Saturday, June 9, 2012

GREAT FOOD AND HIGH PURPOSE: Culinary Clash in the Kitchen@812

Pantry donated by
US Foods

There is nothing quite as inspiring as people coming together to work hard for a good cause.  The Kitchen@812 in Pinole is just such an inspiration.  In a climate where America’s blue collar workers have been abandoned by the collective psyche of this country in favor of worshiping at the altar of corporate greed and a fast buck, it’s nice to find people who are focused on something other than themselves.

A project of the Business Development Council (BDC) the Kitchen@812 is “a nonprofit food business incubator, enabl[ing] local entrepreneurs to turn their passions into profit by helping them launch and develop their food ventures.  This shared-used commercial kitchen also serves as a place where small business owners can learn more about the technical aspects of food production and receive individualized business assistance.”

Chef Ian Marks (left) and
 Ismael Macias (right)
These days everybody is a “foodie.”  We all have to eat, and finding the joy in the basics of life is an obvious “go-to” when money is tight and people find themselves having to cut back on other indulgences.  But food can sustain us in more ways than just giving us pleasure in the consuming of it.  It can bring people together.  It can energize a whole community to help others feed themselves, while also feeding that part of us that is alone by our very nature.  That part of us that comes together around the table to seek companionship, conversation and yes, that perfect bite of food to experience — together.  An outreach program designed to tap into this and help those who have chosen the culinary industry as a means of self-support seems to me to be very “Circle of Life.”  Helping those who want to feed others, in order that they in turn might feed their own families, all coming together to form a perfect circle, in a beautifully symbiotic and productive manifestation of the best of the human condition.  There’s something truly remarkable about this effort that deserves our support.  After all, whether we like it or not, we are all ultimately part of the food chain, and thus, all part of the community of food.
Father-Daughter Team
Adriana Lopez-Vermut
& Leopoldo Lopez
of Pica Pica

The event I attended in May was the Kitchen@812’s first “Culinary Clash.”   A dramatic “Iron Chef meets Top Chef” style battle that was hosted by BDC and several like-minded corporate sponses, it was a fundraiser for the organization’s scholarships.  These scholarships provide kitchen-time in their fully-equipped industrial facility to qualified applicants at no cost, as a way to get them up and running in their chosen field of culinary dreams.  Simultaneously, business experts and those currently engaged in the profession offer counseling and guidance to give the fledgling Chefs a solid base on which to begin his or her food-based enterprise.  Any funds not needed for such scholarships will go towards more equipment and supplies.  As a note of encouragement to any of my food-related readers who might have sources for donations of first rate (unused or “as new”) kitchen equipment,  please contact them at the number(s) below.  Pay it forward people.

Ian Marks of Beast & Hare's Entry
(the onion puree was to die for)
My experience as a judge at this event was a highlight of my career as a journalistic-observer who has become joyfully infatuated with this industry. Ordinarily, my comments are directed at established restauranteurs.  I share the pleasures I find at the tables of some of the world’s greatest cooks with my readers, in order that they, too, might partake of the best of the best.  On this occasion that remained true, the Chefs who had donated their time and talents to promote this event were all established and gifted.  Their edible offerings remarkable down to the last bite.  Above and beyond my being thrilled to consume and attempt to quantify their relative successes during the contest itself, I was also struck by their generosity with one another.  My deepest impression is that in the chef community, there is a camaraderie and brotherhood not always seen in other industries.  Yes, these men and women had come to be judged and to promote their own restaurants.  But they had also come to share their gifts not merely to inspire others to join them, but to actually help make that possible.  They gave freely of their cumulative knowledge and skills to allow struggling newcomers, people they may never even meet,  a fair shot at the opportunities they themselves have experienced at the hands of the “food gods.”  During the competition itself, they were among the classiest competitors I have ever seen, generously offering each other ingredients or pointing out the locations of equipment without any thought of giving up a competitive edge.

Steak carpaccio over a bed
of zucchini "pasta", topped with jelly
bean "gelee" from Lark Creek's Macias
This generosity of spirit is a universal mantra in the food industry.  Chefs often refer to one another as “brother” (a term that seems to be universally applied to all, regardless of gender).  It reinforces that sense of family, like the "family meals" shared at various restaurants all around the country.  Before a service begins, the kitchen comes together.  Each member contributes to this family table.  A sous chef might bring dessert, a pastry chef might whip up a simple treat of fish or chicken.  It is about breaking bread and reinforcing that sense of kitchen community that for me, is at the heart which is at the root of good food.  Food is love, yes, but food is also family.

That spirit was exemplified by the four chefs who volunteered to compete in the event.  Patrick Robertson of Pappas Restaurant in Benicia,  Ismael Macias of Lark Creek Steak in San Francisco, Adriana Lopez-Vermut (ably assisted by her father, Leopoldo Lopez) of Pica Pica Maize Kitchen in San Francisco and Ian Marks of Beast and The Hare in San Francisco.  In my book, every one of them a winner.

Fresh Strawberries over a jelly bean glaze
and oven fried kale from Pica Pica's
Team Lopez
The Chef who took home the prized “rolling pin award” was Chef Robertson from Pappas Restaurant in Benicia. Recently seen on the Food Channel’s “Restaurant Impossible”  Chef Robertson reports that Pappas has indeed turned around and is again prospering.  Chef Patrick used the “mystery ingredient” of green-apple jelly beans (provided by Jelly Bellies, a sponsor of the event) in a delicious Asian salsa over the mandatory protein, a beautiful slab of hangar steak that each Chef had been challenged with reinventing for the evening’s competition.  The rest of his team was made up of Sous Chef  Ed Sullivan [representing PG&E] and Guest Chef (El Cerrito City Councilwoman) Ann Cheng. Other guest chefs were Pinole City Councilman Roy Swearingen, Richmond City Councilman Corky Boozer (pro: BOO Zay) and Hercules City Councilwoman Myrna de Vera.  Luminaries of this community came out en masse to support this incredibly worth endeavor.

The even was attended by approximately 150 paid guests, all pillars of the community and all delighted with their “small plates” of the evenings entrees at the conclusion of the awards ceremony.  The event managed to raise $25,000 net profit, which will translate into approximately twenty scholarships for worthy applicant-entrepreneurs.  In addition to myself, the event was judged by Genoveva Calloway, Councilmember, City of San Pablo, and John Strohmeier, Contra Costa MarketPlace Magazine.

The winning dish, a perfectly prepared
Hangar steak with a corn salsa flavored
with green-apple jelly beans!
Kitchen@812  is a place where budding chefs from under-served communities, can find a way to turn their talents to profit.  They come here to perfect their product and hone their skills by learning the ins-and-outs of a fully equipped professional kitchen.  Time in this environment is something that can be difficult to come by, and here it can be had at an affordable cost.  For those who qualify for one of their scholarships, it can be had at no cost at all for up to three months.

Like so many parts of the country these days, high levels of unemployment and low household incomes can serve to create a feeling that there is no way out from under.  That nothing can be done to changes one’s circumstances and provide a better life for their children.  Here at the Kitchen@812, with the help and visionary leadership of the BDC,  they have created an entrepreneurial culture to nurture the culinary dreams of those seeking a better life through hard work.  And don’t be fooled by the idea that life in the food industry is an easy one.  One doesn’t just need talent with a spatula or a handful of great family recipes.  This is an industry that requires dedication, drive, and oftentimes an ability to go without sleep or much pay.  The hours are long, and the profit-margins slim.  It is perhaps the riskiest, and at the same time most-fulfilling of industries.  When done correctly, with a proper understanding of the intricacies of the business, it can at the same time be one of the most rewarding enterprises a person can undertake.  And that is exactly what the Kitchen@812 and the BDC want to provide, “access to industry information, business education and support, and an affordable commercial kitchen.”  All the tools necessary to make those culinary dreams a practical reality for deserving entrepreneurs.

The evening's
King of the Kitchen!
Chef Patrick Robertson
of Pappas
Since 1995, the Business Development Center or “BDC” “believes that small businesses are vital to a thriving community. As a nonprofit agency, we are committed to helping entrepreneurs open and operate successful businesses. Our clients, primarily low-income, minority, and women entrepreneurs, benefit from individualized services including business consulting, training, and assistance in securing financing. We believe that by strengthening local businesses, you create job opportunities and empower families – changing lives one business at a time.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.


Project Need
Kitchen@812, the Business Development Center’s newest project, is designed to help individuals attain economic self-sufficiency through entrepreneurship in the food industry.

Working in communities with high levels of unemployment and low household incomes, an entrepreneurial culture of residents seeking economic opportunities for their families has emerged. Oftentimes, many families depend on “informal” ventures or part-time self-employment as a means to supplement their household income. For many, these opportunities are found in the food industry. In order to operate a successful food business and increase their self-sufficiency, aspiring food entrepreneurs need access to industry information, business education and support, and an affordable commercial kitchen – three key ingredients recommended by successful food business incubation programs throughout the country.

Kitchen@812 Components
Desserts courtesy
Cakes by Claudia
Our food industry support programs provide participants with the information and resources necessary to effectively launch a food business through four key components:

Business Incubator: Kitchen@812 is a new shared-use commercial kitchen facility that provides aspiring food entrepreneurs access to cooking equipment, storage space, and culinary training.

Specialty Food Training: The training component covers essential business topics and critical industry information to help participants assess their readiness and commitment to a new food venture.

Individualized Assistance: Through one-on-one services, the BDC helps entrepreneurs launch a formal venture and also facilitates access to new markets and business opportunities.

Scholarship Program: Because start-up capital is a key issue for entrepreneurs, scholarships are provided to a select group of training program graduates that are ready and prepared to launch their businesses.  These entrepreneurs will have access to an average of 3 months of kitchen use as they work to develop their products and customer base.

Project Participants
The BDC targets its services to primarily low-income adults seeking to start or expand their small businesses in Contra Costa County.  In 2011 alone, 87% of the BDC’s clients were minorities, 73% were low-income, and 43% were women.

- Individuals interested in scholarship opportunities should contact Kitchen@812 at 510-327-9466