“I don’t believe in chef jackets for a number of philosophical and political reasons,” says Preeti Mistry, chef of Oakland’s Juhu Beach Club. “First and foremost being that I am a small woman who looks stupid in a chef’s jacket.”
Throughout her career, when she was cooking but not yet in charge, she would open the uniform closet and find jackets in “a size 48 or 52, for all these big dudes” and feel like she was “swimming” in them. It’s important to come to work feeling “like you’re in your power,” she says.
Otherwise, “how can you be your best self?” she asks, adding, “They also look like straitjackets, I don’t know if you’ve noticed.”
So apart from basic ground rules around safety, Mistry and the rest of her back-of-the-house staff cook in whatever makes them feel most in control. (For her, that means skinny black jeans.)
But dumping a stodgy restaurant practice is not without risks of its own. Mistry rightly bristles at the widespread misconception that her elevated, Indian food — or perhaps, more broadly, “ethnic food” — ought to be inexpensive in the style of any random lunch buffet, whereas few people bat an eye over a $35 entree in a classic French restaurant. Mistry may have won her first James Beard semifinalist nomination in February (for Best Chef: West), but working in an open kitchen visibly full of women and people of color seems to reinforce certain stereotypes.
“The perception is that the food is devalued because the people cooking it don’t look like a ‘real’ chef,” she says, “which is, like, a big White guy in a chef jacket.”
This is especially frustrating in light of Mistry’s commitment to a diverse employee base, with people who may have “been left out of or not motivated by the traditional restaurant environment.”
Some diners seem to think “those people don’t deserve to get paid [equally], which is totally jacked up,” she says.
She doesn’t hesitate to call this what it is: racism. But as in so many things, it’s women who are damned either way. In a home setting, cooking can be consigned to the sphere of domesticity, barely a notch about vacuuming. In the professional realm, however, women must work twice as hard to acquire the same recognition as their male peers — which is why so much of the acclaim seems to come with asterisks attached. Chef Dominique Crenn, whose Cow Hollow restaurant Atelier Crenn holds two Michelin stars, won “Best Female Chef” by the World’s 50 Best organization last year. It’s an award she richly deserves, in spite of the anachronism of bestowing it.
Mistry’s dishes — think tamarind coconut curry or Manchurian cauliflower — bear little resemblance to Crenn’s modernist approach, in either ingredients or provenance. Moreover, Mistry claims to have no interest in fine dining, if that means excessive attention to tweezers. But she expresses a similar disappointment that the world hasn’t moved beyond this level of discourse.
“People say the most bizarre things to [account for] a person who, I guess, is not ‘supposed to be successful,’ to explain their success,” Mistry says. “There’s a lot of jealousy, a lot of wanting to preserve some quote-unquote natural order. And when something’s outside of that, you have a bunch of guys going, ‘Hmm, how do we explain this?’ ”
She’s also attentive to issues that may not affect her quite so directly, particularly immigration. Juhu Beach Club is a sanctuary restaurant, and Mistry wrestled over what to do on Feb. 21, dubbed “A Day Without Immigrants.” She wanted to close in solidarity with many other eateries, and didn’t object to canceling 40 reservations, but she was reluctant to deprive her staff of wages.
“I wanted to support the protest, and I totally get the point of ‘What if literally nobody was there to work?’ But unfortunately,” she says, “the only way I thought it would be fair to close was if we still paid everybody, which would be a larger financial burden.”
Instead, Mistry donated the day’s proceeds to Oakland International High School, which serves an immigrant-heavy population. If you follow her on Twitter, you will witness a pugnacious member of the resistance.
But woke or not, as with any chef, Mistry’s ultimate concerns hover close to the plate. The nonfunctional garnish, in particular, is one foodie pretension that gets under her skin.
She’s not a fan of covering things “with all the microgreens and edible flowers in the world. That’s not cooking,” she says. “Everything on my plate is there for a reason. We don’t just sprinkle some julienned whatever, just because. If it doesn’t make sense in that dish when you actually eat it, it shouldn’t be there.”
Juhu Beach Club, 5179 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, 510-652-7350 or juhubeachclub.com.