Reem Assil: The Art of Warm

The labor activist opened a bakery in Oakland, and — after enduring a backlash over a mural plus a difficult pregnancy — went on to open the full-service Dyafa in Jack London Square only a year later.

Anyone who opens a small business knows they’re probably not going to take a vacation at any point during the first 18 to 24 months of operation. This goes double for restaurants, which almost always involve unanticipated construction delays, menu tweaks, and protracted difficulties in hiring a full team. But for Reem Assil, who opened her Arab corner bakery Reem’s California in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood in early 2017, it meant more than just forgoing the volcanic sands of Hawaii or the Fourth Arrondissement for awhile. It also meant working near a hot oven late into the third trimester of her first pregnancy.

“I was on the line seven, eight months pregnant, with a big old belly,” she says.

A routine checkup after one late-night pop-up revealed that she’d gone into preterm labor, something doctors were able to halt — but only by ordering Assil to bedrest. Having to step away from the day-to-day running of her kitchen was not easy, but it forced her to put trust in — and strengthen — her still-nascent team. It also coincided with the genesis of her follow-up project to Reem’s California, a full-service restaurant in the former Haven space in Jack London Square called Dyafa. It’s the fruit of a partnership with chef and restaurateur Daniel Patterson’s Alta Group — an indisputable indication she’d made the culinary big time.

“I was wheeling and dealing from the hospital,” she says. “Honestly, it’s a big blur.”

The pace was frenetic. The restaurant group wanted to open quickly, but Assil knew she would need to take at least a couple of weeks off around her due date. But otherwise, the partnership gelled.

Patterson “did a lot of the grunt work,” she says. “I was picking the artwork and trying to find the different elements, and he would go and get the stuff, make sure it was installed. That’s something I really value about him: He’s not afraid to scrub some tile and make it happen.

“And what’s really great about Daniel’s palate,” she adds, “is that it’s very conducive to Middle Eastern cuisine. ’Cause he loves high acid and salt.”

Assil had met Patterson through Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, where they served on an advisory board. She pitched him on her proposal for what became Dyafa, and the recognition continued rolling in. In February, the James Beard Foundation named Reem’s as a semifinalist in the Best Chef: West category. Several of Patterson’s restaurants were undergoing major changes at this time. Haven had closed for a planned revamp that would take a detour and become Dyafa instead. The two locations of his Alta CA — one of which was among the few survivors of the rapid expansion-contraction cycle that hit San Francisco’s Mid-Market — have subsequently transformed as well. The original one became Nigel Jones’ Jamaican restaurant Kaya and the other, in Dogpatch, is now Heema Patel’s Besharam.

There’s no particularly sinister reason for all this; the Alta CA concept had arguably become diluted by the growing number of New American competitors. Calling Patterson an “overachiever” who recognized that “people are hungry for a different way of doing cuisine,” his business partner says Patterson perceived another shift in the industry.

“I really do think he thinks about ownership and shining a light on women of color,” says Assil, who is of Syrian-Palestinian descent. “He wanted to give me ownership and to be able to use his privilege and power to do that. I feel really blessed that it came at the right time. Reem’s had all this pressure to be everything for everyone.”

“I just was really impressed with everything about her, and I was thinking about what we wanted to do with the spaces we have,” Patterson says. “I thought she might be someone who would be a great partner — and I ate at Reem’s and I loved it. Her food is terrific and our values are very aligned.”

“If she wasn’t a good cook, then I never would have called her,” he adds.

After two years of working on equity systems and examining everything within the restaurants, Patterson and Alta Group concluded that “if the ownership does not also respect those values, there’s kind of a built-in limitation and one that mirrors some off the artificial barriers that exist in the larger society.”

“The intentionality was to create actual power and agency and actual representation,” Patterson says. “Because I don’t want to speak for them. Our role within these restaurants is to be supportive and to be invisible as much as possible. … I really do think that this is a moment when having new voices in our restaurant community is a really positive thing.”

Fattoush (arugula, little gems, cucumber, cherry tomatoes, radish, mint, parsley, red onions, fried pita, pomegranate citrus vinaigrette) Photo by Peter Lawrence Kane

Dyafa is a wonderful restaurant, roughly divided into hot and cold mezze, or small plates, along with larger items like the shakriyah, a braised lamb shank with garlic yogurt, Arabic rice, almond and gremolata. There are cocktails, rosé flights, and savory brunch dishes like labneh wa bazlah (yogurt, sugar snap peas, and flowering coriander). For good or for ill, it’s quite upscale, with entrees exceeding the $30 mark.

Compare that to Reem’s California, where the chef-owner spends most mornings. Its cheerful interior includes a shelf lined with bottles of Cortas rose water and a small yellow-gold pail on which someone has written “Feed the Resistance (With $).” Another sign asks for help freeing a Contra Costa County resident named Marco from ICE detention and a small box solicits donations for a Syrian refugee family in Turkey.

It’s a morning-and-afternoon place for flatbreads called manna’eesh and pastries like a moist peach scone. Ever wary of gentrification, Assil always envisioned it to be a community space in addition to a business — reflecting her 10 years as a community organizer. Sometimes, she says, people just hang out.

As Dyafa developed from Reem’s, Reem’s grew out of Assil’s stands at area farmers markets like the ones at the Ferry Building or Old Oakland, which in turn originated from food-entrepreneur incubator La Cocina. Although her food speaks for itself, it’s a remarkable trajectory in a short time frame.

“The way I talk about my menu is that I want to get to the heart of the dish,” she says. “I don’t mind being playful with it. That’s what’s cool about Arabic cuisine. It’s very flexible.”

That flexibility may be helpful in more ways than one. A specter looms over everything Assil has built: The Mural. On one wall of Reem’s is the smiling face of Rasmea Odeh, a Palestinian woman and onetime member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine who was convicted for her role in a 1969 bombing in Jerusalem that killed two Israeli Jewish men. Odeh claimed to have been sexually tortured into a confession, but served 10 years of a life sentence before being released in a prisoner swap.

Moving to Chicago in 1995 and becoming a naturalized American, she worked with the Arab Women’s Committee of the Arab American Action Network, providing social services for hundreds of people in her community. As part of a nationwide sweep in 2014, Odeh was charged with irregularities on her citizenship application that stemmed from the bombing episode and subsequent confession extracted during the same torture she alleged took place. In September 2017, she was deported to Jordan.

The mural, by arts collective Trust Your Struggle, depicts Odeh on a lime-green background with bright Arabic calligraphy. Near the bottom, a small inset shows Oscar Grant, the 22-year-old Black man who was shot dead by a BART police officer at Fruitvale Station on New Year’s Day, 2009. The work erupted into controversy.

Droves of Yelpers — many of them identifiably from out of the area, and highly unlikely to have patronized an eatery in East Oakland so soon after it opened — took to the platform to denounce Assil. They attacked her business the same way people had descended on a Minnesota dentist’s Yelp page in response to the death of Cecil the Lion. The volume of vitriol triggered the site’s cleanup algorithm. There were death threats. Irate internet trolls even attacked an unrelated bakery with the same name in the Middle East. Assil apologized to its owners but stood her ground in her defense of Odeh, whom she says she’s never met.

“Am I going to negate her story?” she asks, rhetorically. “I’ve heard her speak, and she’s an elder in the community. … For someone like her, who’s been through what they’ve been through, to still have a smile on their face, that’s what I want to be — and I’ll never go through what she went through.”

Reem’s currently has a four-and-a-half-star Yelp rating with only two poor reviews citing the mural. But the vituperation was such that SF Weekly’s story on the bakery, which specifically mentioned that “a sizable number of people regard Odeh as a terrorist,” generated an unusually high number of enraged responses from readers charging this outlet with anti-Semitism and claiming the Weekly had whitewashed history. Several drew a moral equivalence between Assil and white supremacists. (Prior to her deportation, however, Odeh was a vocal ally of Black Lives Matter in Chicago, hence the mural’s Oscar Grant connection.)

But clearly, tempers ran hot — but it was much worse than the usual hot air from unaccountable, anonymous commenters online. There were protests outside the bakery, and at one point, a customer was physically attacked.

“In a way, it brought us together more,” Assil says of that episode. “More than half the staff are from that neighborhood. They didn’t know anything about Palestinian politics or culture or who Rasmea Odeh was, and this was an amazing opportunity to provide insight on what it’s like to be a Palestinian in this country. Unfortunately, anybody who is seen as standing up for Palestinian rights gets silenced in one way or another, and that was really eye-opening for them. For the broader community, it was great. They came and supported us 10 times as much.”

Assil continued to be dogged by the fallout for a long time. At a moderated discussion held in July with New York Times food correspondent Kim Severson and fellow California chefs Dominique Crenn and Tanya Holland at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, a heckler waited until the end of the Q&A to strike.

“He was in the audience, and he started this story about making baba ghanoush for his Palestinian friends, and I was like, ‘Oh, God, where is this going?’ You could totally tell from these obnoxious stories, but the crowd booed him and they shut the microphone off.

“My heart dropped, because I had all the trauma of having to deal with that,” she adds, “but it felt so nice that I had this community that could vouch for me and knows what Reem’s is all about. Times have changed.”

It was only 15 years ago when the New York Stock Exchange and NASDAQ booted Al-Jazeera, the Arabic-language media organization based in the capital city of the U.S. ally Qatar, from covering their trading floors. While the tendency of American food writing to exoticize or even claim to discover various cuisines is still pernicious and widespread, Assil cites her engagement with top figures from the industry as a sign of positive change. For example, when Food & Wine took flak for naming Reem’s to its Top 10 Restaurants of 2018, the magazine redoubled its support.

“People can see through that, and it makes me have hope in humanity,” she says. “I had just raised enough money to open and it’s hard enough opening a bakery — especially as someone who’s never done it before.”

She participated in a few Palestinian pop-ups in New York with another chef — and they sold out. Having people who may not have known much about Palestinian cuisine show up in such numbers “fed my soul,” she says.

“I can’t be quiet,” Assil adds. “I was so shell-shocked for the first six months. I was afraid to take interviews. PR people were telling me, ‘Just don’t talk about [Odeh],’ and I was like, ‘I have a big picture of her up on my wall!’ And she’s amazing. I can’t vilify her.”

On top of it, as all this was happening, a white supremacist march in Charlottesville led to the death of a counter-protester — and Assil learned that she was pregnant. Did she ever consider painting over the mural, just to be done with it?

“I mean, of course,” she says. “I was afraid to find a rock thrown through my window. I was scared for the security of my people — but I realized that their bark was bigger than their bite, and this was an opportunity to educate folks and I should be proud. I remember telling someone from Berkeley that if nobody put Nelson Mandela on their wall, he’d be a terrorist today. We can’t vilify people for at one time being in the resistance movements. She was uprooted from her land — twice.”

The mural of Rasmea Odeh, by arts collective Trust Your Struggle. Photo by Peter Lawrence Kane

The connection between that episode and what Assil wants out of her restaurants runs even deeper. The word dyafa is Arabic for “hospitality,” and in the aggregate, both of Assil’s establishments are vehicles for members of the various Middle Eastern and Arab-speaking diasporas to have a gathering place. But they’re also for introducing people who didn’t grow up eating kibbeh nayyeh into that enveloping sense of warmth — warmth from Assil’s personality and from both the oven and the portable, dome-shaped saj on which her manna’eesh are baked. I mention that Reem seems like the kind of person who won’t let anyone that sets foot in her home leave without eating a full meal, and she claims that her husband, who is Filipino, has “mastered Arab hospitality more than I have,” putting out snacks and water for all.

Caleb Zigas, executive director of La Cocina, the food-business incubator for low-income women entrepreneurs, says that the same income restrictions apply to everyone who goes through the program — but that Assil may not be the most typical La Cocina alumna.

“We’re serving low- and very-low-income entrepreneurs, and generally entrepreneurs who have low assets,” he says. “But I can’t speak to people’s social capital and resources that they have through personal connections and family connections.

“That’s one of Reem’s strengths,” he adds. “The amount of financial capital that was invested in her business is miniscule and hard-fought. … It was a combination of microloans and nonprofits and one or two angel investors who were able to make contributions. But even then, her total buildout was way below the industry average costs.”

In elaborating on that social capital, Zigas cites Assil’s ability to communicate in “cool, contemporary language.” It differentiates her from many other women — and 95 percent of La Cocina’s entrepreneurs are women — who may be of a different generation, or who migrated to the U.S. Assil had initially wanted to start with a food truck, an idea she credits La Cocina with dissuading her from.

“We’ll launch three new food trucks this year, but for her business in particular, it wouldn’t have necessarily done justice. We looked into different wood-burning trucks she could set up, but in the end, the farmers market turned out to be a more efficient path to the market.”

As Patterson puts it, “It’ll be interesting t see what happens over time. I’m hoping that the restaurants go well, and that other people think, ‘Wow, what a great idea: Find people who are doing great work, and support them. We’ll end up with a much richer industry.”

As Assil and I are speaking at the counter at Dyafa, people periodically tap her shoulder to politely interrupt with congratulatory words. Michael Bauer, in one of his final reviews before stepping aside as the San Francisco Chronicle’s long-time restaurant critic, had bestowed three stars on Dyafa. But the art of evaluating such a restaurant, whether by a professional critic or someone whose No. 1 priority is the availability of street parking, is tricky and full of intersections between subjective comparison points. Beyond cultural sensitivities, even sincere feedback offered in good faith can be mystifying. For instance, Assil gets periodic comments to the effect of “This is too Americanized.” She isn’t certain what that means.

“Hopefully, that doesn’t mean we made it blander or something. But if ‘Americanized’ means making it more accessible to the American public, that’s fine,” she says. “But my biggest fans are my Arab customers. I had this woman sitting at the bar — she’s second-generation Lebanese and the generation above me, age-wise — saying her Egyptian friend came in. He never goes to Middle Eastern restaurants in the Bay Area, and he gave me three stars.

“I get good praise from a lot of places, but when my own community praises me, that’s amazing,” she adds. “I just think that people are hungry for something new. I don’t think I’m doing anything revolutionary. I’m just letting people see that Arabs are more complex than people make them out to be. The breadth and the depth — there’s so much more to our cuisine.”

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