On Sunday, Feb. 4, chefs from across the country will take part in the James Beard Foundation culinary event, Taste America. Twenty chefs will work in pairs to create dishes at the Four Seasons Hotel in San Francisco. Earlier this month Nelson German, the chef and owner of Sobre Mesa and alaMar Dominican Kitchen, told me that he didn’t yet know who he was going to be paired with but he knows many of the participating chefs, including Matt Horn from Horn Barbecue and Crystal Wahpepah from Wahpepah’s Kitchen.
German said that he and many of the chefs participating in Taste America learned and implemented French techniques at the start of their careers, but have since made a transition. “The cool thing about what chefs are doing now is we’re cooking and elevating the food we grew up with,” he said. “A lot of us are making food that makes us happy, and we’re connecting more with our guests.”
After making his reputation with alaMar in Oakland, the Top Chef alum recently reopened the restaurant with a revised menu focusing on his Dominican roots. “The James Beard Foundation has been a big inspiration for me and other chefs to not hold back,” he said. “For me personally as a chef, from being hesitant to make Dominican food to now embracing and being proud of it, this event is going to showcase all these chefs doing what we were meant to do.”
In the first iteration of alaMar, German served a full Dominican brunch once a month. “We used to do Bachata brunches, which had a semi-party atmosphere,” he said. “I started realizing that there’s a growing community of Dominicans and Afro-Latinos out here. I didn’t feel as alone as I did before.” But it took the chef a few years before he was ready to change the menu to reflect more of his cultural heritage.
The most popular dish on alaMar’s new menu is German’s fried goat. “I remember growing up and having this dish as a kid,” he said. “That was the first thing I thought about when we switched to a full Dominican menu.” The goat is slowly braised with cilantro, oregano, garlic, red onion and olives, for their acidity. It’s braised for over three hours.
Dominican food regularly features a combination of rice, beans and plantains. “For Mexican culture, there’s always tortillas when they’re eating rice and refried beans. For us, it’s green and ripe plantains,” German said.
Sobre Mesa, his second bar and restaurant concept, showcases West African influences, another part of his personal ancestry. After Sobre Mesa was established, around the ninth anniversary of alaMar, the chef and his team then decided to refresh the restaurant.
“We became the oldest restaurant in the neighborhood since Luka’s Taproom closed,” he said. Even though German appreciated his Dominican roots, he hesitated to bring the food to the forefront of his restaurant because, “People did not know what Dominican culture was, right? They only knew us for baseball and merengue. We’re all over the place on the East Coast. Not so much here.” But over time, diners have become more familiar with the cuisine, and they’ve embraced it.
When German and I spoke, he mentioned that Calavera, another nearby restaurant, had recently closed after being in business for nearly a decade. The chef acknowledged the difficulties of running a restaurant in Oakland. “It’s definitely been way more challenging than it ever was in the past,” he said. One challenge is the decreasing foot traffic. Another is a feeling of safety.
“We were so proud to finally hit nine years and do this big concept and to be ready for an amazing time, and business has been pretty stagnant,” German said, trying to retain a sense of optimism. He and many of the people who run businesses alongside him in the neighborhood are speaking to city leaders and the mayor to see what they can do to help, but he feels that not much has been done.
With the arrival of the new year, the chef believes there’s a renewed sense of hope that things will get better. “Nigel Jones, who’s a chef and owner of Kingston 11, he’s been holding meetings at his restaurants with city leaders,” German said. “Everyone understands what’s going on and how things need to change, but I don’t know how long it would take to change. There were so many new restaurants, and, sadly, many of them have closed down around us.”
Taste America takes place on Sunday, Feb. 4, at 5:30pm at the Four Seasons Hotel San Francisco.
alaMar Dominican Kitchen, open Wed to Sun, 5-10pm; 100 Grand Ave. #111, Oakland. 510.907.7555. alamaroakland.com.