Tuesday, March 19, 2013

New Urban Eating: Oakland’s Food Story, with Recipes

By Luke Tsai
Tue, Mar 19, 2013 at 7:00 AM

A designer, a chef, and an ethnographer step into a bar …. That’s not the setup for some obscure academic joke. It’s the origin story for Oakland: New Urban Eating, an ambitious Oakland-centric cookbook project headed by Andrew Ellis, the aforementioned ethnographer. One night last August, Ellis and his friends, Ray Robinson (a personal chef for a local college fraternity) and Clint Walker (a designer), met for drinks at an Uptown bar, where they conceived the idea for a book that would tell the story of the Oakland food renaissance — from the perspective of the chefs, artisans, urban farmers, and food foragers who have spearheaded it.

“We thought, ‘We’re three people with some talents. We can create a book about food and a community that we love,’” Ellis recalled.

Andrew Ellis (left), Ray Robinson, and Clint Walker (via Facebook)
  • Andrew Ellis (left), Ray Robinson, and Clint Walker (via Facebook)
At its core, New Urban Eating will be a cookbook, featuring recipes from chefs and various other Oakland food personages that Ellis and his team plan to interview, and, of course, pretty photos of those dishes.

But the book’s creators are also planning to adopt “ethnographic methodology” to investigate Oakland’s culinary scene. Which is a fancy way of saying that Ellis and his cohorts are interested in exploring food as a cultural phenomenon — beyond the level of “this tastes delicious.” Why have so many talented chefs and artisan food makers chosen to stake their roots in Oakland? Why is Oakland such an important hub for the food justice movement? How are food-related innovations that started in Oakland influencing the world at large?

Ellis, a one-time documentary filmmaker who did a short stint in culinary school in the late Nineties, said he’ll use a similar process that he employs for his day job as an ethnographic researcher for a San Francisco-based consulting firm. He’ll conduct interviews, consult with experts, and cover as broad a range of subjects as possible — talking not just with critically acclaimed chefs in Rockridge but also ordinary folks living in Fruitvale or East Oakland, whose family recipes he’d also like to include.

So far, the recipe collection process has proved to be the most challenging part, as it has largely consisted of Ellis and his partners showing up at restaurants and trying to explain the project to the chef, manager, or server — anyone who’s willing to listen.

Nevertheless, Ellis said he has been thrilled with the diversity of the stories he’s already collected. He cited as an example Jane Lin, whose company, Mama Tong, specializes in Chinese herbal soups that are prized for their medicinal properties. In her interview, Lin talked about how her mother had prepared special soups for her to eat after she gave birth to her daughter to help in the post-natal recovery process, as is traditional in Chinese culture. When Lin realized that these soups weren’t readily available to the English-speaking market, Mama Tong was born. (Check out Lin’s recipe for black chicken herbal soup, or ji tong, which appears on What the Fork courtesy of Mama Tong and New Urban Eating.)

The New Urban Eating team, pictured with Oakland mayor Jean Quan during their recent launch party.
  • The New Urban Eating team, pictured with Oakland mayor Jean Quan during their recent launch party.
In addition to Robinson and Walker, two others later joined the New Urban Eating team: Maribel Lopez (a food stylist) and Daphne Lopez (a social media specialist). Ellis noted that the other team members will have a much bigger role once the initial research phase is completed. As with any food publication’s “test kitchen,” Robinson cooks all of the submitted recipes, then goes back to the chef with clarifying questions and possible substitutions for hard-to-procure ingredients. During the book’s final production phase, issues of food styling and artistic design will take center stage.

According to Ellis, there has been widespread support for the project among members of the Oakland food community: “Oh yeah, of course there should be a book” seems to be the most common response, he said.

That, said, at this point there’s no easy path to making the book — the final physical product — a reality. Ellis has queried publishing houses and looked into self-publication. And the team recently hosted a launch party for the book at the food business incubator The Kitchener, to spread the word and to make connections with food artisans and other community members. But for now, New Urban Eating is purely a passion project for everyone involved.

For more information, email Ellis at andrew@newurbaneating.com.

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