What will Oakland food scene look like in 10 years?

Leo Foster, pastry student at Laney College. Photo: Andrew Ellis
Leo Foster, pastry student at Laney College. Photo: Andrew Ellis

Andrew Ellis has a new book coming out called Oakland: New Urban Eating. Or at least he hopes he does, if he can crowd-source enough money to start printing it (the Kickstarter campaign ends on Sept. 24 and is not far from its $5,000 goal). Ellis, an ethnographer and also a talented photographer, talked to Berkeleyside NOSH about the project which promises to shed light on many of the lesser known Oakland food spots as well as those that tend to hog the limelight.

What led you to create this book?

The concept began as a simple cookbook project between a couple of friends over drinks in an Uptown bar back in August 2012. At the time, I was working for a strategic consulting firm in San Francisco called Collective Invention as a researcher and designer. We brought our clients, usually educational organizations, into the “future” by looking at current trends across diverse sectors, interviewing experts, and then creating plausible scenarios of a world they might soon be living in.

There was always this question posed about what their sector (and the world) might look like in say, 10 or 20 years down the road. I decided to pose this same question to the folks I was interviewing out in the Oakland food scene. The city seemed to be changing so rapidly that I could already imagine my book being dated by the time it came out. Creating a book as an artifact in time during this transformation with a kind of “futurist” perspective made the most sense.

Dan Graf of Baron Baking. Photo: Andrew Ellis
Dan Graf of Baron Baking. Photo: Andrew Ellis

What’s your background in food/writing/photography?

I first picked up photography while I was living in New York back in 2004. I was convinced I wanted to be a cinematographer at the time, and a teacher told me that “every good cinematographer is a photographer too.” So I dug up my father’s Canon AE-1 35mm film camera and went to work.


I still have that camera on my shelf today. The next five years were spent living abroad in Cambodia, France and Chile until I eventually went to graduate school for design in Boston. All through those years and into school, my projects were always focused on communities and their relationship to food. Whether that’s been an interactive design project, a documentary film or photo series, the focus has always been food. Really though, I would probably have to credit Yan Can Cook [Chinese cuisine cooking show starring Martin Yan] for getting me excited initially about cooking. Yan was my hero in high school.

Baia Pasta. Photo: Andrew Ellis
Baia Pasta. Photo: Andrew Ellis

You set out originally to write a cookbook. What changed?

I realized quickly through research and talking to chefs that there was some really important work being done by organizations in West and East Oakland around food equity. Places like Acta Non Verba, People’s Grocery, City Slicker Farms, and Mandela Marketplace have established programs to teach urban farming and to provide access to fresh, affordable food in areas which hardly have any. It seemed irresponsible to put together a book about food in Oakland without those voices.

Radish Salad from Cosecha. Photo: Andrew Ellis
Radish Salad from Cosecha. Photo: Andrew Ellis

Why Oakland?

Initially, we all recognize some of the fantastic characteristics of Oakland: it’s supposedly 10 degrees warmer than San Francisco on average, there’s a sense of community here, it’s cheaper… I think we tend to hear those same answers again and again. And they’re all true. It’s funny how they are always in comparison to neighboring San Francisco and Berkeley, as though Oakland were struggling throughout its history to keep up.

When I arrived here in January 2012, I read Oakland: The Story of a City by Beth Bagwell, Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer by Novella Carpenter, and a whole bunch of Jack London novels. Oakland’s history is fascinating, its population diverse, and I wanted to get to know it as best as I could. The best way I could think to do that was to contribute in the way I knew best.

Adey and Mebrat Hagos from Cafe Romanat​​. Photo: Andrew Ellis
Adey and Mebrat Hagos from Cafe Romanat​​. Photo: Andrew Ellis

How did you choose who to interview?

Before I set off on official interviews, I compiled a huge list of potential people to talk to by researching the food scene (it’s impossible, and senseless, not to use Yelp) and talking with local chefs and writers. I spoke with cookbook author Romney Steele (author of My Nepenthe and Plum Gorgeous, and co-owner of The Cook and Her Farmer restaurant), who generously met with me several times to discuss my approach. As I went out and spoke to chefs, artisans, and food organizations, I realized I was getting close when I began recognizing everyone’s recommendations of people to talk to. That, and eating out way too much for the past two years!


Luis Abundis from Nieves Cinco de Mayo. Photo: Andrew Ellis
Luis Abundis from Nieves Cinco de Mayo. Photo: Andrew Ellis

You are raising money to publish the book. What do you need to achieve?

The money on Kickstarter is to print the book. It’s already written, designed and photographed, so now it’s just time to see this thing in real life and get it out to folks.

When do you hope to publish the book?

Since Oakland: New Urban Eating is a self-publication, it’s entirely dependent on Kickstarter at the moment. If a publisher comes along and is interested, well, then so am I.

How can people get involved?

The best way to get involved is to support the Kickstarter. If we reach our goal, we’ll have a “launch” party at the New Parish on Oct. 18 to celebrate and sell some extra copies of the book.

Want to keep up-to-date on all the food, drink and restaurant news in the East Bay? On October 2, Nosh will launch Nosh Weekly, a free weekly email packed with delicious news. Simply sign up here.