These Oakland Eateries are Feeding People in Need During the Pandemic
“…There is no place too far or disaster too great for our chefs to be there with a hot plate of food when it’s needed most. Wherever there’s a fight so hungry people may eat, we will be there – we must be there…. We envisioned an organization that would use food to empower communities and strengthen economies, but we had no idea we would one day be answering calls in Puerto Rico and around the world to serve meals in the aftermath of disaster – and we quickly learned that food is a powerful tool to heal communities in times of crisis and beyond.”
–José Andrés, Founder, World Central Kitchen
World Central Kitchen is a non-profit organization founded by Chef José Andrés and his wife Patricia in 2010 to make the world a better place through food. Even without a global pandemic, hunger is a major threat to millions of people all over the world, and even in the United States, the so-called ‘richest’ country in the world, about 1 in 5 children go to bed hungry every night.
When the global pandemic struck in early 2020, World Central Kitchen answered many more calls to set up shop in communities around the world that were getting hit hard by the novel coronavirus–mainly seniors and students who had relied upon meal deliveries or school lunch programs that were now all getting shut down. WCK then put out calls to local chefs, restaurants and caterers all around the country to join in their mission and help get food to hungry people in the wave of this new type of disaster.
Oakland’s vibrant food scene soon became a major headquarters for World Central Kitchen to broaden their outreach to the greater Bay Area and people in need of meals. These are some of the stellar restaurants and caterers who made it happen.
Reem’s had just soft-opened a new bakery venture in the SF Mission District the week before the Bay Area’s shelter-in-place orders were given. Like everyone else, they were completely devastated and had no idea what they would do, especially now with two locations, numerous employees whom they were unable to pay and no money coming in. They ‘pivoted’ as other restaurants did to provide take-out food and prepared meals; and because of Reem’s local “star chef” notoriety, they were soon contacted to begin weekly meal production and operations for the Oakland relief efforts of World Central Kitchen.
Reem’s and others saw this as an opportunity to not only serve their community but also to keep their own employees working and the restaurants functioning with some income. This double-win is the heart of World Central Kitchen’s mission. Through its already well-established fundraising programs, WKC was able to pay Reem’s and other food providers $10 per meal.
Bertha Sigmundsdottir, General Manager of Reem’s told me they have provided over 12,000 meals and counting. While the numbers have decreased significantly from a high point last year of 1600-1800 per week, they are now down to around 300 per week. As the programs unfortunately grew in need, WCK enlisted more and more food businesses to spread the love and work around, and share in the ‘wealth’ of the benefits.
The Pleasure Principle Dining and Catering
Before the pandemic hit, Chef Christina Alexis Wilson, owner of The Pleasure Principle Dining and Catering was doing mostly weddings and regular weekly pop-up dining experiences, and like others, immediately lost all of her bookings and events on their calendar. She applied to participate in World Central Kitchen’s feeder programs and then began supplying hundreds of meals for distribution. WCK also conveniently offered pick up services for the meals. In this new venture, Christina was able to keep several of her staff employed with some money still flowing in.
The Pleasure Principle has now pivoted to a new concept of “Supper Clubs,” which are monthly memberships of prepared meals for curbside pick-up or delivery, and another new venture of in-home dining called “Be Our Guest in Your Home”. This is gaining interest as people are getting so very tired of take-out food or cooking for themselves every single night! Chef Christina and other chefs are also conducting several online cooking classes.
Nyum Bai, a nostalgic Cambodian restaurant also located in Fruitvale near Reem’s, was contacted by World Central Kitchen early in the pandemic to participate in the food provider programs. Chef and Owner Nite Yun had also received a bit of Oakland food notoriety from her launch of the restaurant in 2018 and from having received accolades from both Michelin and the James Beard Awards over the past couple of years. Early in the pandemic, Nyum Bai also decided to pivot from their very busy restaurant business into carryout and delivery services with a few pantry items for sale.
Grace Street Catering
Grace Street Catering, a longtime Bay Area large-scale event caterer with two separate fixed café operations inside two very busy arts institutions, lost everything on their calendar as well. They immediately pivoted to become The Graceful Box and offered produce and meat boxes, as well as prepared foods, meal kits, and pantry items for pick-up and delivery. They also began a weekly outdoor pop-up dining and cocktail experience in their courtyard and applied to participate in World Central Kitchen’s programs and like the others, began supplying weekly meals to all sorts of places such as senior centers, churches, and the Oakland Unified School District.
Owner/President Jen McKay and Executive Chef Eric Cross estimated they have provided over 30,000 meals to date and continue to make hundreds weekly. They’re also busy planning to open a new restaurant in their courtyard this spring.
How it All Worked
Overall, each food business that participated in World Central Kitchen’s programs was asked to provide very specific weighted proportions of the basic food groups to create their meals, totaling around one pound per meal, as follows:
6-8 oz. of protein
4 oz. of vegetables
4 oz. of starch
Because of the more widespread meal distributions to a general population including elders and youngsters, I asked some of the chefs if they were able to incorporate their signature flavors into the commissary meals somehow. Chef Christina said she took great care to keep in line with the Afro-Caribbean/West African and Spanish influenced flavors that she usually offers, noting that overall, other than the specific proportions requested, she was still able to focus on providing delicious, comforting, seasonal food as usual. Reem’s also infused their Palestinian flavor profiles as much as possible, even though, some elders receiving the meals may not be familiar with the unique flavors and spices of the Middle East, such as sumac or za’atar. Nyum Bai, in continuing to introduce more Americans to the restaurant’s authentic flavors, culture, and food of Cambodia, decided to mainly serve their very popular stir-fried noodle dish called Kuy Teav Cha.
At the height of their involvement with WCK, most businesses were preparing around 600-800 meals per week, some up to 1800 per week. Gradually, as more restaurants, caterers, and chefs became involved with the programs (200+ in the Bay Area), the number of meals requested from each food business was slightly reduced over time, as WCK intended to spread out the participation to more and more chefs and kitchens and workers. Although, as Chef Christina said, “It was a win, win, win, win for everyone!”
Even in these strange and frustrating times, it’s truly inspiring to witness these and other local food providers creating new modes and methods for maintaining their businesses of cooking and serving food for people, all while still infusing their cultures, flavors and the love of what they do.
World Central Kitchen’s massive relief programs all over the world and in the Bay Area have kept millions of people nourished with delicious and comforting meals, which in turn has granted these and other food businesses the opportunity to continue operating and keeping their workers employed. WCK’s efforts are ongoing, and volunteers are needed in many areas. For more information, please visit www.worldcentralkitchen.org
And, for more information on these local participating food businesses, please visit the following links:
The Pleasure Principle Dining & Catering
Grace Street Catering / The Graceful Box
A few other Oakland-based restaurants and caterers who contributed to World Central Kitchen’s food relief programs include:
2270 Telegraph Avenue
988 Franklin Street #186
Red Door Catering