For the past five and a half years, J Moses Ceaser has opened his home every Tuesday night to old friends and complete strangers with the sole purpose of getting people in the kitchen cooking a vegetarian meal from scratch for a fraction of the cost of eating out — while creating community on the side.
That’s the concept behind Frugal Foodies. Ceaser has held theme nights, vegan dinners, and cooked cuisine from around the globe. He has also hosted guest chefs such as Bryant Terry, and run Iron Chef competitions out of his 960-square foot, open-plan artist warehouse apartment inside a former margarine packing plant in west Berkeley.
All this for just eight bucks.
Inspired by a similar meet-up in Montreal, Ceaser planned his own weekly dinner parties with a few guiding principles: No measuring cups or electric devices, and — on some weeks like the one I attended — no recipes, no cooking with someone you came with. And, while attendees most certainly must clean up, they should never, ever, put anything away. Got that?
I stopped by this week to make dinner, admire the professional photographer‘s documentary portraits, commune with a dozen fellow cooks over cutting boards, and talk with Ceaser about his edible experiment.
We were greeted by a table overflowing with produce from Firme Farms, boasting seasonal picks such as turban squash, beets, kale, persimmons, and Brussels sprouts. After a flurry of activity and fumbling around in the kitchen for newbies like myself, we sat down two hours later to a buffet of roasted veggies, stir-fry, egg and veg bake, kale and beet salad and a persimmon dessert with rice and coconut milk. Hearty, healthy fare, prepared to an amusing soundtrack of catchy dance tunes such as “Rescue Me”, “Baby You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet”, and “I Will Survive”.
More facilitator than instructor, Ceaser took care of business while guests got to work. He took a break from his computer periodically to ask people what they were making or remind them about the time in an approach that is part laid-back bachelor boy and part bossy den mother.
This being Berkeley, a post-dining sharing circle is de rigueur. Most visitors expressed their enjoyment of the the food and fellowship, along with the philosophy behind the event. Several regulars noted that, even when they couldn’t come by to cook, they got a measure of comfort knowing that Frugal Foodies was out there each week, bringing people together across a table of good food.
The 43-year-old Frugal Foodies founder is calling it a night on December 28. Ceaser, who formerly ran the nonprofit Diversity Works, is turning his attention to raising funds to get the Parkway Theater in Oakland up-and-running again, though he hopes that someone else in the East Bay will pick up the Frugal Foodies idea. (Heads up: The concept may move to Oakland in the new year; there are existing chapters in San Jose, Seattle, and Boston.)
Ceaser’s final Frugal Foodies events will likely sell out. If you do snag a spot, be warned: read the rules in advance and refresh your memory when you arrive. The night went surprisingly smoothly, perhaps because its leader is a stickler for following his laminated guide.
Below, Ceaser reflects on his adventures in breaking bread in Berkeley.
Can you tell me about the kinds of people who have walked through your doors over the past five years?
On a typical night we’ll have about 15 people, mostly from Berkeley, Oakland or San Francisco. We get slightly more women than men and about a third are repeat attendees and two-thirds are new.
It’s a mix of real cooks, cooking idiots, and people who have never cooked before. The nights that are less diverse aren’t as much fun for me, so sometimes I do a little social engineering to make sure the group is mixed in terms of age, ethnicity, and gender.
I have a few guy friends who tell me that when the ratio gets to 5:1 in favor of women, I should call them. But this isn’t a singles scene. I hate the idea of that. People come here for different reasons: to learn to cook or cook with others, to eat well and cheaply, to meet people, to check out the Berkeley quirk factor.
Have you had any disastrous dinners?
We’ve had a few little fires. In my building that means the smoke alarms go off and the fire department comes to investigate. The most recent incident happened on Halloween night. People thought it was a bit exciting. Food-wise, sometimes people who think they know what they’re doing and don’t will reach for, say, powdered sugar instead of cornstarch and we’ll think we’re going to have a mess on our hands. But we come up with different ideas to fix mistakes and sometimes they surprise us and turn out wonderful.
Have you had any bad experiences?
One comes to mind, a woman who seemed off before she even came. She started sending inappropriate notes to people after the event — we learned from that not to share other people’s emails — it escalated and it could have gotten ugly, but thankfully there was a psychiatrist in the group that night and she took on the task of dealing with the email communications. Two lawyers who attended gave me advice. At one point the woman threatened to report me to the health department. Everything eventually settled down. It turned out that it was a pretty memorable night mainly because I ended up forming close friendships with the people who came to my aid.
What about the good times?
Oh, generally it’s fabulous and people rave about it. Some great friendships have formed here, business plans have been hatched, relationships started, new recipes shared, and always good food is eaten. Some people have fallen in love with the idea of it and think of it as a quintessential Bay Area experience that they bring out-of-towners to.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to start something similar?
It’s more important that the person who runs something like this have good people and organization skills than it is that they be a good cook. Lots of people have wanted to be a guest chef here but not everyone is a good fit. If a person is bossy, negative, or doesn’t have a welcoming spirit, it doesn’t work. You can’t be a control freak and expect things will go perfectly. Some people will screw up. I know some people enjoy coming just to see what kind of chaos will emerge.
Would you do anything differently?
I wished I had more time to update our blog with recipes but otherwise I don’t think I’d do anything differently.
Do you eat out in Berkeley?
I’m pretty much anti-eating out, that’s why I run Frugal Foodies, I think people should be able to cook for themselves, eat well, and for cheap. That said, I’m a long-time volunteer at Karma Kitchen at Taste of the Himalayas.
What will you miss?
It’s a great avenue for me to try new dishes. I’m afraid I won’t cook as much or be as adventurous in my cooking. I may not meet as many new people either.
What’s been the best part of running Frugal Foodies?
It forces me to clean my house each week.