Be Our Guest Chef

An experiment struggles to take off, and an activist fights for workers' rights.

Scott Cameron, a real estate developer with no restaurant experience, is conducting a business experiment: for two-week periods, he loans out a Rockridge commercial kitchen and dining area to different chefs. Cameron takes home profits from beer and wine sales, as well as a portion of each chef’s gross.

The opening weeks of his venture, known as Guest Chef (5337 College Ave., Oakland; 510-658-7378), have seen a revolving parade of personalities in the kitchen: the Oakland Fire Department, a Mexican grandmother who never cooked outside of her home, and an outspoken advocate of the Slow Food movement.

The novelty-hungry dining public loves places like this (at least in theory), and Guest Chef has garnered much food-blog support since opening in early November. But as the initial hype dies down, Cameron is discovering some issues with the model.

I stopped by Sunday to check out the space, meeting Cameron and his kitchen consultant and friend, Mark Valentine, for lunch. Current guest chef Vera Ciammetti is a well-seasoned Italian cook with experience as a cooking instructor, menu developer, and volunteer coordinator at Slow Food San Francisco. But for almost two hours on Sunday, smack in the heart of lunch hour, I was the only customer.

On the first weekend Guest Chef opened for dinner-only service, the tiny space was packed from start to finish. Cameron said the kitchen team, a small crew of firehouse cooks from the Oakland FD, stacked the house with customers of their own ilk. “It was a charity event for the fire department, and we had wall-to-wall firefighters and EMTs,” he said. The chefs, who already had experience feeding large numbers of hungry colleagues, had no problem keeping up with demand.

The next guest chef, home cook Eva Santillanes, didn’t fare quite as well. At her first meal service, she was quickly overwhelmed by the large group of curiosity seekers who had heard some Guest Chef buzz on the food blogosphere. Luckily, Valentine, formerly a chef at Bucci’s in Emeryville, was able to help her smooth out the wrinkles. By the second day, Santillanes was much better equipped to handle customer ebbs and flows.

It turned out the ebbs would be far more prominent. After an initial tsunami of customers, Santillanes’ next two weeks were fairly quiet, according to Cameron. As a home cook, she lacked the public profile to help fill Guest Chef with customers.

Culinary followings can take months and years to cultivate, certainly longer than the two-week stints available at Guest Chef. I heard two women with strollers discussing its concept while walking down College Avenue. “Cool idea, but how do you know the cook is any good?” asked one. This may be the essential problem.

The solution, according to Cameron, is to take on guest chefs who already have a strong following and social-media presence. Chef Ciammetti has many friends and colleagues in the Bay Area food community. Still, she said business thus far has been “very disappointing,” with most customers being people she already knew. “What can you do?” she frowned.

The next guest chef will be Shellie Kitchen of the San Francisco-based food truck Brass Knuckle. She is eager to make the leap from mobile food to brick and mortar, and Guest Chef is a perfect transitional step. Kitchen has a significant fan base from appearances at Off the Grid and elsewhere, so Cameron hopes she’ll draw in enough crowds to make Guest Chef profitable (for her and for him). Time will tell.

A Voice for Oakland’s Restaurant Workers

History shows us that social justice movements often start with one agitator for change. For restaurant workers in Oakland, Katie Lefkowitz may just be that firebrand.

Lefkowitz has worked in the East Bay restaurant industry for the last five years. From the beginning, she saw an unusual disconnect: While much attention is paid to the welfare of animals served in farm-to-table establishments, no one seems to pay much mind to the workers. “We’ve got no benefits, no job security,” she said. “Who’s looking out for us?”

While she admits that Oakland’s working conditions are no worse than in much of the country, Lefkowitz gazes longingly across the bay. In 2007 San Francisco implemented some of the most progressive laws for restaurant workers in the country. First and foremost, its minimum wage is the highest in the nation (nearly $10 an hour), and restaurant owners are not allowed to pay less than other employers just because of tips.

Additionally, SF restaurant workers are given mandatory sick leave, and employers are required to provide health insurance directly or through contributions to the city’s universal health care plan, Healthy SF. Lefkowitz, who has spent time organizing unions and assisting San Francisco’s Young Workers United, feels the East Bay’s progressive backbone could be very receptive to reforms like San Francisco’s.

Her plans are still in the formative stages, but the next step is to draft a rough working proposal and enlist the help of an Oakland City Council member. Lefkowitz is also seeking broader support and can be reached at katesonia at gmail dot com.

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