Never before has Oakland had the kind of thriving, upscale restaurant scene that today not only gives Oaklanders the sort of options they used to seek out predominantly in San Francisco and Berkeley but also attracts more and more diners from those outsider bastions of gastronomic sophistication. Every month or two, it seems, a new pedigreed restaurant opens in Oaktown, generating buzz and raising the bar for the next. Proof of Oakland’s cornucopia of haute cuisine can be found in the fact that even with seven of the city’s fabled, famed and rising-star chefs gathered around one table at the same time, another such roundtable or two could easily be organized featuring different voices from different kitchens.On Sept. 8, 2008, with bowls of boiled organic peanuts and pitchers of filtered tap water on the bare redwood communal table at Camino on upper Grand Avenue, a stellar group of culinary innovators, from Oakland restaurants as old as 33 years and as young as three-and-a-half months, gathered to talk about the joys and challenges of doing business in Oakland, their commitment to using fresh, local and sustainable ingredients, and their dedication to enhancing the community and mentoring youth.
Michael Wild, who left an academic career and with business partner Larry Goldman opened Bay Wolf Restaurant (3853 Piedmont Ave.) in 1975;
Chris Rossi, a New Jersey native who took over ownership of Citron (5484 College Ave.) 11 years ago, after working there for two years and previously cooking at Steelhead Brewery and Café Zenon in Oregon;
Paul Canales, a Fresno-born former punk rocker who left an executive position at Pacific Bell to learn cooking at the Culinary Institute of America, work a year at Lutesse in New York City and then intern at Oliveto Café and Restaurant (5655 College Ave.), where he has been chef since 2000;
Curt Clingman, a founding chef at Oliveto who cooked at Zuni Café in San Francisco as well as restaurants in North Beach and with his partner, Mary Jo Thoresen, opened Jojo (3859 Piedmont Ave.) nine years ago;
Jon Smulewitz, another New Jersey native (“exit 9 off the turnpike, 131 off the parkway”) who graduated from four years in the Oliveto kitchen to open Dopo (4293 Piedmont Ave.) in September 2003;
Shotaro “Sho” Kamio, who became executive chef at Yoshi’s at Jack London Square (510 Embarcadero West) in 2005, and took the helm of the even larger Yoshi’s on Fillmore Street in San Francisco when it opened in December 2007, all after operating his own restaurants in his native Japan and overseeing the kitchen and menu at Ozumo in San Francisco for nearly seven years;
Russell Moore, a 21-year veteran of Berkeley’s Chez Panisse, where he was the produce buyer for a decade and the upstairs café chef before opening Camino (3917 Grand Ave.) in May 2008.
On what is gratifying about having a restaurant and being a chef in Oakland:
Curt Clingman (Jojo): For me, it’s been that our neighborhood really seems to have embraced who we are and why we’re there. We never wanted to be anything more than a neighborhood restaurant, but it certainly was a risk, literally coming up against a restaurant [Bay Wolf] that had been there a long, long time and owned that end of the street. Finding that we’re part of the fabric of the neighborhood has been one of the most rewarding parts of ownership.
Paul Canales (Oliveto): You can be anything in Oakland. If you’re in Berkeley, it’s a real scene. There’s a real clear aesthetic—it’s really great, but it’s defined. I think San Francisco is getting less so, but when I started, for sure there was a defined aesthetic, a feeling about what you have to do to be a chef and get recognized. In Oakland, you can be what you want to be. To me that’s what’s exciting about it. You have an educated clientele, but also you can take chances and color outside of the lines and define yourself.
Russell Moore (Camino): We looked for almost three years to find a space in San Francisco, and every neighborhood had its thing. What cinched it for us was when we went to a new restaurant—a good restaurant that is very popular—and every single person in that restaurant was between 25 and 35 and had the same amount of money and drank big fancy drinks. It was the place to go at the moment. And I thought, I want my staff to look different, I want the clientele to look different, I want them to be of different ages, and I want a restaurant that lasts a really long time. I don’t want a flash in the pan. I want to slowly build and see who we are. I think in Oakland you can do that. And there are real diners in the East Bay who may not look like fancy customers, but they really understand why this butter lettuce is so great—we can serve it plain, and they’re really excited.
Michael Wild (Bay Wolf): Thirty-three years ago, when we started, there were a couple of things that motivated us to locate in Oakland. One was that we didn’t have any money, and Oakland was eminently affordable. But also, we wanted to be in Oakland. Chez Panisse existed, and the Cheese Board existed, in the original location, and we said Oakland deserves and wants and needs something like that. That was the opportunity that we saw. Plus, on another level, it was a little bit like some people saw the Lower East Side [in New York City] 30 years ago: It was a place where you could go where there were no rules about what it was supposed to be. Either it worked or it didn’t work, but it didn’t have to conform to any preconception.
Chris Rossi (Citron): When I moved down here from Oregon, I came from a big place in Eugene that was really busy and had a huge menu. Craig Thomas, who was the original chef at Citron, looked at me like, “You’re not going to be happy here; it’s too small.” And I said, “You don’t understand, this is what I want. I want to be in a place where I can focus on small production, high quality, local ingredients, that kind of thing.” I think the choices we have created with all the restaurants in Oakland and the East Bay in general have allowed for people to say, “Hey, we want to go out for a great night, and we have so many great choices in the East Bay, we don’t need to go over the bridge.” They can get what they really want here and feel that sense of going out and having a big night.
Jon Smulewitz (Dopo): It’s like you say [Curt], when we opened, the neighborhood truly embraced us, surprisingly. I think one of the really cool things about Oakland is that you really get to cook for yourself, and people appreciate it. They’re very educated and they know what they like, so they challenge you, too. They push you to change it and keep it interesting.
On cooking true to your tradition and cooking for yourself versus catering to the clientele:
Sho Kamio (Yoshi’s): This is very serious for me, actually. People grow up with their own cuisine—California cuisine, French cuisine, whatever. But with another country’s history and different cuisine, they [might be able to] talk a lot, but they [have] never [been in]
touch [with it]. My menu uses lots of raw fish. Maybe some customer says, “I’m big fan of Japanese cuisine,” but she has never seen the
whole fish—maybe only the filet, maybe only cooked already. Someone might say, “I ordered tuna. This is not tuna,” and I try to explain, “This is red tuna.” “No, tuna is more pink!” It’s really, really hard sometimes. Also, people think Japanese cuisine equals sushi, which means sushi roll. But if you go to Japan, you will never see a sushi roll. I try to bring my way, but between chef’s wish and customer’s wish [there can be a] really big gap. So I’m always fighting for customer education, and education of young chefs in the kitchen.
Moore: We’ve made some decisions here that are controversial, and some people in the neighborhood don’t like them, and some people love them. Some people walk in and say, “I can’t believe you don’t have this or this,” or “I cannot believe your menu is so small.”
Clingman: The idea that you created a controversy is certainly true, and in a larger scale than most of us, but all of us represent, I think, people that aren’t trying to please everybody, and it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out what pleasing everybody will amount to. From day one, any time I was given the least bit of grief about what I was doing, my attitude has been, I’m not here to please everybody—I’m sorry that you don’t like it but …
Wild: I thought you were in the restaurant business. [Laughter.]
On the evolution of the East Bay dining scene and changing demographics:
Wild: When we started, there was no tradition of restaurants like we all have in the East Bay. There was Spenger’s, there was Pot Luck, there was this whole other generation of restaurants that had no chefs—they were utterly faceless; they had no particular character; they were either Continental or American. Then all of a sudden you get these restaurants that actually have a face; they actually have character; they actually have something they’re trying to do; and it evolves.
Rossi: When it all broke loose in the dot.com era, we were riding high, but then it was like somebody pulled the rug out from under us. We’re like the last of the old guard—we’ve stuck to keeping linens, we don’t have paper on the tables. So it’s an interesting challenge these days, to keep things fresh and keep things going. Our clientele has changed over the years completely. We had a lot of people that were quite a bit older that just don’t come anymore, and now we have a lot of younger people coming in, and the great thing for me is that now I can evolve and change, and the restaurant’s flavor can change and tweak just a little bit.
Wild: I think one of the things that’s happened in Oakland in particular that benefits all of us is that there’s more and more energy in this sort of artists community. That community is expanding, and that’s a group of younger people that goes out to restaurants, to bars. Oakland is probably sacrificing some of its old-time communities, for better or for worse, but the exchange is that you have more and more younger people. As Chris was saying about his clientele, it’s something all of us have to deal with, and the longer you’re in business, the more you experience the older generation moving on, so that you constantly have to get new people in.
Clingman: Jon has done a great job [at Dopo] with nailing the potential, especially if you look at Piedmont Ave. and what we’re doing at our end. I get the sense you’re getting almost a bleed over from CCA [California College of the Arts]. The clientele I see hanging out at your place is a lot different than at Michael’s and my place, and you’re fuller later than either of us are.
On expanding the Oakland dining scene, bringing in new customers and cultivating late-night business:
Moore: Like it was risky for you [Curt] to open near Michael’s restaurant [Bay Wolf] on Piedmont, it was risky for us to come to Grand Avenue where there’s not much going on at this end, where there’s no restaurants. I feel like the neighborhood has really welcomed us, and people come across the bay, even.
Canales: You’ve extended the scene, too. By being here, you’ve now created a new border for great restaurants in Oakland. It used to be Piedmont, and now it’s Grand, and there will be other people who come because you’re here. Maybe somebody will do something in the Laurel.
Moore: I was inspired when Dopo first opened in that tiny little space. I thought, that is bold. You can tell that here are people that really, really want to open a restaurant, and they open this tiny little space, and they’re making it work. A couple of bottles of wine on the table and regular glasses. That’s a place where you want to go eat, and I thought, I hope that catches on. And the fact that it caught on, and that you could expand and do more is great. It made me think, well, we can go on Grand Avenue.
Kamio: When we are talking about opening a restaurant, we have to ask, Berkeley side or Oakland side? Is it more [of a] commuting [situation] or more of a neighborhood situation? I think Oakland needs [to do] more [to] develop a hanging-out situation [and make it] easier for people to go out after 9 o’clock, [when] Jack London Square is pretty dead. I wish [the] city would be more supportive of local business and the restaurant industry. Three years ago, I did try to approach hotel concierges in Oakland, but the hotels don’t have concierges. I’d say, “Send your customers to Yoshi’s for music and especially the food,” [and they’d say,] “I’m sorry we don’t have a concierge.” I was successful at Ozumo—every night concierges [were] sending customers from New York, especially if [their] flights arrived late and they wanted to eat. But the late night is really hard here. Yoshi’s Jack London depends on [the draw of the jazz] artists, not [on being] a nighttime location. Right now, we’re talking with the Port of Oakland to find out what their plan is for the next five years, the next 10 years.
Canales: But downtown keeps coming your way. There are a lot openings downtown. I took the kids ice skating and I was kind of blown away—there are all these new openings coming. We went to Flora one night around 10 o’clock, and there was a scene. There’s a big bar, but there were people eating. Five, six years ago, the people wouldn’t have been there to eat. They wouldn’t have been around. With all the lofts and all the artists’ spaces getting killed in San Francisco, a lot of that energy has migrated over to West Oakland. If you go down Peralta and that whole area, there’s a lot happening there that bleeds in for those restaurants that are opening downtown.
On what Oakland restaurants and chefs can do to educate the community, aspiring chefs and schoolchildren about eating local, seasonal and sustainable foods:
Wild: It’s a question that has a few different components. My youngest is 12 years old, and since he was age 5, twice a year I’ve invited his class to come to the restaurant, and we give them a tour of the restaurant, we take them all into the walk-in, we show them some butchering going on—we just explain to them how the restaurant works, and then we take them onto the deck and we feed them all lunch with tablecloths and silverware. And then they start coming with their parents, and so everybody’s having a good time. Additionally, especially in Berkeley, but increasingly in Oakland, some of the schools have these so-called edible gardens, and the kids are doing the gardening, picking the food, prepping it, cooking it and then eating it. Twice a year I have one of my guys from the kitchen go to the schools—sometimes they make pizza, sometimes they make soup—just to get them to make that connection, and not just to benefit the restaurant, but because it’s important for people to know how to eat.
Kamio: We need to think about [the] new generation. I have one daughter, 12 years old, and once a year I’m volunteering—my sous chef, everybody, helps—doing [the] school picnic and barbecue. Before, they didn’t have anybody cooking, but they find out—“Your daddy’s a chef.” Many times I’m [doing] cooking demonstrations at the school, and the kids love it. So, I’m thinking more about the future: Who will become the next chefs? Who will take over the restaurant? So many students want to have experience working in restaurant or bar as waiter, waitress, cocktail server or bartender, something like that. After five or six years, young people’s priority becomes, “I don’t want to work in the restaurant; I want to work in the kitchen.” So where does this interest in wanting to work in kitchen come from? “Because I went a long time ago to Bay Wolf and Chef Michael took us on a tour.” This is very important—we are impressing another generation.
Canales: Speaking of 12-year-olds, I’ve got this kid Jacob, the son of one of our customers, and he’s come [to the Oliveto kitchen] every Saturday for over a year. He started not knowing anything, and he can now butcher chickens. It’s amazing how some kids can click into that.
Smulewitz: You’re the king of bringing people in. That Saturday kitchen at Oliveto is just amazing. I’d walk in there on Saturdays and I didn’t know half the people that were there, and they were all very young, and they’re all working on different projects, and they’re super, super excited. It keeps the spirit pumped up and alive for the people who are working there, as well. The staff at Dopo, I always say they’re the inspiration for me. If I’m not changing things or doing things, they get bored. It’s always about the staff.
Moore: We purposely didn’t want necessarily the old-guard restaurant-savvy people. We wanted the enthusiastic and young and energetic. I spend a lot of time talking about the menu every day, since it changes all the time, talking about every farm that everything comes from. You’re either gonna get sick of it and leave or you’re gonna start shopping at the market and understanding why Peter Marinelli’s Romano beans are so great and why after having them for 15 years I’m still excited when he walks in the door. We have a few staff members who are really into it. They ask how you cook things, and we send them home with leftovers, and say, “Make something with that.”
On the balance between emphasizing ingredients and concentrating on cooking:
Canales: When it comes down to it, the ingredients are the raw thing you start with, but that’s shopping. I think here in the East Bay it gets too much attention. I think there are a lot of people who shop well who don’t cook well. And they’re charging a lot of money, and people talk about them in ways as if they’re doing something really amazing, and they’re not. You’re paying money for somebody to do something, yes, to get the best stuff, and that to me is sort of the opening gambit. It’s the starting point, and you have to be obsessive about it and insane about it, and I know I am, but it also doesn’t carry the day in the end. It’s just the beginning.
Wild: You mean it’s not what you got, it’s what you do with it?
Canales: I think that’s it, man.
Moore: I think it’s both. If you get the greatest lambs in the world, from John Watson in the spring, and they taste like this, and then later it’s a different breed and it tastes like that, you’ve got to do something different.
Wild: That’s exemplified by the fact that every restaurant here has a changing menu, for a variety of reasons.
Clingman: We’ve all been asked countless times, is it service or is it food? For me the question “is it technique or is it ingredients?” has the same answer as “is it service or is it food?” It’s all the same thing, and you can’t have one without the other and succeed.
Wild: That’s what’s so nice about getting together like this: In the relatively small community of Oakland there’s this group of like-minded restaurateurs where there are certain articles of faith that underlie what we do. And it has to do with quality—of the food, of the service, of the place. It’s the introduction and maintenance of quality in life, and it’s happening in Oakland.
Bay Wolf Restaurant, 3853 Piedmont Ave., (510) 655-6004, www.baywolf.com
Camino, 3917 Grand Ave., (510) 547-5035, www.caminorestaurant.com
Citron, 5484 College Ave., (510) 653-5484, www.citronrestaurant.com
Dopo, 4293 Piedmont Ave., (510) 652-3676
Jojo, 3859 Piedmont Ave., (510) 985-3003, www.jojorestaurant.com
Oliveto Café and Restaurant, 5655 College Ave., (510) 547-5356, www.oliveto.com
Yoshi’s Jack London Square, 510 Embarcadero West, (510) 238-9200, www.yoshis.com/restaurant