Berkeley Bites: Samin Nosrat, Ex-Eccolo Chef & Co-Creator of the Pop-Up General Store

by Sarah Henry on June 25, 2010 · 31 comments

in berkeley bites,civil eats,food businesses,food events,restaurants

Samin Nosrat is a veritable poster girl for the current trend (some would say necessity) of workplace reinvention.

Since the shuttering last summer of Eccolo, an acclaimed Italian eatery on tony 4th Street in Berkeley, that restaurant’s one-time sous chef now juggles an impressive number of part-time jobs in the culinary world.

Nosrat is the co-creator (along with former boss, Chris Lee, currently cooking in London) of the much buzzed about Pop-Up General Store, a fleeting food market every few weeks housed in the Grace Street Catering headquarters in Oakland’s hipster ‘hood known as the Temescal area.

The Pop-Up sells top-notch prepared foods by notable Bay Area chefs, many of whom, like Nosrat, who sells homemade pasta and Lee’s signature sausages, are Chez Panisse alum.

This 30-year-old daughter of Iranian immigrants grew up in a food-conscious home where freshly prepared, seasonal Persian dishes were a staple.

A stint in Italy reinforced the importance of a cultural connection to food, which she passes along in cooking and butchering classes under her Home Ec moniker and on the road with urban farmer and friend Novella Carpenter.

Nosrat picks up the occasional shift at Chez, where she got her start, and includes some well-known Berkeley names among her private cooking clients (she’s mum on that matter, for public consumption anyway, in case you’re curious.)

Oh, and she also “pops up” to cook afterhours, family-style, fixed menu dinners once a month at Tartine Bakery in San Francisco.

The mastermind behind a Bakesale for Haiti benefit that netted $22,500 from three Bay Area locations last January, Nosrat even finds time to write about her gastronomical adventures, most notably for The Atlantic online this week.

She lives in North Berkeley, where this interview took place over an impromptu picnic of pickled produce under consideration for a future Pop-Up event.

Why a Pop-Up General Store?

Chris and I missed cooking for our customers. We wanted to find a way to make and share the foods we love without carrying the burdens of a restaurant on our shoulders. We quickly realized how much fun it would be to share this format with our friends, many of whom we’ve been cooking with for years, so we invited other professional cooks and food artisans to join us.

It took off really fast. I think it fills a need in the community, it connects us with customers who crave the kind of food we want to create, and it’s more affordable than going out to eat.

Where do you like to take out-of-towners when they visit?

Gioia Pizzeria. I like their New York-style crust, it’s a little bit sweet and chewy. And they put crazy seasonal stuff on top like zucchini, pesto and ricotta in the summer and butternut squash and blue cheese in the fall.

The 100 percent organic Thursday farmers’ market, of course.

And Ici. I love ice cream and every time I go in there I’m struck by how much care and technique goes into each scoop. It’s affordable luxury, restaurant-quality food at a fraction of the cost. Plus ice-cream makes everyone feel like a little kid again, if only for a moment.

What’s missing on the Berkeley food scene?

A great organic salad bar. I love salad. It’s all I want sometimes: A big bowl of little gem lettuce, beets and avocado. Or a farro and nut combo, or romaine doused in green goddess dressing.  If there was a place where you could bring a plate and choose from, say, 20 salads I would eat there every day.

Who are your local food heroes?

Alice Waters and Michael Pollan. Okay, I know everyone probably says these two. But for me, it’s not some kind of abstract connection, I have ties to both of them and feel honored and lucky I do.

Alice Waters raised the standards for what we eat across the board. I think her greatest gift, which is rarely acknowledged, is the value she places on the beauty and aesthetics of the eating experience. If you learn anything while working at Chez Panisse it is attention to detail.

Michael Pollan seeks to democratize the food movement. He has a unique ability to explain what’s wrong and what needs changing –often quite complex issues — but he boils them down to their elemental parts and make them really accessible.

What’s the best thing about the food movement here?

Its thoughtfulness. Everywhere you go you find people who really think about what they’re growing, cooking, and eating. People pay attention to where their food comes from. That can be a double-edged sword, some people can seem overly picky or snobby about food.

We live in a bubble here in the Bay Area. We have access to some of the best, freshest produce in the country. When Novella and I were in Kansas City, Missouri last summer we couldn’t find somewhere to eat that wasn’t a chain restaurant. That’s why I think it’s so vital that we encourage and empower Americans to return to the kitchen.

Visit popupgeneralstore.blogspot.com for date, time, and food selections for the next spontaneous market. Update: Next Pop-Up just announced on Twitter, scheduled for next Wednesday, 6/30. Advance orders advised. Due to a recent surge in demand many items sell out.

[Photo: Bart Nagel]

This post originally appeared on Berkeleyside. It was republished by Civil Eats.

You might also like:

Adventures of an Urban Farm Gal

Haiti Bakesale Benefit Update

Alice Waters’ 40 Year Campaign for Good Food

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{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

sheryl June 25, 2010 at 8:39 am

Great, interesting interview. I’m with her on the organic salad bar…surprised there are none around, esp. in a place like Berkeley. I’d be there every day, too :)

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Sarah Henry June 25, 2010 at 8:47 am

I know, Sheryl, you’d think that would be a no-brainer here. I can think of one or two but they don’t make the grade, I guess, as far as Samin is concerned.

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almost Slowfood June 25, 2010 at 8:56 am

What I wouldn’t give for a pop-up general store in NYC. While there are a lot of prepared food options here, there aren’t many in my area that focus on using local foods to make amazing food!

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Sarah Henry June 25, 2010 at 9:44 am

perhaps you could plant the seed for such a venture, almost slowfood???

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Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart June 25, 2010 at 9:13 am

Man! What I would give to have something like this near our somewhat rural town in Colorado. Terrific, terrific idea. Congrats to everyone involved, and thanks so much for alerting us to the idea. Seriously, wow!

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Sarah Henry June 25, 2010 at 9:46 am

Welcome, Roxanne. And don’t give up hope that something like this couldn’t sprout up outside an urban foodie oasis like the Bay Area. One thing I love about this country is you can find folks doing amazing things with food in some unexpected places.

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Frugal Kiwi June 25, 2010 at 9:31 am

I love hearing about the innovative food scene in places like Berkeley, even though I live in rural NZ. Thanks for the insight!

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Sarah Henry June 25, 2010 at 9:48 am

Pleasure, Frugal Kiwi. And perhaps sometime you can share some local culinary fare from NZ. An American friend of mine spent a month there a few years backed and just loved how butternut squash was a staple salad sandwich ingredient. Sometimes it’s the little things that people really respond to.

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Alexandra June 25, 2010 at 10:09 am

“We live in a bubble here in the Bay Area.” So true! How fortunate you are.

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Sarah Henry June 25, 2010 at 10:26 am

we’re spoiled for food here, we know it, and i for one don’t take it for granted.

and, hopefully some other posts make clear, i’m all for sharing our bounty with everyone.

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MarthaAndMe June 25, 2010 at 10:46 am

Very cool concept. I too would kill for an organic salad bar to go to.

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Sarah Henry June 25, 2010 at 11:27 am

Maybe the good folks behind the boutique salad bar Mixt Greens, profiled in this recent giveaway: http://lettuceeatkale.com/2010/cookbook-giveaway-mixt-salads/
should start opening stores all over.

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Kerry June 25, 2010 at 11:57 am

Sarah,
one way you are sharing your bounty with other parts of the world is through interviews such as this, filled with a sense of personality and with creative ideas. thanks.

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Sarah Henry June 25, 2010 at 11:59 am

Aww, gee, thanks Kerry.

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Christine at Origami Mommy June 25, 2010 at 1:16 pm

I enjoy these interviews very much. It gets me thinking about what kind of food innovation might be happening in my own, local area. An organic salad bar sounds heavenly and I, too, am surprised by the fact that there isn’t already one there.

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Sarah Henry June 25, 2010 at 1:36 pm

I hope some food-centric entrepreneur is reading these comments. I’ll keep you posted.

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Stephanie - Wasabimon June 26, 2010 at 10:00 am

Oh! A salad bar would be awesome! Hopefully someone will take that idea and run with it.

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Sarah Henry June 27, 2010 at 8:52 pm

How else might we spread the word for the salad bar cause in Berkeley?

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Melanie Haiken June 27, 2010 at 1:22 pm

This is such an appealing idea, especially for someone like me who loves good food eaten at home, but hates to cook. (Especially in summer, when all I want is to be outdoors on a mountain or a beach.) The Temescal is off-limits for me – any chance they’ll expand this concept to other areas? Marin could REALLY use something like this!

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Sarah Henry June 27, 2010 at 8:46 pm

Methinks the homegrown/neighborhoody aspect appeals to many vendors but there’s nothing to stop fabo chefs in Marin — of which there’s unlikely a shortage — of banding together to do something similar. Perhaps you could plant that seed, Mel?

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Jennifer Margulis June 27, 2010 at 8:43 pm

I was asked recently by an editor to find some inspiring re-invention stories. We are all needing to do that — not only bc the economy is bad but also bc it keeps us more engaged and passionate about what we’re doing. Thanks for sharing this story and interview!

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Sarah Henry June 27, 2010 at 8:50 pm

I’ve been joking a lot lately with editors about the abundance of reinvention stories in every mag or newspaper you read.

While I personally find them both inspiring and hopeful, the rebel in me is waiting for the backlash to begin.

Which publication is going to be brave enough to run a piece about people who tried to start over or shake things up without success?

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Alicia July 2, 2010 at 1:19 pm

While not a salad bar per se there is a place to get a delicious salad in Berkeley. Recently opened New Amsterdam Cafe (located on University between Martin Luther King Jr & Milvia) offers the “Big Salad” for $6. The name is not misleading – it is really huge! It’s a mixture of romaine and seasonal baby greens with cucumber & thinly sliced red onion tossed with either smoked paprika, fresh herb Italian or sesame citrus house-made dressing and three toppings of your choice. Topping choices range from the standard options (walnuts, goat cheese) to seasonal favorites (roasted beets). They use local & organic ingredients whenever possible. It may not be pushing any culinary boundaries, but it is consistently fresh, delicious, honest food.

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