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Foragers Without Borders - By pkane - November 17, 2016 - SF Weekly
SF Weekly

Foragers Without Borders

Fumami rubbed rotisserie chicken with nasturtium chimichurri (Peter Lawrence Kane)

Eat-in kitchens are one of the few things about suburban living that hold any appeal for most food-obsessed city dwellers. Usually, it means gathering around an island under a ceiling fan purchased from Lowe’s. But I’m eating umami-rubbed chicken with nasturtium chimichurri at one of two tables set for 20 near a commercial-grade stovetop with massive burners, with an industrial rotisserie not far away.

This cavernous commissary in Uptown Oakland belongs to Forage Kitchen, an event space, kitchen, and cafe conceived by Iso Rabins and his business partner, Matt Johansen. The 40 people here with me are happily digging into their chicken (and, later, a French apple cake that Rabins’ girlfriend Hemary Kuoch made, with ice cream and candy-cap mushroom whipped cream) as part of Forage Kitchen’s monthly Sunday Supper series. It’s modeled on the “family meal” that restaurants serve their employees nightly: casual, with big portions. People share wine, including one bottle of Cabernet blend from the Restaurant at Meadowood’s own vineyard.

Rabins drew widespread attention in San Francisco a few years ago with his dual projects, ForageSF and Underground Market, which brought together foodies and makers for a brief glorious period — until the health department shut him down. Licked but not beaten, he put together a crowdfunding campaign, and four years later, Forage Kitchen made its debut. It’s pretty spiffy — and the good-natured Rabins even invited his former health-department adversary to the opening — but in spite of the name, it’s more of an outgrowth of Underground Market.

“I’ve been doing a lot less foraging these days,” Rabins tells me a few days later. “The nasturtium in the chimichurri — I forage that from our herb garden right here. But I’ve been trying to go abalone diving and spearfishing in Sonoma.”

To prevent any confusion, he was initially reluctant to do any foraging at all — not even for wild mushrooms or for the eucalyptus he uses in the Campari Jell-O shots he serves in orange slices — but in the end, Rabins couldn’t help himself, so nasturtium chimichurri it is.

The Sunday Suppers feel like a casual version of Lazy Bear, David Barzelay’s supper club on 19th Street in the Mission — and in fact, Rabins helped Barzelay find the space for his pop-up back when he was Rabins’ lawyer.

But they’re only one of many events Forage Kitchen plans to throw. There will be a “Double-Blind Taste Test” for food makers, so that everyone gets constructive feedback on their products, as well as a monthly “Bookmake Party” for people who can’t ever seem to balance their Quickbooks and who’d rather drink beer in the company of other lazybones creatives with an actual bookkeeper on hand to answer questions. On Fourth Fridays, Rabins wants to set up stations in the kitchen so that people can come hang out in the parking lot, have drinks, and taste the various makers’ creations. The Food Craft Institute, the nonprofit that throws the Eat Real Festival every September in Jack London Square, teaches business-operations classes upstairs from Forage Kitchen’s kitchen. (The two share office space.) And in front, there’s a customer-facing cafe with beer and wine and Pal’s Takeaway serving sandwiches during lunch — although its hours may shortly change.

It sounds complicated, but Rabins’ initial vision was “totally grandiose,” more like a food hall in the style of the Grand Fare Market a mile or so away, which had dreamed big but failed to catch on — twice. So it’s probably best that he didn’t open the meat-curing room he once dreamed of, returning instead to the demystification that characterized Underground Market.

“Most commercial kitchens are these black boxes where you’re just not allowed in unless you’re renting space, and they certainly don’t let you in if you don’t know what you’re doing,” Rabins says. “So it’s really intimidating for people. And we really wanted to create a place where people felt comfortable coming into even if they weren’t a hardcore chef for 10 years.”

The bar to entry for would-be picklers and bacon purveyors is high, and often, people with great ideas are reluctant to commit — or to ask for help, fearing that the glowering, Type-A personalities who dominate many kitchens will take the if-you-don’t-know-then-why-should-I-bother-to-teach-you attitude. For his part, Rabins got a leg up from a chef at Global Gourmet Catering who generously carved out space for him, and wanted to pay the magnanimity forward.

“Everyone’s always helping each other out, and that’s what we’re trying to pass on here,” he says. “It’s like the most pleasant kitchen I’ve ever been in in my life. Most kitchens feel like dungeons.”

Forage Kitchen has four membership levels, running from Day Use ($30 per hour, with a 10-hour minimum and free dish-washing) to Chef ($23 per hour, at a minimum of 80 hours, with storage and co-working office space access). But the tier that’s closest to the mission statement would be Maker, which costs $99 per month and allows non-business-owners with big ambitions and tiny home kitchens to, say, make their own jam on Sundays from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Rabins says he wants to make the overall vibe “porous,” meaning there’s nothing that would separate front- and back-of-house.

“This is the space I wish I had when I was starting out as a food maker,” he says. “A community of people who are all trying to create their dreams, and all get to hang out with one another.”

In spite of Underground Market’s fate, it worked the first time. Rabins cites Mission Cheese, Nosh This, Bread SRSLY, and other successful ventures as ideas that either originated there or else passed through. And a visit to the grocery store gives him the feeling he can replicate the magic.

“It’s cool walking to Whole Foods,” he says, “like, ‘Yeah! Hey, I know you!'”

Forage Kitchen, 478 25th St., Oakland 510-808-7665 or foragekitchen.com.