Ode to Kitchen Matriarchs
I consider my grandmother the matriarch of our family when I was growing up. I shared a bedroom with her and my sister. Although my grandmother didn’t always get along with my dad, her son-in-law, she was very strong and held her own. She was also a great cook that prepared most of our meals. One of the things that I took for granted and miss the most about our dinners was my grandmother’s daily preparation of soup. We always ate family style and along with three or four dishes, we had a large bowl of flavorful and brothy soup. My grandmother would use pork bones as the base for every soup and it would simmer for hours on the stovetop. At the dinner table, we each had our own Chinese soup spoon that we would use to dive into the community bowl and eat from. I never knew how much I loved soup until I stopped having it on a daily basis. Grandma turned 102 this month.
Earlier in August, I attended a fundraiser for some awesome Bay Area chefs to make a trip out to New York City to cook a dinner at the famous James Beard House. The chefs included Reem Assil from Reem’s, Tu David Phu of Bahn Mi-Ni pop-up and Top Chef Season 15, Nora Haron of Local Kitchen and FYU Bakery pop-up, and Fernay McPherson of Minnie Bell’s. Crystal Sanders-Alvarado, a marine and fish scientist, founder of Fish Revolution was part of the team to help source all the seafood. We’ve all heard of the James Beard Awards and this would be a great opportunity for this group to represent Oakland in the culinary world. The fundraising event was a brunch at Reem’s located at Fruitvale Station in Oakland.
The theme of this collaborative dinner at the James Beard House is Ode to Kitchen Matriarchs and each Chef has a unique story to tell. The dinner happened this past Thursday and I was in New York City, so I seized my once in a lifetime opportunity to support my Oakland peeps in this special setting and dine there. The James Beard House is located in Greenwich Village where the late James Beard used to live. James Beard was coined America’s first foodie. He not only “loved to eat” and gave out awards, but he cooked, wrote cookbooks, started a cooking school, and hosted television programs.
I took the subway from Battery Park City and exited the 14 Street Station on the 1 Train which was a block away from the James Beard House. When I arrived a few minutes early, there were a few people lingering outside, waiting to go in. I had someone take my photo in front of the building to capture the moment. Once I entered the house, I checked in and was told I would be seated at table 7. To get to the reception where wine and hors d’oeuvres would be, I would have to pass through the kitchen where the magic was happening. It was exciting to see Chefs Tu, Nora, Reem, and Fernay in their element, prepping the meal I would be indulging in soon.
The room where the reception was held was seemed to be getting smaller as more and more folks gathered. I started with some Hoopes Vineyard Rose as I enjoyed the three different appetizers. Chef Reem made the man’oushe bil kishik flat bread with fermented harissa, sesame seeds, pickled chiles, and aged cheddar. Inspired by the street food in Lebanon, Chef Reem made a point to top it with bil kishik, fermented bulgar. In her country, it was necessary to ferment food so it could last longer for survival.
Chef Fernay prepared a savory mushroom and cheese cornbread. This was an example of cooking with the flavors that she grew up eating.
Chef Tu made the Phu Quoc Island shrimp fish cake with fish sauce caramel and peppercorn which he learned to make from his mother.
We made our way upstairs for what would be a 5-course dinner. Table 7 was set for four where I made 3 new friends including Lindsay who runs Hoopes Vineyard in Napa. The first dish was Chef Tu’s striped bass with pineapple, jalapeño, and Tsar Nicolai caviar. This dish was inspired by a Vietnamese fish dish that is dipped in vinegar. Chef Tu specifically chose the sustainable caviar which is from a zero waste farm and provides a little bit of saltiness, fat, and texture to the tartar. It was paired with Genny’s Vineyard Chardonnay from Hoopes Vineyard.
The laksa curried rice noodles with Pacifico bass, six minute egg, cucumber, sambal, and micro-herbs was prepared by Chef Nora. Although laksa is a popular Southeast Asian noodle dish, it’s not easy to find a good one here. This laksa felt special especially with all the beautiful ingredients in it. It was paired with Brizeit Brewery Shepherds Beer.
Chef Fernay’s second dish was shrimp étouffée with creamy grits and herbs. Inspired by her great aunt Minnie, and her late grandmother Lily Belle, Chef Fernay named her business after these matriarchs. The dish was paired with Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon, another wine from Hoopes Vineyard.
Reem’s executed the sam bil tahini, whole-roasted branzino, Palestinian cous cous, fennel, orange, chilis, and herbs based on stories of her grandmother in Jaffa where she used oranges to make tahini instead of lemons. The fish was paired with Cremisan Wine Estate Dabouki.
Chef Nora ended the meal with a dessert that is special to her heart. She made tapioca-coconut mooning pudding with pistachio, rose, and cardamom crumble. Tapioca was the only source of food for Nora’s grandparents during wartime.
The chefs were introduced at the end of the evening to tell the stories of their kitchen matriarchs. What’s your story?