On a mild Wednesday evening in early spring, I was dining alone at the counter facing into the gleaming steel-clad kitchen at The Guest Chef, one of the recent additions to College Avenue’s restaurant row. Three seats away was a woman dining solo as well. She looked up from her book and her coq au vin and said, “Derk?” She was Sonya Hunter, a fine Bay Area singer-songwriter whose recordings include Headlights and Other Constellations, Sun in Mind and an exquisite version of Neil Young’s “Expecting to Fly.” With her husband, Erik Pearson, at home with their daughter, Hunter was treating herself to a meal at her new favorite neighborhood spot. It was her third dinner at The Guest Chef. Which means she not only finds the cozy and beautifully built-out dining room inviting, but that she also buys into the place’s unique protocol.
Usually, when a restaurant changes chefs as frequently as a politician changes his positions, it signals that something is fundamentally unsound in the management. In The Guest Chef’s case, however, constant turnover is the foundation of the business plan. The night I ran into Hunter, the coq au vin — which I devoured along with an amuse bouche crostini topped with beef confit, caramelized onion and crème fraîche, a bowl of classic French onion soup and a glass of R&B Cellars “Improviser” red blend — was prepared by E. J. Keller, a personal chef who lives half the year in the East Bay and half the year in Paris. But if I’d been there in early February, I would have been choosing a three- or five-course prix fixe meal cooked by Greg Lutes, a veteran of Skates on the Bay. In early May, it could have been caterer Betsy Nevins’ Moroccan lamb ragu.
This game of musical toques was dreamed up by Scott Cameron, an East Bay contractor who was inspired by the Bay Area’s thriving food truck scene. His longtime friend and business partner, Jerry Boddum, had a small (660-square-foot), empty commercial space in the Rockridge Court building, and Cameron thought it would be perfect for housing a rotating selection of high-end grab-and-go meals. But by the time he and Boddum opened The Guest Chef’s doors last November (with former chef Mark Valentine consulting), the focus had shifted from take-out to sit-down.
After a series of benefit dinners cooked by local firefighters, Eva Santillanes inaugurated the Guest Chef parade with an à la carte menu of inexpensive Mexican fare — tacos, sopes, chile rellenos. “She didn’t do that well financially,” Cameron says, and ensuing chefs have learned that skewing upscale — elevating the cuisine and, within reason, the pricing — reaps greater rewards. “It is such a small space [with about 20 chairs at wood-topped tables and four at the bar],” say Cameron, “that you either have to do a big volume with lots of turnover or charge more per seat.”
Cameron and Valentine interview applicants and help them strategize their stints. Chefs bring in and pay for their ingredients and any support staff in the kitchen. They collaborate on the wine list, often supplementing the restaurant’s small and interesting selection. The Guest Chef takes care of everything else, including a dishwasher and front-of-house staff, and takes a percentage of the gross receipts.
Although chefs can do well if they bring in a lot of business, making money doesn’t seem to be a top priority for many. “They all have different goals,” says Cameron. “One wanted to be an executive chef and did end up getting a job. Others want to get the feel of what it would be like to own a restaurant. Joseph Humphrey [Michelin-starred at Napa Valley’s Meadowood] wanted to test his menus for the restaurant [Dixie] he’s opening in the Presidio. He brought his own sommelier and maître d’. And we have a father-daughter team coming in: He owns a $2.6 billion public company, and she’s going off to Harvard next year. They’ve always cooked together, and they wanted to do this as a bonding thing.”
E. J. Keller, who offered a completely different French menu every three days during his two-week run, was looking to build up his private business, Carotte et Caviar. “I cook for people in their homes for special occasions,” he explains. “My goal was to get exposure and potential clients, and this was a good opportunity to meet new people who are foodies. A lot of friends and family came in, but on any given night, at least half the customers were new to me. There seem to be regulars who enjoy the Guest Chef experience. One couple from the neighborhood came in three times. The work was hard — I was there 15 hours every day — but my student apprentices in the kitchen with me, from Kitchen on Fire in Berkeley and Contra Costa College, were great, and I enjoyed every minute of it.”
Paul Skrentny, who can be found (outside his day job as senior account manager for Oakland and Alameda magazines) at street fairs throughout the East Bay serving massive quantities of his signature paella, fashioned a Spanish-inspired menu during his Guest Chef run last December. “I knew I could cook for 1,000 people,” he says, “but I wanted to see if I could run a kitchen and get the appetizers, salad, soups and main dishes out to the tables. The most rewarding part was finding out that I could do it — that I am pretty good at planning a menu, buying for a restaurant and timing the food to come out hot and good.”
Skrentny was inspired enough to start looking for a place to open his own restaurant. “I have a passion for it,” he says, “so why not do something you are passionate about?” Meanwhile, Cameron is scouting locations for a San Francisco branch of The Guest Chef and entertaining proposals from three different production companies that want to develop a Guest Chef reality TV show. (A kitchen-cam already streams live video to the restaurant’s website during dinner service.)
“The whole thing is more about the people than anything else,” Cameron says. “The successful chefs already have a social network. We have a good following in the neighborhood — people come down just to see what’s going on. And beyond that, it’s like making new friends every two weeks.”
The Guest Chef. No set cuisine. 5337 College Ave., Oakland, (510) 658-7378. Serves dinner 5:30–9 p.m. Tue.–Thu., 5:30–10 p.m. Fri.–Sat. www.theguestchef.net