Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Uptown Kitchen and The Sound Room: Mixing Local Food Artisans and Jazz

By Luke Tsai
Tue, Mar 26, 2013 at 7:00 AM

At The Sound Room (2147 Broadway), one of a handful of new jazz clubs to open in Oakland during the past several months, guests taking in a show need not settle for typical concert venue food — overpriced burgers and pasta dishes and such. Instead, dinner might feature crispy pork belly confit or a bountiful plate of seafood paella. For dessert, there might be too-pretty-to-eat artisanal cupcakes.

All of the food is provided by Uptown Kitchen (2145 Broadway), a commercial kitchen and food business incubator that’s located adjacent to the jazz club. Since the two ventures launched last fall, their collaboration — jazz on one side of the building, a rotating list of local food artisans on the other — has proved mutually beneficial and may provide an interesting new model for club owners and kitchen proprietors alike.

Uptown Kitchen is the brainchild of James Barker, an architect who’d long had a hankering to get involved in the culinary world. Last year, inspiration struck while Barker was helping a friend launch a gourmet tea company. He realized there were all these aspiring food makers who needed a place to work. By providing that kind of facility, he could be involved in food without actually cooking for a living — a “merciless task” he didn’t necessarily feel up for.

“Not many people fantasize about running a kitchen, but I did,” he said.

Around that time Barker met one of his eventual partners in the kitchen venture, Robert Bradsby, a fellow architect who was looking to start a nonprofit jazz venue as an extension of the house concert series that he and his wife, Karen Van Leuven, had hosted for years. Bradsby had found a potential home for his club at 2147 Broadway, but the space came with a big, 1,200 square-foot commercial kitchen — a former Meals on Wheels site — attached to it. Once Barker and Bradsby got to talking, a collaboration between their respective projects seemed like a natural fit.

Bradsby explained that The Sound Room takes care of refreshments in-house on low-key nights, but a couple of times a month, for its biggest events, the club turns food service over to one of the businesses in the Uptown Kitchen roster, essentially allowing one cook to stage a one-night pop-up restaurant. Sometimes a buffet is set up in the storefront space that connects the kitchen and the club; other times they’ll take orders at the bar and deliver the food to the guests seated at their tables.

It’s a classic win-win situation, according to Bradsby. In addition to keeping the profits from food sales, the chef gets some exposure, plus the experience of having cooked for 50 or 75 diners in something akin to a restaurant setting. The customers get better, more interesting food than what they’d find at a typical club — a fun menu put together by an up-and-coming guest chef eager to make a name for his or her business. A recent menu from Grace Hearth, a catering company, included dishes like heirloom white-bean posole and rainbow chard and sweet potato hand pies. An evening of flamenco music featured paella and Spanish tortillas cooked by the proprietors of Ñora Mobile Spanish Cuisine.

Finally, the club itself makes money off bar sales and, just as importantly gets a room full of happy, well-fed concertgoers without having to shoulder all of the risks associated with running a restaurant. Bradsby said he’d watched too many smart, talented restaurateurs lose their shirt to want to get into that business.

This way, the risks and rewards are shared: The chef carries the expense of renting the kitchen and buying the ingredients, and sometimes attracts customers who might not have otherwise known about, or been inclined, to attend a jazz show. This is often the first opportunity the chef has had to run a pop-up restaurant of his or her own, so Uptown Kitchen gets a certain cachet for providing that experience. The club, for its part, does the heavy lifting in terms of making sure the house is packed.

“We’re not the ones deciding the menu. The draw is the music; the food is ancillary,” Bradsby said.

But Bradsby noted that when customers learn about the relationship between the club and the kitchen, they’re fascinated: “They see that they’re supporting these artisanal cooks the same way that they’re supporting these talented musicians.”

Aside from the pop-ups that coincide with jazz shows, during First Fridays, the club and kitchen set up a kind of ad hoc food hall in their shared storefront area, with three or four food vendors, an art show, and a DJ.

All told, right now there are about thirty food businesses that use the commercial kitchen at different times during the course of the week. Barker said he also plans to hold more lunchtime pop-up events in the future, taking advantage of the fact that there are so many office workers in the neighborhood.

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