Samin Nosrat, Ex-Eccolo Chef & Co-Creator of the Pop-Up General Store Talks Berkeley Food Scene


Samin Nosrat is a veritable poster girl for the current trend (some would say necessity) of workplace reinvention.

Since the shuttering last summer of Eccolo, an acclaimed Italian eatery on tony 4th Street in Berkeley, that restaurant’s one-time sous chef now juggles an impressive number of part-time jobs in the culinary world.

Nosrat is the co-creator (along with former boss, Chris Lee, currently cooking in London) of the much buzzed about Pop-Up General Store, a fleeting food market every few weeks housed in the Grace Street Catering headquarters in Oakland’s hipster ‘hood known as the Temescal area.

The Pop-Up sells top-notch prepared foods by notable Bay Area chefs, many of whom, like Nosrat, who sells homemade pasta and Lee’s signature sausages, are Chez Panisse alum.

This 30-year-old daughter of Iranian immigrants grew up in a food-conscious home where freshly prepared, seasonal Persian dishes were a staple.

A stint in Italy reinforced the importance of a cultural connection to food, which she passes along in cooking and butchering classes under her Home Ec moniker and on the road with urban farmer and friend Novella Carpenter.

Nosrat picks up the occasional shift at Chez, where she got her start, and includes some well-known Berkeley names among her private cooking clients (she’s mum on that matter, for public consumption anyway, in case you’re curious.)

Oh, and she also “pops up” to cook afterhours, family-style, fixed menu dinners once a month at Tartine Bakery in San Francisco.

The mastermind behind a Bakesale for Haiti benefit that netted $22,500 from three Bay Area locations last January, Nosrat even finds time to write about her gastronomical adventures, most notably for The Atlantic online this week.

She lives in North Berkeley, where this interview took place over an impromptu picnic of pickled produce under consideration for a future Pop-Up event.

Why a Pop-Up General Store?

Chris and I missed cooking for our customers. We wanted to find a way to make and share the foods we love without carrying the burdens of a restaurant on our shoulders. We quickly realized how much fun it would be to share this format with our friends, many of whom we’ve been cooking with for years, so we invited other professional cooks and food artisans to join us.

It took off really fast. I think it fills a need in the community, it connects us with customers who crave the kind of food we want to create, and it’s more affordable than going out to eat.

Where do you like to take out-of-towners when they visit?

Gioia Pizzeria. I like their New York-style crust, it’s a little bit sweet and chewy. And they put crazy seasonal stuff on top like zucchini, pesto and ricotta in the summer and butternut squash and blue cheese in the fall.

The 100 percent organic Thursday farmers’ market, of course.

And Ici. I love ice cream and every time I go in there I’m struck by how much care and technique goes into each scoop. It’s affordable luxury, restaurant-quality food at a fraction of the cost. Plus ice-cream makes everyone feel like a little kid again, if only for a moment.

What’s missing on the Berkeley food scene?

A great organic salad bar. I love salad. It’s all I want sometimes: A big bowl of little gem lettuce, beets and avocado. Or a farro and nut combo, or romaine doused in green goddess dressing.  If there was a place where you could bring a plate and choose from, say, 20 salads I would eat there every day.

Who are your local food heroes?

Alice Waters and Michael Pollan. Okay, I know everyone probably says these two. But for me, it’s not some kind of abstract connection, I have ties to both of them and feel honored and lucky I do.

Alice Waters raised the standards for what we eat across the board. I think her greatest gift, which is rarely acknowledged, is the value she places on the beauty and aesthetics of the eating experience. If you learn anything while working at Chez Panisse it is attention to detail.

Michael Pollan seeks to democratize the food movement. He has a unique ability to explain what’s wrong and what needs changing –often quite complex issues — but he boils them down to their elemental parts and make them really accessible.

What’s the best thing about the food movement here?

Its thoughtfulness. Everywhere you go you find people who really think about what they’re growing, cooking, and eating. People pay attention to where their food comes from. That can be a double-edged sword, some people can seem overly picky or snobby about food.

We live in a bubble here in the Bay Area. We have access to some of the best, freshest produce in the country. When Novella and I were in Kansas City, Missouri last summer we couldn’t find somewhere to eat that wasn’t a chain restaurant. That’s why I think it’s so vital that we encourage and empower Americans to return to the kitchen.

Photo: Bart Nagel

Originally published on Lettuce Eat Kale

Henry writes the Berkeley Bites column for Berkeleyside, where this post also appeared.

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  1. Wednesday, June 30th, 2010
    What a lovely interview ...and I heartily agree with the last paragraph especially!

    (Sarah, I like to use nutrient-rich, mild flavored raw dino kale on a sandwich instead of lettuce...)

    With Blessings of Delicious Joy,
    Alisa Rose
    www.greenfengshuimakeover.com
  2. Dee Smithers
    Thursday, July 1st, 2010
    Thanks for the tip in Ici! It can be challenging for visitors to find the good food. For local restaurants in Kansas City, Missouri, see http://www.kcfoodcircle.org/restaurants/ (It's not up to date but can get you started.)
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