sf|noir Offers a Taste of Bay Area Soul

February 19, 2016

This year sf|noir celebrates 15 years of honoring African American theater, dance, film, music, and food in the Bay Area. Coinciding with Black History Month, the organization’s Wine & Food Festival highlights chefs who are putting their own Bay Area spin on Black and Southern inspired cuisine.

“Twenty years ago when I moved to San Francisco, the Black population in San Francisco was around 12 percent. Today it’s less than 4%,” says sf|noir Executive Director Hervé Ernest. “We wanted to ensure that—even with the continued exodus of Black creative and intellectual capital from San Francisco—the city wouldn’t find itself devoid of an institution representing rich and dynamic Black arts and culture.”

As many chefs are moving across the Bay, contributing to Oakland’s restaurant renaissance, sf|noir’s mission remains rooted in San Francisco. “San Franciscans have always welcomed opportunities to learn about different cultures, and that was one of the things that propelled sf|noir to launch and continue,” says Ernest.

This year’s Wine & Food Festival (February 26-28) highlights talent from both sides of the Bay through cooking demos, wine tastings, and other culinary experiences. We spoke with a few of the chefs and restaurateurs for a sneak peek.

Michele Wilson, Gussie’s Southern Table & Bar

Michele Wilson remembers wanting to be a chef since she was a young girl growing up in New Jersey. “I grew up with my grandmother and mother cooking every day,” she recalls. “As we got older, my sisters and I each had to cook a meal one day a week. All of my cooking traditions, and all the joy it brings me to cook for people, come from my family upbringing.”

As she got older, her path led her to pursue a business degree, but she eventually found her way back to food, running a Northern California franchise of Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles with her husband at the time.

After the divorce, she set out on her own and opened Gussie’s Chicken and Waffles (named after her grandmother) in San Francisco in 2009. The restaurant closed in 2014 following a flood, but Wilson sees the turn of events as a blessing in disguise. Later this year, Gussie’s will be reborn as Gussie’s Southern Table & Bar in Oakland, just steps away from the grand Paramount Theatre. “It’s a great time to be in Oakland, with so many culinary ventures opening,” says Wilson.

While her cuisine is steeped in soul food traditions, she’s infused her own flair in items like her sweet potato waffles and made-from-scratch brown sugar syrup. “We used to buy our syrup, and I just didn’t like that it had corn syrup and extra additives,” she says. “I think the new generation has found ways to have those dishes be as wonderful as they’ve always been and make them healthier without losing any flavor.”

“The luxury of being in the Bay Area is the access we have to local farmers, and fresh local ingredients,” she continues. “It really helps to feed your inspiration.”

sf|noir highlight: In the Kitchen Dining Experience on February 26.

Nelson German, alaMar Kitchen & Bar

Born and raised in New York City, chef Nelson German embraces diverse influences from his Dominican family roots to his travels around the world, from Asia to the Mediterranean.

After training in New York for close to a decade, German and his wife moved to the Bay Area six years ago, and he quickly soaked up the California food culture working in kitchens in San Francisco and Oakland. He opened alaMar Kitchen & Bar in Uptown Oakland just under two years ago to rave reviews, including recommendations from the Michelin Guide and Zagat. “alaMar is not pretentious,” insists German. “It’s about having fun, laughing, not being on your phone all the time. We also have a lot of things you can eat with your hands.”

While African American and Latin styles permeate his cooking, “It’s not a cuisine per se,” says German. “It’s more my art and my story: from what my mom cooked when I was young to the things I learned from other great chefs to dishes inspired by my travels.”

Moving to California has helped German hone his craft and embrace seasonality. While certain dishes, like the peel-and-eat shrimp, remain staples on alaMar’s menu, the vegetables are in constant rotation. His signature braised oxtails, based on his mother’s recipe, get refreshed seasonally, served with potatoes and corn in the summer and butternut squash and parsnips in the winter.

“In New York, it’s all about the technique. Out West, it’s more about the ingredients,” says German. “What I learned here is that the veggies on the dish are very important. It’s not just about the sauce and protein.”

sf|noir highlight: Market to Table Cooking Demo at CUESA’s Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on February 27.

Steven Day and Romney Steele, The Cook and Her Farmer

Steven Day and Romney Steele’s path to becoming restaurant owners was anything but straight. An underwater crime scene investigator/school teacher and the granddaughter of Big Sur’s famed Nepenthe restaurant respectively, the two friends became accidental oyster farmers when they were invited to be part of a communal oyster farm in Tomales Bay.

That project has since dissolved, but Romney and Steven’s partnership continued. In 2014 they opened The Cook and Her Farmer in the Swan’s Market in Oakland, part of the new wave of local businesses that has transformed the historic marketplace into a thriving food court. They now source their oysters from Tomales Bay Oyster Company.

“Farm-to-table is our focus, while we blend both of our cultural sensibilities,” says Day. The restaurant’s oyster and catfish po’ boys reflect Day’s Southern heritage, while homemade cornmeal scones, arugula salads, and toasted quinoa showcase Steele’s Central Coast upbringing. “I wanted to make sure we had fresh, hand-squeezed lemonade in a glass jar on the counter every day, because that’s what you’re used to seeing down in Memphis,” Steven adds.

While Steele oversees much of the menu, Day manages other behind-the-scenes logistics and community partnerships. In addition to sourcing from the Old Oakland Farmers Market right outside the restaurant’s door, Day brings in produce from a couple local youth urban farm projects that he also helps out at, including WOW Farm and Acta Non Verba. “Romney and I share a lot of the same values in terms of community, so we like to support local farms,” says Day. “It feels spot-on with the mission that we created for ourselves.”

sf|noir highlight: The Oakland Jazz Brunch on February 28.

Join CUESA on Saturday, February 27, for two sf|noir cooking demos, featuring Jay Foster of Farmerbrown and Nelson German of alaMar.

Photos provided by the chefs.