When we think of heritage, we typically think of what we’ve already inherited, not necessarily what we plan to inherit. But Joseph Paire, the executive chef at Berkeley’s Claremont Club & Spa, is looking in both directions, taking pieces from his past and what he hopes for his future, working on what he hopes will be his legacy. 

“I can give you a classic beignet with a bunch of powdered sugar,” Paire said. “This goes to my Southern roots, it goes through my family’s travels from their slave journey through New Orleans through the Bible belt up to D.C. I can give you that story.”

“But I also love caviar, which is very California-esque but I love it.”

Paire came to the Claremont, and its popular-with-locals restaurant Limewood, after two decades spent at kitchens on the East Coast and in the South. When he arrived in 2020, right before the pandemic shut everything down, he came as Limewood’s executive chef; last July he was promoted to oversee all the drinking and dining operations across the resort, from its counter-service cafe to its catering business.

Updating Limewood’s menu, which had changed little since it opened in 2016, was the top of his priority list. As many of its diners aren’t hotel guests or club members, Paire said that Limewood offered an opportunity to move beyond traditional hotel fare, creating an efficient menu that balances simplicity and familiarity.

Previous menu items like a substantial sheep’s milk ricotta agnolotti have since been swapped with lighter pasta dishes like bucatini with bitter greens. That might sound like a minor change, but when we’re talking about a restaurant that’s intended to offer a fine dining experience, tweaks like that can often mean changing the culture of a restaurant.

“You want people to feel comfortable,” said Paire, explaining that the menu for Limewood stays very simple for breakfast as well, forgoing Benedicts or chicken and waffles. “We do a pate, which is slightly different, because I like to spice things up just a touch.”

Paire says the team at Limewood, many of whom have years of experience that surpass his own, made shifting gears less of a struggle than it might have been. It’s a close-knit staff that he feels comfortable delegating to, which allows him to plan special events, like an ongoing series of Heritage Dinner events intended to highlight — and push the boundaries of — Black American cooking.

The five-course menu for the first Heritage Dinner, which was held earlier this month in collaboration with celebrity chef Richard Ingraham, wasn’t traditional by Black American soul food definitions. That said, there were elements of familiarity in dishes like braised collard green dolmas, wrapped around Northern Carolina style Hoppin’ John with a curry espuma.

Paire says that the words “soul food” evokes an idea that could stand to be rewritten. “There are very few chefs that push that narrative to say this is very much our cuisine,” Paire said. “I’m bringing ingredients that are indicative to my heritage, presenting to you in a different way. So you have that familiar bite like ‘oh yeah I see where you going’.”

collard green dolma
Braised collard green dolma with Hoppin’ John. Credit: Brandy Collins

The Heritage Dinner series isn’t the first time Paire shook things up at the Claremont. Back in 2021, he created the resort’s Enlightened Dinner Series, which married a fine dining menu to cannabis. As one might with wine, strains of cannabis were paired with dishes like hemp honey gougeres or a salad of citrus lace, spigarello kale, Napa cabbage, crispy sprouts and herb goddess dressing.

Working with Colorado-based company Cultivating Spirits, but using California grown products, the meals were offered for takeout at Limewood, along with a lesson on cannabis history.  

“We also talk about the social injustice that comes along with cannabis and the luxuries that we have in California, that other people on the other side of the country, primarily the South [do not],” said Paire. No cannabis was infused into the food, Paire hastened to add, citing the strict measurements chefs must make when serving food that contains the substance. “You don’t know how people respond to cannabis,” said Paire.

East Bay residents should watch for more special events like these dinners at Limewood over the course of the year, Paire said. It’s an opportunity he doesn’t take lightly.

“I’m in a position to say ‘let’s work with this chef, let’s fly them in,’” Paire said. One such example is Ingraham, his collaborator at the February dinner. For the last 12 years, Ingraham has been the personal chef to NBA star Dwyane Wade and his wife, actress Gabrielle Union-Wade, and was part of the former First Lady Michelle Obama’s Move 2 Schools White House Initiative to encourage healthier eating habits. He’s also an entrepreneur, an author…and is Paire’s cousin by marriage.

“That’s family — that’s part of the heritage,” Paire said. Next up could be other members of Paire’s inner circle, such as friends from New York and Los Angeles. Closer to home, Paire said that there are a number of East Bay food figures he’d also love to collaborate with. His dream team includes Hi Felicia founder Imana, Horn Barbecue pit master Matt Horn and Top Chef star Nelson German, who owns Oakland’s Alamar and Sobre Mesa restaurants.

“I’ve got a platform that I can be able to bring and put a spotlight on other chefs,” Paire said. “Absolutely, I’ll do it.”

Brandy Collins is a freelance writer and public services advocate, born and raised in the Bay Area. She is a 2019-20 cohort graduate from the Maynard Institute for Journalism, a correspondent for Oakland...