene during month five of the shelter-in-place Apocalypse: Chefs who used to work at top-rated restaurants (including ones with Michelin stars) are now offering home-cooked meals, from their kitchen to yours. The expertly prepared food arrives in unpretentious paper bags, delivered by a chef with or without children in tow, or else can be picked up curbside near the chef’s apartment.
Nosh spoke with three East Bay chef-led businesses. They all started out very organically, experimenting and selling to friends and neighbors first. As they began to scale up while the pandemic dragged on, they started advertising on Nextdoor or Instagram. A few weeks into the experiment, two of the three East Bay hustles have posted very basic websites and one still relies on Instagram only. That would be Broke Ass Cooks in West Oakland, because they are… well… broke.
Broke Ass Cooks
“I want people to understand that we are really broke,” said Broke Ass Cook Bilal Ali, who used to work at the Michelin-rated Commis in Oakland and is now part of the three-chef side hustle. “Our industry is destroyed — we don’t know if we will have a job — and we are doing this because we need to survive. Our motto is ‘make hospitality great again,’” he joked.
“Our driving force is desperation,” said Hoang Le, another of the Broke Ass Cooks. “We always wanted to do something on our own, and we are doing it now because we have to. We decided to take the education and expertise we have and use it to bring food to the people.”
Broke Ass Cooks offer very generous home-style dinners on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. You have to pick it up yourself from the curbside in front of their house, but they welcome you with snacks. When I arrived for my meal, I was handed a small bag of paper-thin and still-warm plantain chips and a container of what they call “chicken tea.” The tea was actually a very delicate and light chicken broth, with julienned ginger and sprigs of thyme. The meal itself consisted of a Jamaican jerk chicken with habanero jelly, coconut rice and beans, and a summer salad of plums and tomatoes with shiso.
The three Broke cooks — Ali, Le and Keone Koki — have 29 years of professional experience among them, and about five nationalities to draw inspiration from (Eritrean, English, Vietnamese, Japanese and Peruvian). They experimented with different dishes for two or three months “to make sure that we are serving the best meal in the Bay Area,” Le said. “Fine dining has sharpened our minds, and gave us the desire to make composed dishes where every element works with every other one.”
The plan, Ali said, is to make one menu per month, and then switch to a new dish. “Our next meal is going to be Peruvian,” Le said. “We may do pork or vegetables — it won’t always be chicken.”
Last week’s menu of half a chicken meal for two people was $25, and a whole chicken meal for four is $50. Broke Ass Chefs also sell cups of sweetened soy milk on the side for $4. (It tasted a bit like Thai ice tea, minus the tea.) They don’t have a website yet, but an order form is here. You can also direct message them through Instagram @brokeasscooks. They accept Venmo or cash. Pick up Friday, Saturday or Sunday at either 2, 4 or 6 p.m.
Sweet Wheezy Treats
Lisa Chan, who recently started selling baked goods under the name Sweet Wheezy Treats, is a furloughed pastry sous chef from the Michelin-rated State Bird Provisions in San Francisco. “I miss the environment of a restaurant, but I am finding home baking to be more fulfilling than I would have expected,” said Chan, who lives in Oakland. “It was hard for people to get into State Bird, but now I can reach a lot more people with my baked goods.” Working outside of a restaurant environment allows Chan to experiment more.
Sweet Wheezy Treats offers two types of focaccia bread each week, as well as two loaf cakes and lemon curd. Chan is hoping to also add composed desserts in jars in the coming weeks. Banana cream pie is one she is experimenting with right now, and she also expects to make creme brulee.
Chan’s first love was fashion, but she lost her job in the 2008 crash. She turned to baking as a hobby, and gave her creations away to friends and family. She was eventually persuaded to go to the Culinary Institute of America in Napa, almost despite herself. “I thought I was too old (I was 43 at the time); I thought my back is too bad, my knees are too bad — but I ended up doing it anyway.” Chan decided to specialize in pastries because she liked the science of baking, and the chemistry that makes it work.
The results are spectacular, judging from the items I sampled last week. The sourdough potato focaccia with rosemary and confit garlic was twice as thick as any other focaccia I have ever seen, and packed about twice as much flavor per bite. (Along with two flavors offered every week, there are two sizes of focaccia: the smaller size is $4, and the large, pictured, is $8.)
The lemon curd (which comes in a 4-ounce jar, $5) reminded me of a nursery rhyme when I saw the name, but tasted like the inside of a phenomenal key lime pie. The lemon olive oil loaf cake ($12) was moist and rich, the flavor addictive even for a non-lemon lover. Both sweets are made with Meyer lemons. “I haven’t had to buy a single Meyer lemon,” Chan said. “My neighbors provide all the lemons I need.”
Chan delivers in the Redwood Heights neighborhood of Oakland only, Tuesdays and Fridays from 4-5 p.m., and pickup is available in Redwood Heights (near the Mormon Temple) between 5-7 p.m. on those days. New menu items go online every Wednesday, payment is cash or Venmo. You can sign up for email updates on the website.
Jason Botterill, a sous chef at Chez Panisse, is still employed full-time. But at the start of the pandemic, he decided to sell complete meals once a week because he wasn’t sure what the future holds. “I live in an apartment, but I have a restaurant-size oven,” he said. Since he helps procure the food for Chez Panisse, he knows what is available and at peak flavor each week. “I pick a theme — such as Spanish, or Moroccan or Chez Panisse — and each week I focus on that.”
Botterill lives and works in Berkeley, and delivers a two-course dinner that serves one ($50) on Friday afternoons. Botterill offers seasonal, locally sourced dinners that change weekly. He purchases ingredients at local farmers markets and at Monterey Market.
“I have an idea of what’s available a week ahead of time, but the menu is subject to change,” he said. “If I get to the market and the cucumbers are not as good as I wanted, I’ll switch to something else. Corn and figs will definitely be on my menu the second week of August.”
I sampled Botterill’s early girl tomato soup with bread and basil, along with Alaskan halibut baked in a fig leaf with lentil, and roasted Jimmy Nardello peppers. It was a generous serving for one, but probably not enough for two people. The price point is high, but 10% of the sale goes to the Edible Schoolyard Project and the food is delivered to you between 2-5 p.m. Meals can be reserved online by Thursday at noon for Friday delivery; payment is by Venmo.
More home-operations will likely arise
Home-based cooking businesses are not new. According to COOK Alliance, a nonprofit working to legalize the home-cooking industry, about 100,000 such businesses already exist in California. And while more furloughed and unemployed chefs are starting to try out home-based options to get by during the crisis, state and county laws have not caught up with this novel (coronavirus) culinary trend. Although California passed AB 626, a law allowing for microenterprise home kitchen operations (MEHKO) in 2018, only Riverside County currently allows for such businesses to legally operate. AB 377, an amendment to AB 626, requires that counties opt-in to allow for the home operations; they must also create permitting and inspection processes to meet food safety standards.
According to the Alameda County Department of Environmental Health website, although it is coordinating with cities on how to implement AB 377, the county is not currently authorizing permits for home-based operations. The website urges individuals to “check back periodically as implementation and permit details are established,” but warns, “Violators are subject to closure and further enforcement actions.” And while Berkeley, which has its own health department, opted in to allow MEHKOs in 2019, it has not yet issued any permits.
As the pandemic continues to brutally batter the restaurant and hospitality industry, and as more chefs find themselves at home, some are moving forward despite not yet being above board. For some, it’s their best option to make ends meet.