11 Oct 2010

A Moving Tale From A Nomadic Chef

Eskender_newCampton Place happens to be my favorite dining spot. I pay homage to the line of chefs who have touched the kitchen and left their legacy in that holy kitchen. I have yet to be disappointed by any dishes these culinary geniuses served me over the years. But this story is not about the Campton Place, this story is about the journey of one man who one day in December of 2007 decided to quit his job at Campton Place to work a 14-15 hour day on his nomadic kitchen concept, Radio Africa & Kitchen, which started in his own garage.

First, let me tell you Eskender’s inspiring story. He fled Ethiopia in 1981 at the age of 19 to Sudan as a refugee. His father was killed at an anti-government demonstration in the mid 70’s during Ethiopia’s military dictatorship that overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie. Eskender was already on the “watch list” then, fearing for imprisonment, or worse, decided to seek refuge with his brother and two other boys. They escaped in the middle of the night with neither food nor possessions to avoid suspicions. Weeks of walking up to 20 hours a day through a jungle on the way to Sudan in a scorching temperature was not the only thing he had to endure. Stung on the neck by a scorpion and swollen legs from dehydration added to the survival test. Food was scarce to almost non-existent in the barren desert landscape. Exhaustion and disheartening took such a toll on them that they barely spoke.

They finally reached the refugee camp in Gedaref, Sudan, and found asylum. Like many Ethiopians in the refugee camps in Sudan, he made do with minimum resources available. After a brief stay in the camp, he went to Khartoum and worked as a waiter at the American Club. He took up Arabic and learned English from the diplomats, aid workers and expatriates who frequented the club. What he expected as a few months wait became a three-year stretch to move to the United States.

In 1985 he made his way to Newark, NJ, and then briefly to New York, where his culinary career started from bottom up, as a busboy at his first job. He has served in the UN Delegates Dining Room in NYC and worked his way up the culinary ladder in San Francisco’s Campton Place. After gaining a few years of culinary working experience under his belt, he started experimenting with a monthly dinner party at his place. He tried to duplicate the dishes in the menu from his work. At first, the vegetables were overcooked and the lamb was mushy, but Eskender is a persistent soul who kept perfecting his craft, and it hasn’t stopped since.

Now he runs the “nomadic” restaurant that infuses the North African fares from Sudan, Morocco, and Egypt with Mediterranean techniques. His ingredients are nothing but organic, most herbs and vegetables come from his small garden, seafood are fresh catches of the day, meat and poultry are straight from the butcher, and with his bike he picks up fresh baked loaves daily from Tartine – the famous French bakery in Mission District, who also uses only organic flour and local eggs. Eskender stays true to his promise in creating every step of his vision.

Eskender2_new“Radio Africa & Kitchen is like story-telling,” Eskender said. “Here is what I remember, how I grew up, what I want to do for you. It’s not conventional, but I took a chance.” I resonated with his message. Every time I tasted his chermoula and harissa it took me back to my own story on a camel back crossing the Sahara and standing there by the land border of Morocco and Algeria, overlooking the sunset fell on the golden sand dunes, while my Berber friends were preparing the same chermoula and harissa under the silent sky. Have you ever felt that your sensory memory pierced through your bones and jerked you back to the sudden awakening of a distant memory? That’s what I’m talking about.

His eyes stretched with this wide grin on his face. I asked him ”What is it?” He finally burst it out, ”Yuliana, I’m finally opening my own place after six years. It’s beautiful, it’s in this new building in Bay View. And I’m growing my own community garden right across from the restaurant in this big lot. We already started planting, should be ready for harvest by the time we open in December. We will have the launch party then, you should come. It’s going to be in mid November. After November I’m no longer here.” From the peak of excitement his voice dropped for a tint of sadness, after all, Coffee Bar is a special place for him. They gave him what he needed when he needed it. It would be like leaving home, and I can understand that. This is where I had the very first dinner with my exotic dining group three years ago, and we have come back to this place for our anniversary dinner ever since.

“So, what would happen to the Coffee Bar after you leave?” I asked him. He took a gaze around, “We don’t know yet, we are still looking for another organic chef who wants to take on the torch.” I nodded to him, “Hold that thought… I might know someone who has the passion and the heart like you do. I love this place and I love what you brought here. We need someone with the right soul to take that torch from you.” He agreed, and we shook hands on finding the next soulful nomadic chef protégé to fill his shoes.

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