Tribune’s Omri Aflalo didn’t care about food until he went to art school

With one project on pause, the fine-dining veteran is putting his all into his new “Oakland meets Parisian” restaurant.

Tribune executive chef Omri Aflalo. Credit: Adahlia Cole

Tribune
401 13th St. (between Broadway and Franklin Street), Oakland

When he was younger, Omri Aflalo, the executive chef of Oakland fine dining restaurant Tribune, didn’t care much about food. “I was too immersed in skateboarding and surfing and being a kid,” he said of his early years, which were spent in Southern California.

This remained true in his early teens, when his family moved to the Bay Area. While in high school, he got his first job at Oakland’s Autumn Moon Café, where chef Kerry Heffernan, a Chez Panisse alum, took him under her wing and mentored him until he went from dishwasher to prep cook to an omelet cook. Despite his progress through the kitchen ranks, it was just a means to a paycheck.

From there, he moved to Obelisque, another Oakland restaurant, where “I learned what a gastrique is, and how to do duck confit,” he told Nosh. But even then, he still didn’t care about food, even as he enjoyed elaborate Moroccan family dinners, with tagines and couscous, while visiting his father’s side of the family.

A few restaurant gigs after that, as Aflalo’s friends started leaving Oakland to attend college, a mentor told him, “Omri, you’re out of high school and clearly, you can cook, but you don’t care. What are you doing with yourself? You need to figure it out.”

So Aflalo, who was interested in film and photography, enrolled at the San Francisco Art Institute. He lasted one semester, and started to realize that maybe, just maybe, he cared about food after all.

“I needed that hands-on experience that cooking gives you,” he said. “Seeing someone eat it is immediate gratification. I realized that cooking is it.” Since then, he attended the Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park, New York, staged in France and worked at spots in Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles before heading back to the Bay Area.

In recent years, Aflalo worked in San Francisco fine-dining restaurants including Wayfare Tavern, Bourbon Steak and Mourad. By the end of 2019, Aflalo was working on opening a new fine-dining restaurant called Town Revival with partners John Cahill and Darrin Ballon, a “high-touch hospitality” spot in downtown Oakland with wood-fired entrees and classic cocktails.

But the pandemic snarled those plans, Aflalo said. “We were going to finish our fundraising and start putting ourselves on payroll and go into construction, and that all went down the tubes.” (When asked what the status is of Town Revival, and whether he foresees it still happening, Aflalo said, “We’ll hopefully open that restaurant if I’m still alive after this one.”)

Doug Abrams, the owner of the 1500 Broadway building Town Revival had hoped to open in, had purchased the Tribune building in early 2019. Its ground floor has been vacant since September 2020, when then-tenant Tribune Tavern shuttered after a dispute with Abrams over pandemic-era lease negotiations. Abrams asked Aflalo, Ballon and Cahill if they would want to re-open Tribune instead. While Cahill declined, Aflalo and Ballon — who has worked at Gary Danko, State Bird Provisions and The Progress — agreed, with Ballon acting as general manager of Tribune, an American brasserie that opened in downtown Oakland’s historic Tribune building in August.

Aflalo, who leads Tribune’s kitchen, says that the goal is to create an Oakland version of the New York standbys like Balthazar or Minetta Tavern, with “a French-style menu that’s brasserie-esque but the food has that Oakland-meets-Parisian-spot feel.”

“You’ve got your almondine sauce, you’ve got a burger, and you’ve got a steak au poivre. I didn’t want to do steak frites, as that would be too kitchy,” Aflalo said.

As Tribune adds workers to its kitchen, he’d like to add things like fresh seafood platters and expand the menu. But in today’s rapidly changing restaurant landscape, Aflalo is doing his best to adapt day by day. “We took over an existing restaurant, and revamped it,” he said, “and are working within the confines of what was here and what we can use.”

That means a menu with starters like beef tartare with fine wisps of cured egg yolk and a caper emulsion on top, cavatelli with wild mushrooms and hazelnuts, and a tomato, melon and burrata salad with cilantro oil. Entrees include items like a half chicken with watercress salad, and steak with a green peppercorn sauce and charred cabbage.

Everything possible is sourced from local farms to maximize “showcasing the product,” Aflalo said, an expression of the Tribune team’s pride in the region.

“As a chef in Northern California,” Aflalo said, “if you call yourself a chef, are owning or operating a restaurant and if you’re not using sustainable produce and proteins from local farms, to me, you’re not a chef.”

Alix Wall has lived in Oakland since 2002, with some summers spent in Berkeley as a child, and has written for Berkeleyside since 2013. She writes mostly about food.