Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Oakland Supper Club Chef Monifa Dayo Embarks on Globe-Trotting Cookbook

By Janelle Bitker
Tue, Mar 6, 2018 at 9:39 AM

click to enlarge Shrimp and farro cooked in sparkling wine at a recent Monifa Dayo brunch. - JANELLE BITKER
  • Janelle Bitker
  • Shrimp and farro cooked in sparkling wine at a recent Monifa Dayo brunch.

Monifa Dayo decided enough was enough. The Oakland chef had toiled in kitchens for years, and she could no longer stand the insults from bosses, the hostile micro aggressions from co-workers, and the isolation as the only African-American female employee.

“Here you are, a brown woman, and you’re trying to navigate this environment with these men who don’t see you, who don’t understand you, who don’t value you, who are wondering why you’re even there,” she said. “I could no longer take it.”

Since she didn’t have $400,000 to start her own restaurant, she went underground. In fall 2016, Dayo sent out an email blast announcing her new project: Monifa Dayo, a supper club experience. About 50 people showed up to that first event, and her following has swelled through word of mouth. She renovated her one-bedroom apartment to feel like an intimate restaurant full of bright colors, vintage accents, and carefully sourced California cuisine with African influences.

With every course served, Dayo tells a story, so it makes sense for her to take those efforts to the next level. Now, she’s working on her
first cookbook, Commis Chef. This week, she began raising funds to send her to France, The Gambia, and Senegal for about five months of research.

The book will tell the stories of commis chefs, the cooks at the bottom of the kitchen hierarchy, starting with Dayo’s own experiences in Bay Area restaurants. It’ll follow her to West Africa and France, where she’ll work in small, mom-and-pop restaurants, picking up inspiration, chatting with fellow prep cooks, and connecting influences between cuisines. She’ll write about white supremacy, the patriarchy, and colonialism, and how they all tie into food.

“There’s this relationship that my people have had with the French — albeit, volatile and violent,” Dayo said. “It makes sense to explore that dynamic. How do these techniques show up in this food? And how does French food show up in the hood diet?”

To celebrate the launch of Commis Chef, she’ll host a party at Cosecha (907 Washington St., Oakland) on Sunday, Mar. 25. In a sense, it’s Dayo’s first major greeting to the wider public — and at $25, it’s a lower-commitment option for folks to snag a taste of her cooking compared to one of her leisurely supper club meals. Keep up to date on the party, other events, and the cookbook by signing up for the mailing list on her website, MonifaDayo.com, or following her on Instagram (@MonifaDayo). To attend one of her meals is to gain understanding into Dayo’s struggle as a Black woman in today’s high-end restaurants — and that’s the truth she wants to capture in Commis Chef.

“We’re in an industry that glamorizes the ‘Look at my huge restaurant, I’m a rock star’ chef, but we don’t want to ask the questions, ‘How did you get there? And who was there with you? Where is that brown chick or brown dude who was right there with you in the dish pit? And why isn’t that person with you right now? Does it have anything to do with the fact that you’re a man? Does it have anything to do with the fact that you’re white?’

“We have to have that dialogue,” Dayo said. “It’s not to point fingers. It’s to bring awareness — there’s this bounty of chefs, sommeliers, and servers within the industry that are brown and they look like me. But where are they? Why don’t I see them?”


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