Rasa Sun Mott is hesitant to say he’s opening a café because the universe aligned to make it so. It sounds too hokey, or too Berkeley, he says. But he admits it does feel that way, saying “It just feels right,” repeating it for emphasis.
Mott, an Oakland native and the son of two high-profile Black Panther activists, just concluded a successful Kickstarter campaign that helped him raise enough funds to help him open Rasa Caffe, on Adeline Ave., near Ashby BART. The café is scheduled to open in a month.
“If you would have told me two weeks ago that I would raise $10,000 in five days I would never have believed it,” he said. “It pushed me out of my comfort zone to do this, but at the same time, it was such a natural process to have my concept come to life.”
Mott is the son of educator Ericka Huggins and James Mott, a singer in the Black Panther group the Lumpen. They never married, and Mott was raised by his mother, in a home with activists like Huey Newton and Angela Davis always around the house. In the 70s, Huggins founded the Oakland Community School in East Oakland, a school that not only fed its students, said Mott, but clothed them and sent their parents home with groceries.
Along with her activism, Huggins was interested in yoga and meditation, which affected young Mott as well. At age 12, he declared he wanted to go to India, and he went with a guardian to live in an ashram, without his mother. He returned there again to live when he was 16.
Their household was vegan. And, despite the fact that it was the early days of some brands of tofu and tempeh, his mom was no slouch with the soy products and brown rice, he said. Nevertheless, it was in India that he first got interested in food.
“I learned about different flavors and the intricacy and subtle elegance that goes into that cooking,” he said. He also learned about chai, specifically, how to make it.
Mott spent quite a bit of time in ashrams, both in India and in Oakland, where he perfected his chai recipe. He also went to culinary school, and spent 10 years living in Manhattan, where he worked as a chef, and doing other odd jobs, like working in the garment district. At one point, he was working at Windows on the World, the famed restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center.
When Mott returned to the Bay Area (only a few months after 9/11), he went back into the kitchen, working with Oakland chef Tanya Brown at both Brown Sugar Kitchen and B-Side BBQ.
A friend also invited him to participate in a program at the Chefs Best Center for Taste, where he became a certified taste tester. He also spent some time traveling, soaking up the culture and food in Thailand, and attending the Slow Food conference in Turin, Italy.
“Slow Food blew my mind,” he said, “seeing all of these seventh-generation balsamic vinegar makers, cheese makers, everything you could think of, truffles, olive oil, pasta.”
He also developed a new appreciation for espresso, and its culture.
Interestingly, Mott’s name Rasa means “Flavor” in Sanskrit.
All of these experiences, he believes, have led him to this moment. When contemplating what his next move would be, he was asked by old friends at the Firehouse Art Collective if he would consider taking over the coffee shop that’s part of the complex, since the current tenants were moving on.
“I love coffee and I’m fascinated by why we like it so much,” he said. “What is it that makes a cup of coffee so unique? People can’t go without it for a day.”
He plans to serve Bicycle Coffee, as well as pastries and other local fare (the kitchen is tiny, so pastries will not be made in-house). And of course, his own chai recipe, which he’s excited about, since that’s something unique he can bring.
“I’m not Indian, but I grew up there, and this is something I can offer,” he said.
Given that Firehouse Art Collective has a large hangar space, Mott intends to collaborate with the group on food events as well. But ultimately, he hopes to offer a coffeehouse with delicious coffee, chai, and perhaps most importantly, the kind of service that will keep customers coming back.
“I want to give people what I would like to receive,” he said. “That stuff is very important.”
Rasa Caffe will be at 3192 Adeline St., Berkeley.
Alix Wall is a freelance writer and personal chef in Oakland.