“I didn’t go in there for a lesson, but I sure got one,” said Verna McGowan, reflecting on her tenure as personal chef to Pulitzer Prize-winning author and former Berkeley staple, Alice Walker, who taught the chef about cautiousness and care when it comes to sourcing ingredients. “She’s an incredible human being to think of all of those things, from selecting where your oils come from to the humane treatment of the farmers picking your produce.” McGowan will apply those learnings at her new restaurant, Calypso Rose Kitchen, which will open in Emeryville this summer.
McGowan’s time working for The Color Purple scribe helped further shape McGowan’s gastronomic point of view, which began as a child in New York City. Growing up, she was fed a melange of Caribbean and Southern U.S. flavors.
“I come from a family made up not only of the Caribbean, from my mother’s side, but a family that taught me everything from the best of Southern, Mexican, and South American cooking, just to name a few,” she said with a still-perceptible Brooklyn accent.
McGowan’s culinary career trajectory isn’t typical by any means: Before honing her craft at the California Culinary Academy and Le Cordon Bleu San Francisco, she completed a degree at the Fashion Institute of Technology. After graduating from FIT, she worked as a regional sales representative at Levi Strauss, with territories in Iowa and Illinois. After moving to the Golden State, McGowan obtained yet another degree, this time at San Francisco State University where she received clinical psychology training to counsel disturbed and at-risk children. “I wanted a job that dealt with compassion and humanity,” she says.
From there she caught the big food wave of the early aughts, driven by telegenic chefs like Emeril Lagasse, and decided to shift gears into the culinary arts. “What can I say? I have a long, long history and I’ve reinvented myself 1,000 times,” she said.
Her decision to switch careers into the food world proved to be her smartest move yet: Shortly after earning her stripes at spots like the restaurant at the Claremont Club and Spa, she received a call one day from author Alice Walker’s personal assistant.
“When her assistant rang me and told me who she was calling for, I didn’t believe it. I really didn’t believe it,” McGowan said. “While I knew she was a remarkable writer, after working with her for years, I had no idea how much she would’ve contributed to the way I now think about food.”
For Walker, as McGowan described it, the idea of having deeply flavorful organic food wasn’t the author’s fundamental concern. Instead she wanted to know the treatment of the workers who made and produced her food. Did the farms treat their workers fairly? Were they given humane hours wherein they could take proper breaks and time off? Are the female workers safe? Walker, a former Berkeley resident, is as well known for her civil rights activism as for her authorship of books like The Color Purple and The Temple of My Familiar. In recent years, she’s also been the source of significant controversy as her criticisms of Israel have verged into anti-Semitism, and she was recently disinvited from the Bay Area Book Festival for praising and defending a book written by a well known conspiracy theorist.
“Alice made a remarkable difference on how I shop,” McGowan says. “I use a lot of goods from local farmers, from produce to eggs and more. I want to know if animals and people are treated humanely, how people utilize their soil — this knowledge I learned was from working with her over the years.”
“She was an incredible teacher,” she adds.
Come early summer, the native New Yorker will bring her Caribbean-inspired fare to Emeryville’s Public Market. Among the highlights on Calypso Rose Kitchen’s inaugural menu include a black bean soup crowned with fried green plantains; butter-topped grilled spiced salmon; and crispy pineapple-garlic chicken wings.
McGowan also promises a Guyanese-inspired oxtail stew and a couple of curries. “There’s a big difference between Indian curries and Caribbean curries,” McGowan said. “The difference is there’s a lot more turmeric in Caribbean curries than your traditional Indian curry,” as well as coriander, allspice, garlic and healthy amounts of cayenne pepper.
While diners can enjoy Calypso Rose Kitchen while seated inside the food hall, the menu is also available to go.“It was particularly important for me to make these dishes where they could be picked up and delivered without taste or integrity being compromised,” McGowan said.
And then there’s the restaurant’s name. Christened after Trinidadian singer McCartha Monica Sandy-Lewis’ longstanding nickname, it reflects not only McGowan’s love of her groove but also honors the 81-year-old singer’s lyrics addressing racism and sexism.
“I’ve actually always been very fond of Calypso music,” McGowan said., “In addition to her music and beats, I love her politics and forward thinking that raises consciousness, which is also very important to me.”