After years of dreaming, months of planning, and long nights of pounding out permits and waiting for approval, culinary incubator Forage Kitchen has finally opened in Uptown Oakland. The pet project of Iso Rabins — founder of ForageSF, Wild Kitchen, and The Underground Market — Forage Kitchen is a 2,700-square-foot workspace and café that serves as a creative home for both fledgling and masterful makers.
Forage Kitchen is all about relationships, starting with the one between Rabins and his partner (and cousin), Matt Johansen, who has overseen such ventures as Hayes Valley’s Biergarten. Together, Rabins and Johansen have been on a whirlwind of an entrepreneurial journey of fundraising, securing a location, mapping out maker stations and selecting the two to three dozen members who will participate in the Forage community. “It’s great,” said Johansen. “We’ve got about 20 more people who are slowly funneling in.”
Member makers vary in experience and expertise, from a long-time home chef looking for the perfect space to host cooking classes to a snack-maker hatching the hopes of her own business.
Camilo Velasquez is a product developer and “baconer” hoping to make cured pork a full-time gig. On a Wednesday afternoon, Velasquez slices thick slabs of pork for his cured lardons. He’s got a smoker in the corner and a stack of fresh pork bellies in front of him.
“I’m super excited to be here,” said Velasquez. “I used to run a supper club in Brooklyn. When I came out here I started working with pork bellies from Marin and decided to start a company just focused on bacon. Today is day one.”
In the back corner of the kitchen dishes clang and water sprays as Dan pulls another tray of pots, pans, knives, and buckets from the dishwasher. One of Forage’s key kitchen features for makers like Velasquez is having a full-time dishwasher. Not only does he make the making easier, he boosts the morale of the entire community.
Meanwhile, at another station, Jeff Mason, the founder of Pal’s Takeaway, is pulling shreds of white meat from a steaming rotisserie chicken. The chickens are part of a new concept for the Forage café, and they come served in a rotisserie sandwich as well as a stand-alone takeaway option.
“Well they’re live chickens and you get a little leash and a little button that says, ‘I’m taking home a chicken,’” joked Mason. “And you then you can keep it in the yard and get some eggs or just throw it in the oven.”
Rotisserie chickens are offered fully cooked, as a whole bird or a half, along with a selection of sides.
Rabins’ initial vision for the café was a space where member chefs could take control of the counter. Right now that spot has been filled with products from Pal’s, and Rabins and Johansen couldn’t be happier. The café serves lunch to the public from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday. Customers can, as the name suggests, “takeaway,” or they can eat in the café or on the plant-filled side patio.
Counter service is headed up by Forage expert and employee extraordinaire, Phil Harvey. Harvey is happy to tell you anything you’d like to know about Forage’s history, concept and customer offerings. The current café menu features fan favorite sandwiches, like Pal’s Lao sausage sandwiches, and sides, and it is soon to be supplemented with Thanksgiving “angel wings” — turkey wings stuffed with mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy and cranberry sauce — as well as something Harvey calls “hippie bowls.”
Beers on tap include offerings from San Francisco’s Local Brewing Company and Walnut Creek’s Calicraft, which represent friendships forged back in the days of the Underground Market, as well from as local neighbors, like Temescal Brewing Company. Box wine and rotating fresh agua fresca are also served.
Coffee service began last week, with beans coming from Nob Hill’s Contraband Coffee, another Underground Market connection that roasts in Oakland. Tasty treats have yet to hit the shelves, but will come from in-house member makers like Parker and Ellen Ruhstaller of The Brittle Peanut and Sally Rogers of Nibble Snacks, with potential for shelf-stable products from other local makers. By the end of the year, it may even become the sort of place you’d come for a last-minute gift, be it a jar of spicy pickles, a satchel of granola or a jar of cashew butter.
Though the café is small, the kitchen is expansive. When not being used by round-the-clock member makers, it also serves as the venue for Second Sunday maker meals, during which guests experience six-course dinners put on by member makers. Forage Kitchen is also scheduling out pop-ups that include a pho expert, a Cambodian chef and Wes Rowe from San Francisco’s WesBurger ‘N’ More.
The relationships formed within the Forage Kitchen community are convivial connections meant to strengthen creativity and support both collaborate thinking and independent success. Yet equally important are the relationships Forage makes with members of the local community. A quick cup of coffee, an afternoon pint, lunch in the café and chicken to-go are just a few of the ways that Rabins and the Forage family hope to make closer connections with local customers, forging relationships in which everyone benefits.