Although the food and hospitality industry has been hit extremely hard by COVID-19, we’re extremely impressed by the people who make food their business. During the pandemic, restaurant owners and staff, chefs and cooks, farmers, food pantry workers, grocery store owners and employees have worked tirelessly to stay in business, bring us comfort and keep us fed. Our hearts and hats go out and off to you.
With the end of the year upon us, Nosh, Berkeleyside and Oaklandside editors and writers, along with Cityside staff, are looking back on the year in food. Over the next three days, we’ll share our thoughts on food-related topics. Today, we reflect on the people that made a difference during these rough times, the institutions that mattered most to us, along with what we learned about food (a newfound cooking skill, a novel recipe or a new way thinking about food) during the pandemic.
Nosh wishes everyone — especially those in the food and hospitality industry — better times in 2021. And if you feel so inclined, share your reflections on these topics in the comments below.
Who is your East Bay food/drink industry hero of 2020?
Kristina Sepetys: Berkeley resident Michel Thouati and the extraordinary army of volunteers and participating restaurants at HelpBerkeley get my vote. I heard countless stories of HelpBerkeley volunteers (some over 60), working full-time jobs, going to school, and still giving so generously of themselves. Ditto the restaurant owners trying to help others when their own businesses have been so decimated. These big-hearted folks, together with so many others in this town working tirelessly to keep hungry people fed — local heroes all!
Alix Wall: I consider anyone running or working in a restaurant a hero right now. Many chefs don’t feel comfortable doing anything else, and most kitchens are primarily staffed by immigrants. While kitchens have always been dangerous environments to work in, COVID upped that exponentially. And while there are plenty of programs doing great work right now, I know of several restaurants that have quietly made it known that they’re offering a number of free meals on certain nights to their fellow industry workers who might need them. It’s a small gesture on the one hand, but on the other, when their margins are always so tight, and especially now, it’s nice to see how industry folks are taking care of each other amidst this crisis.
Tamara Sherman: The East Bay food/drink industry heroes of 2020 are all the small corner markets and grocery workers in general who keep stores stocked and open for our benefit.
Sarah Han: Serious props to grocery store workers. Their jobs were already demanding, back-breaking, carpal tunnel-causing work; now, add on a pandemic with frenzied, panic-buying customers to service. Yet, whenever I’ve been shopping for groceries — at neighborhood markets and at bigger chain stores alike — I’ve been amazed at the smiles, genuine greetings and kindness from store employees, despite the madness whirling around them.
Risa Nye: As the mother of a nurse, I think what East Bay Feed ER does is inspiring. Health care providers have been stretched so thin and they work so hard, they deserve all the help we can give them right now.
Joanna Della Penna: Cal Peternell. He is always giving. Would also like to give a shout-out to food writer Marcia Gagliardi, The Tablehopper, who does her damnedest to keep the local industry’s and her readers’ spirits up even in normal times.
Azucena Rasilla: Homies Empowerment, for sure!
Jill Kunishima: Tommy Wong of Good Good Eatz. He is saving Chinatown (and a few other neighborhoods.)
Jacob Simas: I’ll go with the Akoma Outdoor Market, which is providing opportunities to Black and brown farmers and food vendors while also revitalizing a neglected parcel of land in East Oakland on 73rd Avenue.
Anna Mindess: I met my hero when I wrote about the inspiring chef Joan Gallagher of Nourish You, whose community kitchen still prepares more than 600 meals a day for the unsheltered and hungry. She and her team have served more than 80,000 meals since the start of COVID (they welcome donations to continue their work.)
Doug Ng: Joan Gallagher has done an amazing job serving our community. We know her because her company made lunches for our school. We were so sad that her meals weren’t being served in schools, but so thankful that she was able to keep going and supplying food to those in need.
Tracey Taylor: I’m not sure they count, as they’re not local, but World Central Kitchen is operating in the East Bay, and it has organized and helped people and restaurants in need in a phenomenal way during COVID, feeding those on the front lines, including seniors, the food insecure and healthcare workers who will be scarred for life as a result of the suffering they have seen first hand in hospitals and nursing homes.
Amalya Dubrovsky: In August, I learned about the effort of Maria Alderete, the owner of Luka’s Taproom & Lounge, to help struggling restaurants in Oakland stay open during the pandemic. She founded Community Kitchen in March to connect donors with local restaurants to feed unhoused people, children and other vulnerable groups. Alderete has owned Luka’s for 15 years and so her story is really a grassroots one. She is fighting for our local food economy and community, even as her own business struggles.
Which restaurant closure broke your heart?
Joanna Della Penna: A big part of my freelance work for Berkeleyside is keeping watch over local favorites, and joining the community in saying goodbye when they close, but it doesn’t always affect me personally. The Albatross, on the other hand, was one of my favorite pubs of all time, and I miss it right now.
Supriya Yelimeli: I just moved to Berkeley, so sadly, many places closed before I had a chance to try them — like the Albatross Pub, which I think I would have loved. And it’s not a local restaurant, but a national chain restaurant closure that hurts for me is Sweet Tomatoes, which went bankrupt in May. A vegetarian’s paradise, home to all the birthday parties of my youth, affordable, cozy, and the only “American” food loved equally by me and my parents. I hope there’s a place for homey buffet dining again in the future.
Natalie Orenstein: The end of The Albatross was a painful loss documented well by Berkeleyside’s Supriya Yelimeli, who captured the cozy-yet-spacious, timeless-yet-historic, no-frills-yet-decorated-to-the-gills, warm and welcoming atmosphere well. I’m worried about the places that are just barely hanging on, too. Stop by Kaffa, the family-owned neighborhood Ethiopian spot on Sacramento Street, if you can.
Risa Nye: I was sorry to see that Corso closed. Corso was a special place for birthdays and anniversaries, when we would enjoy the bistecca or the chicken, with a budino for dessert. There was nothing like their Bistecca alla Fiorentina anywhere! It reminded us of Tuscany.
Amalya Dubrovsky: I’ve blown out birthday candles and cried over bad news at Corso, so I was sad to hear that they closed in November. I will forever try to make a salad as perfect as their lattuga.
Doug Ng: We were so heartbroken when Corso closed. We live close to the restaurant and would often stop in to see if there were open tables. The pasta was really great, but I went for the steak which was always cooked perfectly and so delicious.
Moriah Van Vleet: So many were heartbreaking. I was particularly saddened to hear about Au Coquelet, not because I’d frequented it for eating recently, but because I have near countless memories of meeting up with people there in past years. It was an identifiable spot that was almost always open, and the friendships started there were the kind that later flourished and opened many doors.
Sarah Han: The closures that hit home for me were both on Piedmont Avenue: Dopo and Slicer. Dopo was a go-to for years. It seems like not too long ago, but my friends Nathan and Sarah introduced me to the restaurant more than a decade ago, back before I was living in the East Bay again. Dopo became a regular spot for celebratory meals, or sometimes, a random weekday night when my partner and I wanted something we knew would be good, no matter what we ordered. The menu changed regularly, but we always loved the crudo dishes, the pastas and pizzas. Slicer, on the other hand, was a casual spot for reliably good, thin-crust pie. I’d pop in for a slice or two and a soda, after a walk at Mountain View Cemetery, or get a whole pie for home. Fortunately, there are still plenty of other East Bay pizza spots I like, but I do miss Slicer.
Anna Mindess: While it’s not in the East Bay, the heartbreaking Bay Area closure for me and many others was Mozzeria, the Neapolitan style pizza restaurant in the Mission and San Francisco’s first Deaf-owned and operated restaurant. This was a double loss for Deaf diners, not just for their crusty pizzas, but for the singular Deaf-friendly space they created.
Jill Kunishima: I didn’t go a lot, but 4505 Burgers & BBQ was down the street from my house, and I was sad to hear of its closure. It took so long for them to open up, and then a year later, they were done. What a bummer.
What did you learn about food, drinks or cooking in 2020?
Sarah Han: I’ve gotten pretty good at cooking on the fly. These days, what’s already in the fridge and pantry determines what’s on the menu for the day. Sometimes, I’ll cobble together random leftovers into a meal, but there have been times I’ve made some pretty fantastic dinners using just a few fresh vegetables, herbs, spices and random condiments lurking in my fridge. Another new thing for me: YouTube is my new favorite cooking channel. I love Sohla El-Waylly‘s friendly energy and enthusiasm and I always learn something from Kenji López-Alt.
Momo Chang: In the early months of the pandemic, I cooked every meal, which was pretty exhausting combined with the kids suddenly at home distance learning and also working from home. But looking back, some parts were pretty fun. In addition to eating a lot of wontons, dumplings, and finally using my slow cooker more often, I learned to make a lot of dishes based on Tik Tok and YouTube trends with my kids like Korean hotdogs, cloud bread, cheesy corn and Dole Whip. Cooking at home also made me appreciate the quality of food and choices we have here in the Bay Area, from fresh seafood or CSA boxes delivered to our doorsteps, to all the wonderful local restaurants and bakeries we have. I can say also say now, I feel a lot more confident in my baking and cooking skills. The biggest achievement was making some red bean and pineapple buns, which I delivered to my grandparents.
Joanna Della Penna: We really appreciate produce boxes, and any business supplying them in the pandemic. Anything to simplify putting nutritious food on the table without grocery store lines.
Cirrus Wood: Rather than do a once a week shopping trip to a store, I switched to hitting up the three Berkeley farmers markets for my kitchen needs. I only went to grocery stores for the least perishable items on my list, like toothpaste, detergent and toilet paper. For everything else, I went to farmers markets. I felt safer in the open air, and better about where my money was going. And since restaurants were off-limits and with a stimulus check in hand, it felt like a more excusable indulgence in a year when everyone’s budget is tight.
Daphne White: I did more cooking early in the pandemic than I have ever done in my life. One of the joys was realizing that I could create dishes loaded with my favorite ingredients, in the exact and generous proportions I wanted (something that almost never happened in restaurants): avocado, goat cheese, green olives, crab, etc. When we started to order more takeout food, I started adding those ingredients to the prepared meals and customizing them to my taste. As we start eating out again, I will miss that level of personalization. All that said — we can’t wait to sit down at an indoor restaurant again, even though I will have less control over the menu.
Ricky Rodas: I learned how to make salpicon, one of my favorite Salvadoran dishes. It’s diced stewed beef that is cooled and served with chopped cabbage, mint and lots of lime. I was missing home and I asked my mom for the recipe. In true immigrant mom fashion, she told me the ingredients and provided no measurements. I am proud to say I nailed it on the first go.
Natalie Orenstein: I got into a habit of borrowing cookbooks (curbside pickup and e-books) from the public library. It’s a great way to “travel” to Oaxaca or Japan for a few weeks during lockdown. Unfortunately the kvass I made from “Kachka,” the Russian cookbook by Bonnie Frumkin Morales, worked so well that a jar of it exploded inside my fridge.
Anna Mindess: My favorite cooking experience, which I assume would not have happened without COVID, was a private, online cooking class I took with the chef at La Maison Arabe, an elegant hotel in Marrakesh, Morocco.
Doug Ng: We bought an Instant Pot, and my partner who hardly ever cooked has now cooked many meals, mainly from the “Indian Instant Pot Cookbook.” My favorite so far has been the Palak Paneer which is the easiest recipe he’s made.
Colleen Leary: Cooking can be fun… I know, I know, I’m late to the party! We’ve tested out tons of new cuisines, recipes and foods. Patience is key, and the crockpot really can do wonders.
Jacob Simas: My wife and learned how to make cioppino together. We made it for a socially distanced backyard visit with some friends who came over one recent afternoon. We were inspired to do it after trying some amazing cioppino just prior to the pandemic at a Fisherman’s Wharf spot (surprisingly good!) in SF. It turned out great and our friends loved it.
Supriya Yelimeli: I learned that I do not like to cook alone! But I do like to eat, and one day, those two qualities will meet each other in the middle. On that day, I’ll walk into Berkeley Bowl with a dream, and a plan, and not be intimidated at all by the produce section or the people who shop there.
Tracey Taylor: I definitely became a better cook during lockdown. The New York Times‘s “What to Cook This Week” guides yielded a whole crop of new recipes now on rotation in my kitchen. I especially like the “One-Pot Wonders” for how easy and versatile they are.
Risa Nye: We have shelves full of cookbooks, but the weekly New York Times Home section has inspired me to try several new recipes. And since we can’t travel anywhere, I’m enjoying “Somebody Feed Phil,” which is an entertaining mashup of travel and food.
Amalya Dubrovsky: I get my daily dose of escapism watching Elizabeth Minchili (@eminchilli) and Sophie Minchili (@sminchilli) on Instagram! The mother-daughter duo live in Rome and Umbria in Italy where, under normal circumstances, they lead food tours. Since the pandemic, they’ve shared dozens if not hundreds of videos of themselves preparing all kinds of Italian dishes in their kitchen as well as the gorgeous landscapes and quirky locals that animate their enviable lives. Check out Elizabeth’s trick to make a super creamy cacio e pepe.
Moriah Van Vleet: I started a small garden (a learning experience in itself!) and fell in love with homegrown carrots and bell peppers. Whether or not my veggies were an ingredient, homemade hot lunches with my husband became a luxurious and appreciated weekday ritual.
Kristina Sepetys: After their drive-through high school graduation, my son and his girlfriend, guided by YouTube, dug up our backyard and planted a big garden. On Fridays, we’d harvest whatever was ripe: curly greens, stripe-y Berkeley Tie-Dye tomatoes, shiny fava beans, spicy red peppers, aromatic herbs, misshapen carrots. I’d cook up the bounty and we’d gather together outside for lunch. Although I groused at the idea of the project at the outset (“Mud! Dirt in the house! Big mess!”) sharing what turned out to be a wondrous, entertaining adventure of discovery and growth during a time that otherwise felt scary, sad and unproductive, has been a gift.