My Mission: Tastes of SF, a pictorial essay








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Puerto Rican Pop-up Comes to the Mission

screen-shot-2016-09-15-at-3-59-57-pmI freely admit I have a soft spot for Puerto Rican cuisine. For one, I am a transplanted New Yorker, once married to a Nuyorican. I also learned my Spanish (and salsa dancing) from other Nuyoricans, and Puerto Rican cooking from my former suegra. Not to mention all those years spent shuttling back and forth between NYC and San Juan for cheap, romantic and unforgettable weekend getaways.

Plus, it seems that the cuisine gets a short sell, as though it were a paler cousin of Spanish food, perceived by some as less exotic somehow than Cuban or other Caribbean cuisines. But not so; Puerto Rico’s food, like her people, is a fabulous mash-up of Spanish, African, and indigenous Taíno and Arawak foodways, resulting in the best of many worlds. Roots and tuber, peanuts and pineapple, soursop (guananabana), guava, calebaza (pumpkin) maize and chiles are all ingredients indigenous to the island. The Europeans (Spanish) introduced, wheat, garbanzos, onions, garlic, basil, sugarcane, citrus, eggplant and beef, pork, lamb, goat, chicken and dairy, just as they did when they conquered Mexico, changing these cuisines forever.

Other ingredients important to the island’s cuisine came to from Africa, much of it as a result of the slave trade. It was African slaves also introduced deep-frying and from Ethiopia came  the signature bean in one of Puerto Rico’s most popular dishes, Arroz con Gandules (Rice with Pigeon Peas). So, too, from the continent came yams, tamarind, bananas,and coffee. (My very best memories of Puerto Rico are of the coffee!)

So, it is with a watery mouth and great anticipation that I am pleased to share the following, from llyanna Maisonet, currently an Oakland-based Web Editor @brokeassstuart. Her misadventures can be found in her writings at Eat Gorda Eat, where she shares recipes, her crush on Andy Ricker and how she hella loves her cat, Che. She is currently working on a Puerto Rican cookbook.

“We’re here, we made it. After months of testing on unsuspected victims, I’ve finally committed to a month long pop-up. What comes after is anyone’s guess.

I finished culinary school in 2012 and in 2013 my brother-in-law said, “You should do a cookbook.” Yeah, that was a great idea. Until it wasn’t. Three years later and it’s still a proposal, but now it has found its way into the hands of my mentor and editor, Lesley Tellez, who published 2015’s in-depth love letter to the food of Mexico, Eat Mexico. She also has a tour company, by the same name, that gives tours in Mexico City.


Doctor’s Lounge is a bar in the Outer Mission ran by Rochelle McCune, who (whom?) I met in a women’s social group. She graciously allowed me to possibly burn down her kitchen, and in return I promised to get the word out about the pop-up and promise that you would buy booze from her.

When you walk inside, the bar is to the left and this is where your drinks and cocktails can be ordered. To the right are the tables, seat yourself wherever you want. Everyone gets the same thing.


Bacalaitos | Codfish Fritters

Empanadas | Picadillo (seasoned ground meat with olives), inside a pastry shell.

Enselada de guineo | Pickled green bananas, avocado, olive oil, herbs, chilies, fried yautia

Arroz con gandules | Rice with pigeon peas

Carne Guisada con Calabasa | Braised pork in tomato sauce, Spanish olives, pumpkin

Brazo Gitano Cake | Coco Rico, guava, cream cheese, coconut, Ron del Barrilito salted caramel, fresh fall fruit, walnuts


It’s soft opening. The reason the tickets are discounted is because you’re being used a guinea pigs for us to work out the kinks. Some of the people who are helping with serving and cooking are in the food industry, some are not. Hell, some might not even show up. Rest assured, I have practiced cooking and serving at least six people at a time on my own. Seven at a time and I might be in the weeds.

Why the Mission? While the Mission was the first (and second) neighborhood I lived in when I first moved to San Francisco in 2005, I initially wanted to do the popup in the East Bay. I reached out to a lot of folks and finally chose a spot. But, the owner was hard to keep track of and by the time he returned my calls, I had already locked down the Doctor’s Lounge, which was a painless process. The fact that the Doctor’s Lounge was in the Outer Mission was all the more appealing.

Why the brown paper kraft boats lined with banana leaves? Budget. Also, I couldn’t get bowls made out of coconuts, so the kraft boats kind of mimic that feel. And banana leaves are used so much in the Caribbean, women will use them to form their fritters and slide the fritters from the banana leaf into the hot oil.

Why the super traditional preparations and a more modern dessert? Unintentionally, the meal worked itself out to tell my story. The first time I met my great grandmother, she made me codfish fritters and it gave me some insight into her and my grandmother’s estranged relationship. Though estranged, my great grandmother had obviously left a rather strong impression on my grandma, because their codfish fritters tasted exactly the same. The carne guisada is the first recipe I dared to recreate after watching my grandma make hers. The green banana salad is a riff on my mom’s favorite dish (that my grandma used to make for her): a salad of bacalao, raw white onions and olive oil, with a side of boiled yucca, yautia (taro) and plantain. The dessert is all me.

The reservations are staggered, so please arrive on time. Your dinner is timed to be consumed and completed within 2 hours. If it gets crowded (which is unlikely) you may be asked to surrender your table. People cannot be added at the door, please have them purchase their tickets ahead of time. No substitutions. Any allergies should be announced ASAP. There are no refunds. The whole purpose of purchasing your tickets ahead of time allows us to realize the budget we’re working with and purchase the proper amount of ingredients for the proper amount of servings. We’re more than happy to reserve you a seat on another one of our dates.

If you have any other questions, comments or concerns, please email

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Seasonal specialty: Chiles en Nogada

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Photo by Adriana Almazan Lahl from Celebraciones Mexicanas: History, Traditions and Recipes


(Note: the following is adapted from an excerpt from our book, Celebraciones Mexicanas: History, Traditions and Recipes, by this author and Adriana Almazan Lahl )

It is traditional to serve Chiles en Nogada in the months of August and September when the ingredients are in season, coinciding with the Independence Day celebration September 15-16th.

The city of Puebla was an important center in New Spain, (which we now know as Mexico), a crossroads situated between the busy port of Vera Cruz and Mexico City. Along with its rapid development came the advent of Puebla’s convents and the birth of the cuisine for which these are now famous. Besides Rompope , Mole, Tinga de Pollo and a vast array of sweets, legend credits the sisters of Puebla with the original recipe for Chiles en Nogada.

This story is of a special meal for Agustin de Iturbide, a military commander who fought in Mexico’s War of Independence, and later proclaimed himself Emperor of Mexico (from 1822 to 1823). In August of 1821, he signed what was to be the most important document in the country’s history, the Treaty of Cordoba, which granted Mexico its independence from Spain. After signing the treaty in Veracruz, Iturbide traveled to Mexico City, stopping on the way in the town of Puebla. There, the locals decided to hold a feast to celebrate the country’s independence, and to honor Iturbide. The Augustinian nuns of the convent of Santa Monica prepared a special dish, Chiles en Nogada, using local, seasonal ingredients.

The original recipe is made with a fruit and nut stuffing consisting of apples, pears, peaches, raisins, olives, almonds, pine nuts, plantains, and acitron (caramelized cactus leaves). The modern version combines meat or chicken with the fruit. This is a seasonal dish and either recipe is delicious.  Both versions of this dish are finished off with pomegranate seeds and walnuts (the nuts are rumored to represent the politicos of the day) in dish that is as beautiful to look at as it is delicious to consume–  a virtual Mexican flag on a plate.

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Look for beautiful “red” walnuts at the Alemany Farmer’s Market on Saturdays to add some extra color to your dish.

Screen shot 2013-08-27 at 7.10.56 PMLook for poblanos that are more “square” than long and narrow, these are easier to stuff. I like to pick chiles with fairly flat sides as they dry-roast nicely (this is the first step in the process, so as to remove the skin).

The recipe in our book calls for a picadillo filling of chicken or pork, but they are also delicious filled with ground lamb. For a vegetarian version, wild rice makes for a “meaty” texture that works beautifully as a filling, along with the other recipe ingredients: apples, pears, apricots, plantain, dried black currants or raisins, almonds and spices. Sabrosa!

Stuffed Peppers in Walnut Sauce / Chiles en Nogada

(All recipes in this post serve 6)

6 Poblano chiles

prepared Picadillo (ground meat filling) (A)

Nogada (walnut sauce) (B)

½ cup pomegranate seeds

2 tbsp. parsley leaves, coarsely chopped

Dry roast chiles to remove skin. Carefully stuff the peppers with the Picadillo, taking care not to rip the peppers. Transfer the stuffed peppers to a serving platter.

Cover with cold Nogada sauce and garnish with pomegranate seeds and parsley, mimicking the Mexican flag.

A. Picadillo

1 lb. pork shoulder or chicken breast (or omit for original, vegetarian version)

2 cups water

2 bay leaves

1 clove garlic

½ Spanish white onion

5 medium ripe tomatoes, finely chopped

½ cup white onion, finely chopped

2 garlic cloves, plus 2 cloves of garlic, coarsely chopped

1 tbsp. olive oil

1 tbsp. freshly minced cilantro leaves 2 cups apples, finely diced

2 cups pears, finely diced 2 cups diced apricot

1 ripe plantain, finely diced

2 tbsp. dried black currants or raisins

2 tbsp. dried cherries

2 tbsp. sliced blanched almonds, toasted

2 tbsp white vinegar

1 tbsp. white sugar

¼ tsp. ground cinnamon

1/8 tsp. ground cloves

Pinch of cumin

Salt to taste

½ tsp. freshly ground black pepper

Cook the meat in medium saucepan with 2 cups of water and 1 bay leaf, 1 clove garlic, ½ Spanish white onion. Once cooked, let it rest and shred; set aside.

Put the tomatoes, ¼ cup of onion, and 2 cloves of garlic in a blender purée until smooth. Add 1 tsp. of oil to a saucepan and add the remaining ¼ cup onion and chopped garlic. Sauté 2–3 minutes and pass the tomato mixture purée through a sieve and into the saucepan with 1 tsp. of olive oil; cook uncovered on medium-high heat for 10 minutes. Add shredded meat, fruit, spices, bay leaf, and all remaining ingredients to the saucepan and let simmer for 20 minutes. Set aside to cool. Place in the refrigerator once cooled. Remove bay leaf before using.

B. Nogada Sauce

¼ cup Crèma Mexicana or Crème Fraiche

¼ cup goat cheese

¼ cup walnuts, whole, blanched

1 ½ cups milk or almond milk

¼ cup sugar

2 tablespoons Port or Sherry

½ tsp. salt

Mix together all the ingredients in a blender until puréed into a smooth sauce (the mixture should be a little thicker than a gravy). Keep in refrigerator until ready to serve (is served cold).

Posted in Celebraciones Mexicanas: History, Celebraciones Mexicanas: History, Traditions and Recipes, Holiday Traditions and Recipes, Mexican Cultural Events, Mission Foodie Events, Mission Grocers, Poblano, Recipes | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why a taco is Mexican food and a burrito is not

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Chef Tu David Phu talks about going “Private”, Vietnamese food and the future

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Private Chefs of the SF Bay is thrilled to welcome Chef Tu David Phu to its ranks. Chef Tu’s resume reflects a reverence for American culinary greats, skilled in classical European traditions. His stints include the nation’s top Michelin-rated restaurants: Chez Panisse, Quince, Acquerello, Daniel Boulud, Breslin, Gotham Bar & Grill and Gramercy Tavern. Most recently, Chef Tu was Executive Chef of Gather in Berkeley.

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But even before all this, Chef Tu had a rich culinary experience. His family hails from the Island of Phu Quoc in Southern Vietnam, and immersed him in the practices, ingredients, techniques, and flavors of one of world’s most sophisticated global cuisines. Gayot describes him this way,

“Chef Tu David Phu works in the open kitchen [which makes him ideally suited to work as a private chef] with the focus and artistic skill of a musician, arranging dishes from pure ingredients that sing of the land or water from which they came”

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We interviewed Chef Tu as part of our series on what it takes to be a private chef.

Lawson Gray: I know you have extensive restaurant experience, including several Michelin-starred restaurants and notably most recently as Executive Chef at Gather. What would you say are the most profound differences between working as a chef in a restaurant setting and your work now, as a private chef?

Chef Tu: A restaurant chef and a private chef are immersed in two completely different worlds. In a micro view, restaurant chefs have brigades behind them: Dishwashers, cooks, sous chefs, bussers, servers, etc. Work is compartmentalized for efficiency and speed for each individual customer and table. A macro look sees private chefs usually orchestrating the event not just the food: Things such as equipment rentals and how the food will be executed on-site. Private chefs are more focused on the synchronicity of events since everyone is usually dinning at the same time unlike a traditional restaurant setting.

Lawson Gray: What drives you to cook? What do you look to share with those who eat what you create?

Chef Tu: Cooking is what I’m good at. It’s what I’ve always done. I grew up watching my parents make tapioca noodles and fresh coconut milk every Sunday in Oakland, California. The pure joy and care they placed into food and traditions stuck with me. I was amazed how much cooking can enrich the lives of others.

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Lawson Gray: Can you talk more about Vietnamese food and food history?

Chef Tu: Vietnamese food is slowly getting exposed to the western palette. Westerners are now open to the smell of fish sauce, ferments and etc. It’s great! Only a few years ago, the presumption of Vietnamese cuisine was “Banh Mi, Pho and Spring Rolls.” There is definitely more to Vietnamese Cuisine than that. Vietnamese cuisine is going through the same struggles Italian cuisine went through 20 years ago. There is definitely more to Italian food than pasta, meatballs and pizza. As immigrants turn into first generation, then 2nd and so on, more about their culture and food gets exposed to westerners. I think it is an incredibly beautiful thing.

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Lawson Gray: What are you plans for the rest of 2016 and beyond?

Chef Tu: My goal for 2016 is to find brick and mortar for my concept. I have a few in mind and will make sure to keep you updated!

Lawson Gray: What is your favorite, “can’t do without it” kitchen tool? (See Part IV of this series for how four other Private Chefs of the SF Bay answered this same question!)

Chef Tu: My favorite “can’t do without tool” would have to be my hand lime/lemon squeezer. Have you tried juicing with your bare hands?! Not fun!

Lawson Gray: What is one trick you can share with the aspiring home cook who is looking to be more creative in the kitchen?

Chef Tu: Substitute your seasoning salts with other forms of sodium such as soy, fish sauce and oyster sauce and then caramelized them. It’s a technique to make things more umami.

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Catch Chef Tu’s Class Thursday July 28th on Vietnamese Street Food at 18Reasons; learn to create a memorable meal of – what many consider to be – the best street food in the world! Enjoy a hands-on cooking class culminating in dinner served with wine and beer!

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Cinco de Mayo: an American tradition, complete with BBQ and 3 Carne Asada recipes!

margarita(Note: the following is an excerpt from Celebraciones Mexicanas: History, Traditions and Recipes, co-authored by this columnist with Adriana Almazan Lahl)

Cinco de Mayo is much more widely celebrated in the United States than in Mexico, where it is really only observed in Puebla. There, it is commemorated with military maneuvers reenacting the Battle of Puebla, a parade, and other festivities. Several theories and stories combine to explain the popularity of the Cinco de Mayo holiday in the United States, one that actually commemorates the Mexican victory against the French on May 5, 1862.

An Unlikely Mexican Victory

Cinco de Mayo is a celebration of a surprising victory, a secret alliance, and a battle that changed history in three countries on two continents. The French invasion of Mexico, known as the French Intervention (1862–1867), occurred concurrently with the American Civil War. With the United States divided and distracted by civil war, Napoleon saw an opportunity to expand French territories in North America, and with the pretext of collecting a debt owed by previous administrations, sent his troops to remove Mexican president Benito Juarez from power and in his place install his cousin Prince Maximilian of Austria as ruler. But, as the French Army marched across the country from the port of Vera Cruz, they first had to pass through the city of Puebla, defended by a ragtag, poorly equipped Mexican Army.
The Mexicans fought back and were victorious against what at the time was the mightiest army in the world, one that had not seen defeat in over fifty years. The 8,000-strong French army attacked the Mexican army of four thousand just outside of Puebla and yet was decisively crushed. This was the last time a European military force invaded the Americas.
The Battle in Mexico That Changed the Outcome of the American Civil War
The Confederacy had appealed to Napoleon III for support, and there was talk of French recognition for the breakaway Southern states. According to some histori¬ans, the French had a plan that involved using Mexico as a base from which they could provide military support to the Confederacy. The Confederacy, having just won several impressive victories over the Union forces, was gaining ground at the very time that French forces were engaged by Mexico in the Battle of Puebla.
However, the defeat at Puebla on May 5 was a major setback for Napoleon, and while France’s forces regrouped and recovered, the Union army was able to gain momentum. Some contend that had the French won at Puebla the outcome of the American Civil War would have been much different, that the French and Confederates together could have taken control of the North American continent, from the Mason-Dixon Line to Mexico’s border with Guatemala.

Tipping the Scales: Mexican-Americans Write Anti-Slavery Laws into California Constitution

What is now the state of California was part of the Republic of Mexico when slavery was outlawed in that country in 1820, decades before it was abolished in the United States. As California prepared to enter the Union, the Latinos who helped write the California Constitution in 1849 were insistent that slavery be kept out of the state. California’s subsequent admission to the Union tipped the balance between free and slave-holding states, thwarting the original Union strategy to create a territory where slavery was legal all across the United States to the Pacific coast. If the French had been victorious on that Cinco de Mayo over 150 years ago, it is very possible that two treacherous allies, Napoleon and the Confederacy, would have been successful in their plans and much of North America to the Guatemalan border would have become slave-holding territories under French rule.

A Holiday Is Born in California

In his book El Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition, David Hayes-Bautista, whose great-great grandfather fought in the Battle of Puebla, explores the roots of Cinco de Mayo celebrations in the United States and makes a little-known connection between the Civil War and the Battle of Puebla: “Cinco de Mayo does indeed mark a Mexican military victory over the invading French army on May 5, 1862, but it’s celebrated more in the United States because in 1862, U.S. Latinos of Mexican heritage parlayed the victory as a rallying cry that the Union could also win the Civil War.”

Looking at Mexican newspapers in California from 1862, Hayes-Bautista discovered that, for Mexican Americans on the West Coast, the American Civil War and Mexico’s war against the French were “basically look[ed] at [as] one war with two fronts, one against the Confederacy in the east and the other against the French in the south.” Mexicans were squarely against the French goal of returning their country, which had been under democratic rule for more than four decades, to a monarchy. He added,

In California and Oregon, the news [of the victory in Puebla] was interpreted as finally . . . the army of freedom and democracy [had] won a big one against the army of slavery and elitism. And the fact that those two armies had to meet in Mexico was immaterial because they were fighting for the same issues—defending freedom and democracy. Latinos were joining the Union army, Union cavalry, and Union navy.

Mexicans in Los Angeles were closely following the events of the invasion of France, taking place more than 2,000 miles away. If news was slow coming from Mexico, it was further delayed in reaching Los Angeles, as most of the Spanish-language newspapers were published in San Francisco and were delivered by stage¬coach—four days after being printed in the Bay Area. Hayes-Bautista describes this scene: as the stagecoach arrived on May 25 and the bundles of newspapers were thrown down to the anxious crowd, where they were ripped open and passed around. The crowd began to cheer as they read the combat reports published in La Voz de Mejico:

“Retirada de los Franceses. Viva Mejico! Viva la independencia! Vivan los valientes soldados Mejicanos! (The French retreat. Long live Mexico! Long live indepen¬dence! Long live the brave Mexican soldiers!)”

Filled with the excitement of the unlikely victory, Mexicans in Los Angeles decided to hold a local celebration to recognize their heroes and the triumph of freedom and democracy.

A David versus Goliath Victory and the Commercialization of Cinco de Mayo

Since then, the meaning of the holiday has shifted, specifically as Mexican immigrants flooded into the American Southwest following the Mexican Revolution. The connection to the American Civil War became lost as the day came to signify a David versus Goliath story really only known to Mexican immigrants. Later, Cinco de Mayo was used to political advantage to promote U.S.-Mexico unity during World War II and, in the 1960s and 1970s, by the Chicano Power movement. More recently, a sort of fake holiday has been reinvented by beverage companies, who see a big commercial opportunity to penetrate the Latino market. “But if you ask people why they are celebrating, no one knows. And then you get some people who say it shouldn’t be celebrated at all because it’s a foreign holiday—and yet it’s as American a holiday as the Fourth of July,”6 concludes Hayes-Bautista.

Nothing says “BBQ” like a great Carne Asada. Barbeque flavor is determined by the marinade (adobo), the salsa, and the charcoal over which your steak is cooked. For real Mexican wood-smoked flavor, use mesquite or oak charcoal.

63 - Volcanes (2)Grilled Cactus Paddles make a great side for your Cinco de Mayo BBQ (Photo by Adriana Almazan Lahl )

Grilled Steaks / Carne Asada
Side / Guarnición
Cowboy Beans / Frijoles Charros*
Salsa of choice*
Classic Baja Caesar Salad / Ensalada Cesar Clásica*
Tamarind Water / Agua de Tamarindo*
Peanut Marzapan / Mazapanes de Cacahuate*

* recipes available in Celebraciones Mexicanas: History, Traditions and Recipes

Grilled Steaks / Carne Asada I
(Serves 4–6)
¼ cup Worchestershire Sauce
2 tbsp Maggi Seasoning
Juice of 3 lemons
2 sprigs chopped cilantro
2 garlic cloves
¼ piece of white onion
8 oz beer
2 lbs flank steak
Combine all ingredients but the meat in a blender and mix until smooth. Place meat in a glass bowl, pour mixture over the meat, and drench every steak in the sauce. Cover with plastic wrap and let it rest in refrigerator for 3 hours or overnight. Place steaks on a hot griddle or grill and cook for 3 minutes on each side, depending on how you prefer your meat done.
Grilled Steaks / Carne Asada II

(Serves 4-6)

2 lbs flank steak
½ cup lard
Coarse salt
Mix steaks with lard, covering each steak completely; add coarse salt before you place on grill and cook for 3 minutes each side.

Grilled Steaks / Carne Asada III
Marinate meat with adobo sauce (see recipe below) overnight if possible; if not, for at least 2 hours, salt steaks and cook over hot charcoal for 2-3 minutes per side. _

Basic Adobo
(Makes 1- 1 ½ cups)
6 chiles anchos secos, medium size
3 dry chiles guajillos or New Mexico chiles
2 dry chiles cascabel
1 chile chipotle dry or in adobo sauce
1 tbsp whole allspice
1 tsp coriander
½ tsp cumin sedes
1 tsp Mexican oregano
4 fresh epazote sprigs or 2 dry tsp dry epazote
½ cup apple vinegar
2 tbsp brown sugar, piloncillo, or honey
½ white onion
6 garlic cloves
1 cup water

Place all chiles in hot water to rehydrate. Once hydrated and soft, mix them with all ingredients and the garlic cloves. Mix ingredients well in blender until a thick paste forms (this is the adobo); add water if needed to keep the blender moving. The texture should be that of a thick tomato paste. This keeps well in the refrigerator for 2 weeks or frozen for 6 months.

Posted in Celebraciones Mexicanas: History, Holiday Traditions and Recipes, Mexican Cultural Events, Recipes, SF Mexican Food, Traditions and Recipes | Leave a comment

Kitchit closes doors- cancels booked events – so what’s next for private chefs?

Rose Plating

Chef Rose Johnson of Private Chefs of the SF Bay prepares to serve

Mat Stark, Kitchit‘s Director of Marketing and Business Development, sent a message out to Kitchit chefs on Facebook earlier this week, as follows;

“Chefs -We are sad to announce that Kitchit will be ceasing operations this Friday, April 29. It is with a heavy-heart but genuine gratitude that we thank all of you for contributing to our unique endeavor. Kitchit has been a labor of love for all those involved. Thanks to chefs like you, we created great meals and great memories for so many diners. You have our enduring respect for sharing your energy, craft and passion for hospitality. You’ve been the cornerstone of Kitchit from day one. From all of us here at Kitchit, thank you for all of your hard work, passion and creativity. It has been a wonderful journey.”

Click on their website and you’ll get a re-direct informing you that the “page isn’t working” and some clients who have already booked events and all of a sudden find themselves without a chef, like a South Bay customer who sent this email to at least a half a dozen chefs, “hi- Kitchit canceled a 30th birthday dinner I’d set up for my girlfriend at our apartment this Sunday, May 1. I’m wondering if you can step in and save this party. I’d love to still have a great meal cooked by someone talented and cool. If you can help, please let me know. It would mean a lot”. Several Bay area chefs report receiving similar emails and calls from frantic hosts.

One of the early entries into the food-meets-tech sector, Kitchit, launched October 1, 2011 as an innovative service with a mission “to transform the way people eat at home, powered by outstanding food and service from chefs”. Bay area private chefs were excited. With per person pricing averaging between $80-$120, here was a great platform to connect them to clients; one that was professional, seemingly understood their talent and allowed them to focus on creating great food while it focused on marketing it. So excited, in fact, that by the time Kitchit folded its Marketplace with a surprise announcement to its chefs August 17, 2015 that it was refocusing “our company’s work exclusively on our Kitchit Tonight service [which allowed] diners choose from seasonal prix-fixe menus” from $39/person– there were over 150 chefs participating in Kitchit Marketplace in the SF Bay area, alone.

But many experienced chefs saw the move as shortsighted and damaging to the industry as a whole; some blaming Kitchit for building its reputation on the backs of real culinary talent, only to turn away from that same talent. One chef put into words what many felt, that the Kitchit Tonight offer, “devalued us, our craft, our worth”. Chef Tiffany Friedman describes her experience with Kitchit this way, “About 4 years ago I was lured in and asked to be a part of a very cool chef community and platform that looked impressive. Things were great for about a year I crushed lots of gigs around the Bay booking jobs through the Kitchit website for a fee. [But} after a while, with Kitchit adjusting the platform numerous times and bringing on more and more chefs, even ones with little to no personal or private chef experience, I become concerned. Suddenly, they were trying to sell a high end service to any and everyone.”

Chef Math

The margins in the restaurant industry are notoriously low. According to a June 2014 Forbes article, “Average industry net profit margins hit… 5.1% in 2013, according to Sageworks’ financial statement analysis of privately held restaurants.” One of the obvious differences in the restaurant business models and that of a private chef of even of a caterer what is known as “restaurant occupancy costs”: rent, taxes and insurance, why typically run 5-6%. While that may seem, on surface, like the difference between healthy profitability and none, it’s just not that simple. (To begin with, taxes don’t disappear and there are still insurance costs to consider.)

To begin with, because of the specific restaurant business model, in achieving the “32 percent of each dollar [an average restaurant spends] on the cost of food and beverages” there is a shelf stable inventory of ingredients that are purchased with volume discounts. Due to an event schedule that is more erratic than that of a restaurant and the lack of pantry space, the average private chef cannot purchase the same way, nor can smaller caterers. In fact, the time lost in repeat trips to purchase ingredients is an added cost, as is travel (mostprivate chefs service an area that is within a 50 mile radius of their base).

On the other hand, the 33 percent an average restaurant spends on salaries and wages seems, at first glance, to be an area where private chefs can look to substantially improve margins; and it is. Costs of labor are, indeed, lower. For this reason, private chefs, working independently, can see health profits even when their customer bases are small, if they price their offers smartly. Kitchit Tonight’s lead offer of $39/person for a 3-course dinner isn’t just not a moneymaker for a private chef; it’s actually money looser.

Consider a dinner for 8 at $100 per person that includes a single server with the chef preparing much of the meal on-site:

  • Cost of food: 25-33% (we can use $25 for purposes of discussion) = $200
  • Cost of labor: 20% or $200
  • Travel, insurance, taxes and other misc. costs 5% or $50
  • Tentative profit = $350

Now, let’s look at the time allocated to produce the meal: Customer service hours (client proposal, menu development, staff procurement): 3 hours + Shopping: 2 hours + Prep: 2 hours + On-site: 5 hours= 12 hours. So that chef is earning $30/hour, if the dinner is $100 per person.

A Promise That Couldn’t Be Filled

It is not unusual for start-ups to change course, and there was no doubt pressure for rapid growth brought after “$7.5 million in funding led by Javelin Venture Partners to make its chefs available to more users in more places” (according to a Dec 9 2014 article in Tech Crunch). But Kitchit Tonight with their promise of “Your own personal chef from just $39 per person” created confusion about in-home or private chefs, a service that is relatively new to many consumers, and blurred the already blurry lines between a cook and a chef. Chef Tiffany explains, “I have been a private and a personal chef for almost 20 years and it was truly lame to see Kitchit come in to a positive flow industry and experiment on it by using and lying to all kinds of established chefs and potential clients. I’m sorry for the misconception that new clients have had to their introduction to the personal in-home chef service world but $40-50 per head price points won’t get us in the door”. And while there certainly are many talented chefs in the Bay area, few, if any, can produce meals at the price points touted by Kitchit, leaving the hosts on whom Kitchit has cancelled with few options.

What’s Next?

Several Kitchit Marketplace chefs, who were left without critical access to customers looking for bespoke cuisine, formed a co-op marketplace which currently hosts six chefs on a website called Private Chefs of the SF Bay (full disclosure: this columnist is one of the chefs on the site), which went live Nov. 1, 2015. Each chef has a presence on the site’s home page, their own dedicated page complete with bio, menus, food photos and contact information. The business model is one in which a small percentage of proceeds from events booked through the site goes back to the co-op to support marketing and site maintenance, with half of those funds being earmarked to support selected Bay Area non-profits operating in the culinary sector.

Will other business models or booking sites emerge in the space? It’s hard to say. Surely, Kitchit’s difficulty in funding a business that founder Brenden Marshall said “has positive unit economics” according to an article a few days ago in the SF Business Times point to the fact that its less than likely that any big players will step up. IfOnly has definitely stepped up its efforts in the Bay area, and even courted some of the former Kitchit Marketplace chefs, but their business model is diverse as are the culinary “Experiences” they offer, ranging from a chef’s shirt hand signed by Michael Chiarello ($250) to an entire category dedicated to Culinary Apprenticeships. In the meanwhile, former Kitchit chefs are being aggressively courted by other sites promising to give them they exposure the need, some from as far away as Canada. One of these is MiumMium, which claims that it is “the largest online marketplace of on-demand chefs, recently reaching 10,000 registered chefs in less than four months after launching and stands as the go-to on-demand chef service in the Bay Area with Kitchit shutting down” in a recent email to chefs in the Bay area. But go on-line to their website and enter a Bay area zip code and a random event date, and what comes up? An impressive listing of chefs from as far away as New Zealand, with the closest one being in San Diego.

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