Zhenne Wood is a culinary artisan with a difference. She needs no oven to perform the alchemy that manifests as luscious tea and dessert cakes, mouthwatering cupcakes and assorted chocolate temptations. The heat comes from her passion and her churning creative juices. Her ingredients—a dazzling array of fine fabrics—include velvets and silks, laces and shantung; and bijou in the form of vintage glass beads, shimmering sequins and more.
Wood’s Emeryville live-work space—what she calls her magic castle and her field of dreams—is a treasure trove of one-of-a-kind objets d’art. Each is hand-stitched to perfection and, she asserts, “made to last 500 years.” The thread she uses, like gossamer, requires a needle so fine, how do 55-year-old eyes manage the microscopic eye?
“With difficulty,” laughs this artist of one-of-a-kind delectable temptations made to eyeball and not to eat. She passes a magnifying glass that reveals intricate stitching and minute seed beads invisible to the naked eye.
Wood works day and night. Her art is time-consuming. All-consuming. And as inspiring to her as to those who discover her and collect her work. “I must have more than 1,000 pieces floating around in the world,” she says with some satisfaction.
She studied art at college in Southern California, then dabbled in various disciplines, from design to ceramics. One day, after moving to Oakland in 1986, she decided to make a doll for a friend’s daughter when she couldn’t find one to buy that she liked. That was the start of her fabric art. “It was remarkable,” she says. “I realized I had found my ideal means of expression. I could combine my interest in history, costume, design, traditions, storytelling, hat-making, shoe design.” All these went into a range of lavish ornamental collector dolls that were quickly featured in craft magazines.
She still makes dolls. And animals. And fantastical fantasy figures that vary in shape and form.
And then there are the sweet temptations. It was the idea of creating a pastry-chef cat doll that inspired what developed into Wood’s range of “faux gâteaux, very sweet hand-sewn chocolates and keepsake cupcakes,” as she calls her three lines.
She decided to make a cake before starting on the feline chef. The chef never happened. The cakes, however—her faux gâteaux—grew like yeasty bread dough. Smaller treats followed the larger ones. When cupcakes became the rage, she put them on her menu. And if you think the chocolates look real, you’re not alone. One recipient of a box of them put them straight into the fridge.
Soon after beginning on her pastry journey, Wood decided to make each cake and chocolate as a box with a reversible lid. “I didn’t make them to be boxes that look like cakes,” she stresses. Rather, they are artful creations “that happen to have reversible tops and can hold things like mementos or notes”—and that you can drool over with guilt-free abandon. The pleasure of a Zhenne Wood indulgence is that you can have your cake—and not eat it.
To arrange to see more of Zhenne Wood’s collection, call her at (510) 334-9108 or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—By Wanda Hennig
—Photography by Lori Eanes
When we sat down in the kitchen of his West Oakland industrial loft space to chat over a morel and tofu frittata, sweet potato hash and grilled peach, Philip Gelb had already wrapped up a catering job for a bachelorette party.
“It’s all peach stuff this week because the Masumoto Farms heirloom peaches are in,” says Gelb, describing a grilled-peach salad with peach-miso dressing; seitan with spicy peach sauce; and a peach-rosewater tart (the shell made of walnuts and dates) with homemade peach-vanilla ice cream. “The ice creams, made from a cashew base, are one of my specialties.”
Making ice cream from nuts is a vegan trick, just one of many that Gelb, 43, has mastered as a vegan chef. In addition to gigs as an event caterer and in-home personal chef, doing business as In the Mood for Food, Gelb teaches vegan cooking classes at Berkeley’s Kitchen on Fire.
Widely known as a unique improviser on the shakuhachi (Japanese end-blown flute), the Brooklyn-born, Florida-educated Gelb honed his culinary skills after moving to the East Bay 11 years ago, determined to make a living as a performer and teacher. But he was barely making ends meet.
So Gelb—who developed an interest in healthy eating as a child (he was diagnosed with leukemia at age 4 and underwent chemotherapy for nine years) and turned vegan three years ago—took meatless and dairy-free matters in his own hands. Two years ago, he commingled his passions for music and food with monthly dinner concerts around Oakland: Before dessert during the gourmet four-course vegan meal, world-class virtuosos play solo or duet sets. Performers have included Gelb’s master shakuhachi teacher from Kyoto, Yoshiro Kurahashi, saxophonists Roscoe Mitchell and Oliver Lake, and bassist Mark Dresser (who improvised on Passover themes during Gelb’s innovative vegan seder).
“It’s definitely not a music series,” says the holistically minded Gelb. “It’s a food and music series that I approach in the same way I approach cooking. The only prerequisite is that it be someone I want to hear, music of extremely high quality, something unique.”
For details about Phil Gelb’s catering, vegan cooking classes and dinner-concert series, visit www.myspace.com/inthemoodforfood.
—By Derk Richardson
—Photography by Lori Eanes
You Bought Saag’s Sausages at the Original Oakland Shop.
The artisan approach to making sausage and salumi is not a 21st-century innovation; it’s a return to the tradition of handcrafted food products for the consumer market—something you wouldn’t have to explain to George Saag, who opened his long-beloved sausage shop in downtown Oakland in 1933, or to the faithful customers (including a young Marsha McBride of Café Rouge) who might still recall the smell of Old World spices in the small aromatic storefront.
Saag’s was born a full 50 years before Bruce Aidells rekindled the Bay Area’s passion for artisan sausage. In 1978, the specialists in German-style sausages, frankfurters and cured and smoked meats moved their operation to San Leandro. In 2006, symptomatic of the move by mass manufacturers to upgrade their image and corner the high-end market (a la Hershey buying Sharffen Berger, Dagoba and Joseph Schmidt), Saag’s was purchased by Hormel Foods.
—By Derk Richardson
Ever wonder what to do with all those extra plums, apricots, lemons and figs you can’t possibly get around to eating? Share the bounty.
Forage Oakland (www.forageoakland.blogspot.com), a neighborhood produce networking effort, makes it so easy. Started in mid-April by Asiya Wadud, 26, of Oakland, the project harvests and exchanges crops from local neighborhoods. Folks with too many ripening peaches, avocados, blackberries or pluots, for instance, can e-mail or call Wadud, telling her what they have to give and what they’d like in return for their edibles. Wadud then schedules a time to pedal her basketed bike over with a buddy or two, picker in hand, to retrieve the perishables that will be bartered, and she later delivers the requested foodstuff, identified with a Forage Oakland card. The model allows gardeners with ready-to-harvest goods to trade for later-producing herbs, fruits or vegetables.
“When you sign up, you let me know what you have and what you’d like to receive,” she says. “And then in exchange, we’ll leave something. It’s sort of a pledge in that way.”
A former Edible Schoolyard worker who now bartends at Chez Panisse, Wadud moved to Oakland from Washington, D.C., in 2004, and is the daughter of a prolific gardener. What has amazed her here, she says, is the long growing season, the number of residents with fruit trees and the amount of wasted seasonal produce. Thus her idea to spread the surplus.
“Even if there’s a family of four and they have a beautiful Santa Rosa plum tree, there is no way they’ll be able to use all the fruit that it produces. I was just trying to think of creative ways of reusing it and redistributing it,” she says. “I decided the most sustainable way would be doing outright barter.”
So far, she has about 50 to 60 takers willing to share their edibles, from avocados and apples to persimmons and pomegranates. Wadud also scouts for produce on her bike and isn’t shy about asking for harvest permission. Ultimately her goal is to stock a free, centrally located produce stand to enhance areas that lack grocery stores.
“I’ve just met so many interesting people since I started this project,” she says. “No one has said no to my harvesting of their surplus fruit, which is great. They really just want their fruit to go somewhere to be eaten.”
—Judith M. Gallman
—Photography by Jan Stürmann
Mother’s Cookies and Granny Goose may be gone, but the smell of fresh, baked cookies lives on in West Oakland, thanks to Crunchy Foods, the commercial bakery behind Biscotti di Suzy.
Montclairians Karen and Larry Jackson, parents of two boys, own and operate the gourmet cookie company. She’s a former Pixar producer with savvy marketing skills, and he’s a former commercial banker. They’ve traded in their past trappings for aprons, mixers and ovens, annually producing 4 million to 6 million cookies in nine varieties—the almond anise is the top seller—for stores, grocers, coffee shops and restaurants (find them locally at the Village Market, Farmer Joe’s Marketplace, Lunardi’s, Draeger’s, Andronico’s, G.B. Ratto’s and select Whole Foods Markets).
Biscotti di Suzy cookies aren’t the brick-hard, tooth-breaking stuff that begs for a coffee soaking; this all-natural, twice-baked biscotti has crunch with a little give.
The Suzy behind the biscotti is real, Suzy Cerchiai Holl, a fourth-generation Italian-American who used her great-grandmother’s recipe, building up the business in North Beach. The Jacksons found the company for sale online through a Wall Street Journal link.
Since sealing the deal in 2004, they moved the S.F.–based company to Oakland in 2005, more than doubling the square footage and tripling the workforce.
Four years later, baking cookies for a living still feels a little odd to the Jacksons, though the decision to back off high-tech was a deliberate choice.
“We’re talking butter, sugar, flour here. It’s downshifting from what we were doing,” Karen Jackson says.
The Jacksons plan to add more products, but for now they’re coy, with Larry Jackson making only one promise: “We’ll guarantee you it will be crunchy.”
For more information on Crunchy Foods and Biscotti di Suzy, visit www.crunchyfoods.com.
—Judith M. Gallman
High gas prices have lured many drivers from their cars to public transport. Alameda and Oakland residents who opt for the ferry enjoy a perk that goes far beyond avoiding the Bay Bridge on a Friday night: an opportunity to sip cocktails while watching the sun set over the San Francisco skyline.
Many ferry riders opt for a quick beer or glass of wine, but those opting for something more exotic will be pleasantly surprised when Juan Cendejas is behind the bar. A graduate of the National Bartending School in San Francisco, Cendejas whips up Caipirinhas with cachaça, a Brazilian rum-like spirit, and fresh lime juice. “I always suggest the liquor or new drinks that I think the commuters might like,” he says. “I recently started to bring my little premium bar which includes bottles of Grand Marnier, Cazadores tequila, Cruzan rum and Courvoisier cognac.”
While cheerfully—and efficiently—serving drinks at sea, many of the other bartenders don’t share Cendejas’ special passion for the latest drink trends. Eoin Meisel has been a part-time bartender on Bay Area ferries for seven years. Cocktails like the Leblon cachaça are not his specialty, he admits. “Juan serves those. I just love being on the water.”
Originally from Guanajuato, Mexico, Cendejas has been serving drinks to thirsty commuters and tourists since 1998, initially on boats traveling from San Francisco to Alcatraz, Sausalito, Tiburon and Angel Island. Bartending is a family affair for Cendejas, who is a student at the City College of San Francisco when he’s not at work. His brother and wife, who also have their professional bartending certificates, do shifts on the San Francisco-to-Tiburon run. “We like to have fresh limes, celery and anything else we need for a good cocktail or mixed drink. I always try to do the best on the ferry, making the commuters feel comfortable and doing more for them because we see each other every day.”
Juan Cendejas’s Ferry Bloody Mary
4 ounces tomato juice (or Bloody Mary mix)
1 ounce vodka
4 drops Tapatio hot sauce
4 drops Maggy sauce or Worcestershire sauce
Fresh lime juice
Celery stalk for garnish
Bacon for garnish (Cendejas adds this only on private cruises, not on the regular ferry)
Lime wedge for garnish
Olive for garnish and olive juice for flavor
—Photography by Craig Merrill