About two years ago, Cal Peternell needed booze.
Peternell, then the head chef at Chez Panisse, and Joaquin Alvarado, who had helped launch the Reveal podcast for the Center for Investigative Reporting, were at a mutual friend’s wedding. The wedding party had run out of alcohol, so Peternell and Alvarado were tasked with procuring more. During the drive, the two chatted about cooking: The challenges of learning to cook. The joy of cooking for family and friends. And the camaraderie that comes from cooking with family and friends.
The conversation sparked the beginning of a partnership and the creation of the podcast Cooking by Ear. Launched this spring, the podcast is a real-time audio cooking show hosted by Peternell. Listeners can cook along as he teaches a guest to prepare a dish, from a spaghetti and chard frittata to celery gratin with béchamel sauce.
The first guest was actor Frances McDormand, who won an Academy Award this year for her performance in the indie film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. On the show, Peternell coaches her, step by step, on how to prepare a chanterelle mushroom and asparagus risotto. In between, they also chat about McDormand’s films, being a wife and mother, and Joel Coen, her husband, filmmaker and piemaker extraordinaire. By the end of the 52-minute podcast, the risotto is finished and ready to eat.
“It’s like having a living recipe in your kitchen,” Peternell said. “I’m there to talk you through it.”
The podcast marks a new chapter for Peternell: After leading the kitchen at Chez Panisse for more than 20 years, he left the restaurant last summer. In addition to the podcast, his third cookbook, Almonds, Anchovies, and Pancetta, comes out this fall.
Chez Panisse “was like a second home for me, and the kitchen was like an extension of my house,” he said. “But I felt like I was ready for a new thing.”
More recently, Peternell said he also plans to open a bar and casual dining restaurant in Old Oakland, in partnership with Alvarado’s startup, Studiotobe. Studiotobe took over the space formerly occupied by Pacific Coast Brewing (906 Washington St.) late last year.
“It’s like having a living recipe in your kitchen. “I’m there to talk you through it.” — Cal Peternell
By day, StudiotobBe will be a production studio and a co-working space for local journalists and storytellers. In the evening, it will transform into a 2,500-square-foot bar and casual dining space, helmed by Peternell, which will be open to the public. The menu will include wine, cheese and vegetable-based fare.
Proceeds from the bar and restaurant, as well as from special events, will help fund a local journalism initiative, reporting and producing stories about Oakland. Members of the community will have input into the stories they believe need to be investigated and told. Studiotobe plans to publish and broadcast the stories on its own, as well as partner with local outlets, Alvarado said.
The Old Oakland space is the first outpost of Studiotobe, with plans to open similar bar, food and journalism collaborations in Fresno; Los Angeles; Seattle; Clarksdale, Mississippi and Berlin. “We think they synthesize well, but no one has done it quite like this,” said Alvarado, who left his post last year as CEO of the Center for Investigative Reporting to co-found Studiotobe with Ken Ikeda and Kristin Belden.
Currently, the bar-restaurant is in development, but the co-working space opened in April. Cooking By Ear is the first of several projects that Studiotobe is launching.
Co-creator Kristina Loring and Peternell spent the past year developing and refining the Cooking By Ear podcast with friends and family. They generally travel to the home of the guest, ingredients in hand, and spend about three to four hours recording the segment.
The guests have been a diverse mix: along with McDormand, they include screenwriter and director Alexander Payne (Election, Sideways, The Descendants), who was once Peternell’s intern at Chez Panisse (listeners learn the backstory of Payne’s Chez Panisse internship during the podcast); director Mira Nair, who turned her film Monsoon Wedding into a musical for Berkeley Rep last year; and hip-hop/bounce artist Big Freedia, who teaches Peternell to make booty poppin’ potatoes with andouille sausage and rice in her home in New Orleans.
Peternell also plans to open a bar and casual dining restaurant in Old Oakland, in partnership with Alvarado’s startup, Studiotobe.
On another episode, Native American poet Tommy Pico learns to make a frittata for the morning after a date. Partway through the segment, Pico confesses he doesn’t feel comfortable cracking eggs. Peternell coaches him through it, and listeners hear Pico’s story: though he now lives in Brooklyn, Pico, a member of the Kumeyaay Nation, grew up on the Viejas Reservation, where he consumed processed foods and canned goods supplied by the government.
So far, Cooking By Ear has drawn more than 6,000 subscribers, and, at one point, reached No. 4 among food podcasts on iTunes. Peternell hopes it will continue to grow, especially as he taps more guests (on his dream list: former President Barack Obama).
“There are a lot of wonderful people out there out there with stories to tell, and I’m having a good time digging into those,” Peternell said. “What I want to do is get people into the kitchen and understand there’s pleasure to be had in cooking and making. Home cooking is seen as an onerous task but it can be a pleasurable activity where stories can flow freely.”