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.
In 2006, Keba Konte and company took over the space on Shattuck Avenue in North Berkeley which had housed the vegetarian Smokey Joe’s Cafe for three decades, and transformed the slip of a store into the Guerilla Cafe, a nosh spot with a cool artist-activist vibe. Call it ’70s Afro-activist chic with a modern twist. Groovy screened images of black cultural icons adorn the walls, and the cafe’s logo combines a gorilla-sporting Huey Newton shades and a Che Guevara beret.
Guerilla sells Blue Bottle Coffee, serves buckwheat waffles and panini sandwiches, and small plates at night. Keba co-founded the mostly organic and fair-trade eatery with his wife, Danish-born designer Rachel Konte, who owns Circkel Studio and has an apparel label, afrobuddha, along with cafe manager-ceramacist Andrea Ali.
A photomontage artist, during the 1990s, Keba funded his extensive travels through Africa and elsewhere by working as a photojournalist covering the hip-hop scene for the likes of Rolling Stone, Vibe, and The Source, as well as shooting CD covers for notable hip-hop and R&B artists.
His latest artwork will be part of a group show this summer called “How We Roll” at the California African American Museum in L.A., where he’ll profile two prominent skaters of color.
Last year, with Kenyan-raised engineer Eric Maundu, he started the green business Kijiji Grows, an aquaponic urban garden system which combines aquaculture (growing fish) with hydroponics (growing vegetables without soil). His experience in the food biz brought home the importance of producing fresh produce close to home. Their clients include residents, schools and city agencies.
How did Keba make the leap from fine-art photographer to Gourmet Ghetto cafe owner? As a young adult he hung with an artistic and activist crowd that had a lot of creativity and not a lot of money, so they all cooked together. He learned about different cuisines from his eclectic mix of friends from diverse ethnic backgrounds. He also credits his mom for passing on her passion for cooking and culinary skills.
A father of two girls, one 12 and one 24, the 43-year-old lives in East Oakland. He sees a natural synergy between the world of conceptual art, cafe culture, growing food and tending family.
Do you have a favorite local food stop?
I love going to get the affogato at Ici. It’s vanilla ice cream, candied orange peel and good espresso coffee. Three such different flavors and yet it’s just the right balance of sweet, tart and creamy in a dessert that gives you a good buzz.
Are there signature dishes at restaurants around town that you enjoy?
I like the jerk chicken from Flavah Island Cafe, a Jamaican restaurant on San Pablo Avenue. It’s got a good blend of herbs, spices and seasonings. And their Ital Stew, which features black-eyed peas, seasonal vegetables and coconut cream, is really flavorful too.
What’s missing on the Berkeley food scene?
I don’t think there’s a standout soul-food place. I can’t think of anywhere where you can get really tasty fried chicken or pan-fried catfish, with collard greens, grits, biscuits, and cornbread. My mom made that kind of food some when I was growing up, not traditional Southern style, she put her own gourmet spin on it and it was good.
Do you have a farmers’ market must have?
In what way is the food scene here misunderstood?
There’s a misperception that the Gourmet Ghetto is the only place in town to get good food. It’s not true. In fact, the area is kind of overrated. You can find good food in other neighborhoods, like on College Avenue or Fourth Street.
Do you have a favorite Berkeley food moment?
When the Starbucks down the street shut down a year or two after we opened. We closed that place down. That felt pretty good.
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.
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[Photo: Rachel Konte]