Chef Carlo Espinas prefers to say that The Lede hasn’t closed, it’s just gone nomadic. The casual Cal-Italian restaurant first opened in Old Oakland in fall 2019 with Chez Panisse alumnus Cal Peternell at the helm. The Lede was part of Studiotobe, a shared space for journalists and other creatives, and where Peternell recorded his Cooking By Ear podcast. The Lede closed its doors on Washington Street at the end of May, but in early June, resurfaced as a pop-up at Cafe Encina. Now led by Espinas, The Lede operates from 4-7 p.m., Thursday and Friday.
Espinas took over the kitchen at The Lede before the move, at the beginning of March. Depending on the viewpoint, it was either the best time possible or the worst ever to transition management. Peternell was looking to step back from daily involvement to focus on an upcoming book. Espinas was interested in rethinking what role a restaurant can serve in its community, and how the service industry as a whole needs to adapt to the times.
“There was so much going on it didn’t seem the right time to talk about who we were and how The Lede was going to transition,” said Espinas, describing those first few weeks of March.
Then came the coronavirus.
“We were just like let’s use our talents to take this opportunity to provide some support to the community that’s particularly impacted,” said Espinas. “Let’s use this time to revamp.”
Initially, that meant pivoting from offering dine-in service to using the kitchen to prepare up to 350 meals a week for Consider the Homeless and other nonprofit organizations helping communities in need, such as Family Bridges, Safe Passages and Oakland Unite.
But at the end of May, the restaurant terminated its lease at 906 Washington St., “which may in some ways have been the best for us,” said Espinas. “Post-COVID, not being tied to a large space is probably a smart idea.”
Soon after The Lede left the Old Oakland location, the owners of Cafe Encina reached out to Espinas to gauge his interest in joining a weekly roster of rotating pop-ups at their bar and restaurant. Cafe Encina also currently hosts Taqueria La Venganza, a vegan Mexican food pop-up from chef Raul Medina.
The idea of operating as a pop-up appealed to Espinas. It seemed a good way to stay creative and keep making food, while still having time to rethink The Lede’s concept, should it ever have its own space again.
Espinas grew up in Fremont and trained at the now-defunct California Culinary Academy. He has a 20-year history working in notable Northern California restaurants, including Incanto and Comstock Saloon in San Francisco, Assembly in Santa Cruz and Camino in Oakland. Most recently, Espinas cooked for seven months with Outstanding in the Field, a moveable dining experience that hosted dinners for 200-300 people at a time on farms throughout the country.
After the seasonal position ended in November, Espinas took the winter to consider where he wanted to go with his career. He joined The Lede on the recommendation of Russell Moore, chef-owner of now-closed Camino and currently of The Kebabery, and a mutual friend of Peternell’s.
With The Lede moving out of its own space and into a shared smaller one on a part-time basis, Espinas says he’s not daunted but encouraged.
“I’ve kind of gotten a little cynical about the restaurant industry in general and am looking for ways to redefine what that could look like,” he said.
Even in the pre-pandemic “good times,” the restaurant industry is one of the toughest to succeed in, with rising costs — labor, lease and materials — and ever-shrinking margins as customer price expectations remain stubbornly the same.
Operating inside Cafe Encina is, in some ways, a much-needed breather, allowing Espinas to focus more on the food than the books. “I’m definitely a cook and not a business person,” he said.
Espinas is Filipino, but his culinary training is classically European, with a heavy French and Italian leaning. Still, rather than label his cooking style by regional influence, he prefers to describe his food as “grandmotherly.” Espinas’ fare is rustic, slow-cooked and seasonal, “taking the kind of simple ingredient-forward approach, but using things a step outside how they are typically used,” he said.
For example, for his version of the Japanese seven-spice condiment blend togarashi, Espinas swaps dried grapefruit peel from his brother’s tree for the typical orange peel, along with green garlic instead of standard garlic, dried nettle in place of nori, and locally sourced chili.
Espinas said he developed this style of cooking from his time at Incanto, where it was “as if you took an Italian and dropped them in California, then asked how would they cook here,” he said. “I guess I’ve taken a little bit of that to heart. How do you take these approaches from other places? How do you interpret the land, the time and the geography around you to highlight the ingredient or season?”
The menu changes weekly at The Lede, depending on what Espinas finds while shopping at the Tuesday South Berkeley farmers market and the Friday Old Oakland farmers market. On Monday, Espinas typically starts planning his menus, then reworks them mid-week based on what’s fresh at the markets.
A recent weekly menu included two main dishes. The first, chicken and andouille sausage and romano beans; the second, roasted sweet potatoes with black beans, cotija cheese, tomato confit and a “mess of herbs,” as Espinas put it. On the side, the menu featured corn and cherry tomato salad with sesame and pea sprouts, a roasted beet salad with German butterball potatoes, mustard seeds, dill and yogurt, and a broccoli and Santa Rosa plum salad with roasted spring onions and preserved lime. For now, The Lede’s beverage options are water and seasonal nonalcoholic spritzers. (The liquor license is currently in transition at Cafe Encina.)
“We got [the menu] set up as a ‘meat and three’,” said Espinas. Diners order a main dish, and then add up to three accompanying dishes on the side. Dinner for one (a main and a side) is $12.50, dinner for two (one main and three sides) is $25, and a family-pack dinner for four (both mains and all sides) is $60. Menus are published two days in advance on the website and on Instagram.
No reservations are required, and all service is takeaway only, served in compostable boxes, with silverware upon request. Cafe Encina has patio seating for those who care to eat outside, but does not offer table service.
Though now working out of a smaller space, Espinas is continuing The Lede’s partnership with East Bay nonprofits. Customers who want to support the cause have the option of buying meals for the community.
“This pop-up is an opportunity for me to embrace the pivot; working smaller, with more nonprofits, thinking if there’s a way to redefine what restaurants do,” Espinas said. “This is a conversation that is happening in a lot of places. It’s an exciting conversation to see how it plays out.”