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.Woo Can Cook Coming Soon to West Oakland

YouTube and pop-up phenom opening its first ever physical location at the Prescott Market Food Hall this spring

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Wesley Woo started to cook during the pandemic because “It was literally illegal for me to do the things that I was doing up until that point,” he said. Before Covid altered his path, Woo had been playing regular gigs in the band Trace Repeat. Traveling from bar to club to bar was no longer an option. Instead of binge-watching Tiger King, Woo, along with friends, began making one-minute cooking videos. They created a Reddit channel—Woo Can Cook—on which to post them.

“We basically pointed the camera at a cutting board while I was making dinner,” Woo said. The videos gained a following, which eventually led to the nearly 14,000 subscribers Woo Can Cook currently has on YouTube. In between the exponential growth of the brand, people online started to ask where they could find the Chinese food he was making. After a couple of iterations in the pop-up sphere, Woo Can Cook opened a stand at the monthly Alameda Point Antiques Faire.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Woo Can Cook formed out of a Covid pod. Woo asked his friends to come over for dinner. “I missed cooking for people,” he said. “That’s what we were doing before—we were hosting lots of dinner parties.” Woo discovered that he really enjoyed making food for people, “filling their bellies.” But one of the things that fueled and sustained his interest in cooking was an attempt to make the recipes he ate when he was growing up.

The first three recipes Woo posted on Reddit were mapo tofu, Japanese curry and a green-onion pancake. The tofu Szechuan stir fry was inspired by the tofu his grandmother made. The curry was based on his mother’s recipe. And Woo had the actual recipe for the pancake from his Chinese teacher, who had taught him how to make it when he was 10 years old.

“I spent a bunch of time trying to figure out how to reproduce these recipes,” he said, adding that at first, he wanted to make the mapo tofu the way his grandmother made it, which was sweeter than the traditional way. “That was because she was trying to feed a bunch of 12-year-old kids.”

He tried to recreate the original recipe that included gochujang, or chili paste, and mirin, a sweet rice wine. “What I realized after doing that is the thing you remember is not the way that it tasted. It’s about the inherent memory you have tied to the thing you were eating,” Woo said.

Woo’s childhood memories are the point of departure for the recipes he currently creates. As noted on his website, the chef takes an updated approach to the original ones: “The ‘Chinese American Hack’ series uses this knowledge of authentic Chinese cuisine to deconstruct ‘Americanized’ Chinese food, identify its American qualities, then reconstruct those dishes with a more traditional Chinese approach to wok cooking.”

In addition to the Antiques Faire, Woo Can Cook pops up at the Dokkaebier brewery on Thursdays and the West Oakland Farmers Market on Sundays. Woo himself lives around the corner from the West Oakland Prescott Market Food Hall, where his business is in the preliminary stages of building out a full-time presence. “What’s really cool about the space we’re opening is that I’m going to have the opportunity to feed everybody who lives around me,” he said. “We’re literally feeding the community that we live in.”

Throughout our conversation, Woo consistently talked about Woo Can Cook as a collective project. “It takes a village to achieve any kind of momentum with a pop-up like this,” he said. “There are a lot of people behind the scenes who are helping me do this.” The Woo Can Cook Indiegogo campaign to establish the Prescott Market space shows a record of 85 contributors who donated $6,855.

“There’s also a whole crew of people helping me to create the dishes,” he said. Sous chefs do the food-prep work like cooking rice in the wok and making kimchi. “Technically, I don’t work at the West Oakland Farmers Market anymore,” Woo said. Although he usually shows up every week just to hang out.

Woo Can Cook, Sundays 10am to 2pm, West Oakland Farmers Market; Thursdays 5-9pm Dokkaebier; First Sundays 8am to 3pm, Alameda Antiques Faire. [email protected].


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