Berkeley Bites: Ari Derfel and Eric Fenster

Each Friday in this space food writer Sarah Henry asks a well-known, up-and-coming, or under-the-radar food aficionado about their favorite tastes in town, preferred food purveyors and other local culinary gems worth sharing.

Ari Derfel and Eric Fenster, who run the recently opened Gather restaurant, met at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on Eric’s first week on campus. A road trip to the Rockies cemented the friendship. A few years later, they bumped into each other at a San Francisco concert for Phil and Friends.

Turns out they had similar interests: The environment, wilderness escapades, and healthy grub. Ari invited Eric to come work with him at UC San Francisco’s Outdoors Unlimited; shortly afterwards they began hatching a plan that would morph into their own eco-backpacking biz, Back to Earth Outdoor Adventures. Trip participants enjoyed their camp food creations so much some asked the pair to cook at events back in the Bay Area. In 2002,  Back to Earth Catering was born. The company feeds some 25,000 people each year.

Fast forward to the fall of 2009 and the pair launch Gather, the sustainable, organic restaurant that’s, ah, gathering nice nods for the chow served up by chef Sean Baker. The eatery anchors the newly opened David Brower Center.

Ari, 37, lives on the Elmwood-Rockridge border. Eric, 33, and his wife Melinda Kramer live on the Berkeley-Kensington border. The two quintessential Northern California guys are actually East Coast transplants.

1. Do you have a local food hero?

Ari: Ignacio Chapela. He’s the UC Berkeley environmental science professor who’s trying to safeguard seeds, stand up to Monsanto and their GMO monopoly, and protect academic freedom from increasing agribusiness involvement, which raises issues about conflicts of interest and corporate control of research at the university. It’s people like Chapela who allow us to do what we do at the restaurant.

Eric: Karl Linn. He was this classic quirky Berkeley guy who started the community gardens here in the 1980s and 90s. I worked with him and I ran the Karl Linn Community Garden at the intersection of Hopkins and Peralta for a year. He believed firmly in the importance of getting people into the garden, growing food, and creating community.

2. Where do you like to buy food in town?

Ari: The Berkeley Farmers’ Markets. I love the produce and I know so many of the farmers. I particularly like the Saturday market because it’s nice to hang out on the green with friends. And Berkeley Natural Grocery on Gilman. Everything is organic and they’ve stayed true to what they believe in and they serve their local community.

3.  What does the Berkeley food scene need?

Ari: Something like what’s going on at the Ferry Building in San Francisco that’s accessible to all people.  And a food co-op. The downtown could do with a restaurant revival too, which is just starting to happen.

Eric: What Ari said.

4. Where do you go for breakfast in Berkeley?

Ari: Venus. I know where their eggs come from; I eat there a few times a week. I like the Guerilla Cafe. It’s the real deal. The people who run it are great.

Eric: Cafe Fanny; love the staff and their poached eggs. I’m somewhat addicted to Rick & Ann’s for brunch and eating out on La Note’s patio.

5. What do you miss about Berkeley food when you’re away?

Eric: Food you can trust. When I’m here I know I can get food that’s local, organic, and sustainable. We should all know where our food comes from. It shouldn’t be a mystery.

Sarah Henry is a freelance writer whose stories have appeared in the Los Angeles Times Magazine, The Washington Post and San Francisco Magazine. A contributor to the food policy blog Civil Eats, she muses about food, family and growing greens on her blog lettuce eat kale.

[Photo of Ari Derfel and Eric Fenster: Andrew Weeks]

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