Farewell to Berkeley’s Frugal Foodies

by Sarah Henry on December 16, 2010 · 24 comments

in berkeley bites,comfort food,food events,frugal gourmet

For the past five and a half years, J Moses Ceaser has opened his home every Tuesday night to old friends and complete strangers with the sole purpose of getting people in the kitchen cooking a vegetarian meal from scratch for a fraction of the cost of eating out — while creating community on the side.

That’s the concept behind his Frugal Foodies. Ceaser has held theme nights, vegan dinners, and cooked cuisine from around the globe. He’s also hosted guest chefs such as Bryant Terry and run Iron Chef competitions out of his 960-square foot, open-plan artist warehouse apartment inside a former margarine packing plant in west Berkeley.

All this for just 8 bucks.

Inspired by a similar meet-up in Montreal, Ceaser planned his own weekly dinner parties with a few guiding principles: No measuring cups or electric devices, and — on some weeks like the one I attended — no recipes, no cooking with someone you came with. And, while attendees most certainly must clean up, they should never, ever, put anything away. Got that?

I stopped by this week to make dinner, admire the professional photographer‘s documentary portraits, commune with a dozen fellow cooks over cutting boards, and talk with Ceaser about his edible experiment.

We were greeted by a table overflowing with produce from Firme Farms, boasting seasonal picks such as turban squash, beets, kale, persimmons, and Brussels sprouts. After a flurry of activity and fumbling around in the kitchen for newbies like myself, we sat down two hours later to a buffet of roasted veggies, stir-fry, egg and veg bake, kale and beet salad and a persimmon dessert with rice and coconut milk. Hearty, healthy fare, prepared to an amusing mix of catchy dance tunes such as “Rescue Me,” “Baby You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet,” and “I Will Survive.”

More facilitator than instructor, Ceaser took care of business while guests got to work. He took a break from his computer periodically to ask people what they were making or remind them about the time in an approach that is part laid-back bachelor boy and part bossy den mother.

This being Berkeley, a post-dining sharing circle is de rigueur. Most visitors expressed their enjoyment of the the food and fellowship, along with the philosophy behind the event. Several regulars noted that, even when they couldn’t come by to cook, they got a measure of comfort knowing that Frugal Foodies was out there each week, bringing people together across a table of good food.

The 43-year-old Frugal Foodies founder is calling it a night on December 28.  Ceaser, who formerly ran the nonprofit Diversity Works, is turning his attention to raising funds to get the Parkway Theater in Oakland up-and-running again, though he hopes that someone else in the East Bay will pick up the Frugal Foodies idea. (Heads up: The concept may move to Oakland in the new year; there are existing chapters in San Jose, Seattle, and Boston.)

Ceaser’s final Frugal Foodies events will likely sell out. If you do snag a spot, be warned: read the rules in advance and refresh your memory when you arrive. The night went surprisingly smoothly, perhaps because its leader is a stickler for following his laminated guide.

Below, Ceaser reflects on his adventures in breaking bread in Berkeley.

Can you tell me about the kinds of people who have walked through your doors over the past five years?

On a typical night we’ll have about 15 people, mostly from Berkeley, Oakland or San Francisco. We get slightly more women than men and about a third are repeat attendees and two-thirds are new. It’s a mix of real cooks, cooking idiots, and people who have never cooked before. The nights that are less diverse aren’t as much fun for me, so sometimes I do a little social engineering to make sure the group is mixed in terms of age, ethnicity, and gender. I have a few guy friends who tell me when the ratio gets to 5:1 in favor of women, call me. But this isn’t a singles scene. I hate the idea of that. People come here for different reasons: To learn to cook or cook with others, to eat well and cheaply, to meet people, to check out the Berkeley quirk factor.

Have you had any disastrous dinners?

We’ve had a few little fires. In my building that means the smoke alarms go off and the fire department comes to investigate. The most recent incident happened on Halloween night. People thought it was a bit exciting.  Food-wise sometimes people who think they know what they’re doing and don’t will reach for, say, powdered sugar instead of cornstarch and we’ll think we’re going to have a mess on our hands. But we come up with different ideas to fix mistakes and sometimes they surprise us and turn out wonderful.

Have you had any bad experiences?

One comes to mind, a woman who seemed off before she even came. She started sending inappropriate notes to people after the event — we learned from that not to share other people’s emails — it escalated and it could have gotten ugly but thankfully there was a psychiatrist in the group that night and she took on the task of dealing with the email communications. Two lawyers who attended gave me advice. At one point the woman threatened to report me to the health department. Everything eventually settled down.  It turned out that it was a pretty memorable night mainly because I ended up forming close friendships with the people who came to my aid.

What about the good times?

Oh, generally it’s fabulous and people rave about it. Some great friendships have formed here, business plans have been hatched, relationships started, new recipes shared, and always good food is eaten. Some people have fallen in love with the idea of it and think of it as a quintessential Bay Area experience that they bring out-of-towners to.

What advice do you have for someone who wants to start something similar?

it’s more important that the person who runs something like this have good people and organization skills than it is that they be a good cook. Lots of people have wanted to be a guest chef here but not everyone is a good fit. If a person is bossy, negative, or doesn’t have a welcoming spirit, it doesn’t work.  You can’t be a control freak and expect things will go perfectly. Some people will screw up. I know some people enjoy coming just to see what kind of chaos will emerge.

Would you do anything differently?

I wished I had more time to update our blog with recipes but otherwise I don’t think I’d do anything differently.

Do you eat out in Berkeley?

I’m pretty much anti-eating out, that’s why I run Frugal Foodies, I think people should be able to cook for themselves, eat well, and for cheap. That said, I’m a long-time volunteer at Karma Kitchen at Taste of the Himalayas.

What will you miss?

It’s a great avenue for me to try new dishes. I’m afraid I won’t cook as much or be as adventurous in my cooking. I may not meet as many new people either.

What’s been the best part of running Frugal Foodies?

It forces me to clean my house each week.

[This post originally appeared on Berkeleyside.]

You might also like:

Frugal Gourmet: How to Eat Well on a Budget

Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food

My Persimmon Problem

In Praise of Brussels Sprouts

Eat Your Greens

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{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart December 16, 2010 at 12:22 pm

This sounds like a terrific idea. I hope someone takes over the reigns.

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Sarah Henry December 16, 2010 at 2:02 pm

Agreed, Roxanne. Stay tuned.

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Faith Kramer December 16, 2010 at 12:29 pm

I’m so sorry I procrastinated so long … good luck to J on the Parkway project.

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Sarah Henry December 16, 2010 at 2:03 pm

I felt the same way, Faith. Had been meaning to go for months. At least I snuck in a dinner before the end of an era.

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Sheryl December 16, 2010 at 2:35 pm

What a wonderful, fun concept. Hopefully it will carry on with someone else…sounds too good to disappear!

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Sarah Henry December 16, 2010 at 3:24 pm

I suspect news of the events pending end will spur someone to put their hand up to continue this popular, community-centric tradition.

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Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi December 16, 2010 at 3:35 pm

It does sound like a quintessential Bay area gathering. I hope it keeps on.
Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi´s last [type] ..Rogues Gallery

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Sarah Henry December 19, 2010 at 1:35 pm

Fingers crossed, Melanie. Truth be told, though, I could see this happening lots of places, including Down Under.

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Susan December 16, 2010 at 5:54 pm

Love this idea!! It’s a shame that it’s no longer running, but I’m sure it was a lot of work and it sounds like he’s going to focus another worthy project. I was excited to hear that they also have a group in Boston. It’s actually right near my ‘hood, so I emailed the organizer to see if there are any events coming up.

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Sarah Henry December 19, 2010 at 1:36 pm

That’s great, Susan. Let us know if you go and what it’s like.

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MyKidsEatSquid December 16, 2010 at 5:57 pm

Interesting that he makes the point its more about organizational skills than cooking ones. It sounds like such a cool idea–I hope his new endeavor goes well!

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Sarah Henry December 19, 2010 at 1:36 pm

Isn’t it, MKES? A lot of folks who teach cooking to kids say something similar.

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Mrs Q December 16, 2010 at 7:56 pm

Really cool idea!
Mrs Q´s last [type] ..Day 161- creamy pasta and a video blog for you

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Sarah Henry December 19, 2010 at 1:37 pm

Agreed, Mrs Q.

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NoPotCooking December 17, 2010 at 10:05 am

I really love the idea of this! I wish something like it were available in my area.
NoPotCooking´s last [type] ..Island Pork Chops

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Sarah Henry December 19, 2010 at 1:37 pm

Maybe you could start something like this, No Pot Cooking. Just a thought.

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Alexandra December 17, 2010 at 11:53 am

I find so inspiring what is happening on the food scene in the Bay Area and am sorry Frugal Foodies has to end. When the world finally wakes up to the dangers of genetically modified foods, I’m ready to bet opposition will be led by folks who have experienced the fresh food revolution that you write about here so eloquently.
Alexandra´s last [type] ..7 Great Gifts for Fans of Wellfleet

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Sarah Henry December 19, 2010 at 1:38 pm

Why thank you, Sandy. And thanks to you for keeping the spotlight on the whole GMO mess.

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merr December 23, 2010 at 5:05 pm

What a tremendous effort and person to have created and sustained this for so long. Yes, it will be interesting to see if someone takes over.

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sarah henry December 28, 2010 at 12:46 am

I know what you mean, Merr. I’m always amazed by these folks who build something like this, themselves, from scratch.

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Melanie Haiken December 27, 2010 at 11:14 pm

I love the fact that he welcomes newbies and non-cooks. I wish something like this existed where I live, or that I had the energy to start it myself! Great idea!

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sarah henry December 28, 2010 at 12:48 am

Yep, all comers got to cook, often with outstanding results, repeat visitors told me.

Here’s hoping the idea spreads to other areas, Melanie, including your own.

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