I’m perched on one of five bar seats with a ringside view of the open kitchen at The Guest Chef in Oakland, where Selome Haileleoule and sous chef Showit Woldu adorn injera draped platters with mounds of fragrant spiced stews and salads, creating edible palettes of brightly hued Ethiopian classic dishes. Selome looks completely at home in the kitchen and as she warmly greets guests, but this is the first time the assistant financial controller with San Francisco’s Clift Hotel has taken on the role of restaurant chef and that’s the charm behind The Guest Chef.
The intimate space on Oakland’s College Avenue seats no more than 25 diners and features a rotating roster of chefs who serve everything from California cuisine, Classic French or Italian to the exotic food of the Azores. The usual run is a two-week stint for the caterers, recent culinary school graduates, aspiring chefs and grandmothers who dream of cooking at their own restaurant. Chef-hopefuls must complete an online application with their concept and menu and then do a tasting try-out for Guest Chef owner Scott Cameron. If accepted, the chefs supply all their own ingredients and labor and Guest Chef provides everything else (including a fully stocked kitchen, a cashier and a dishwasher), for a split of the profits.
For the past four years, Selome’s passion to share her native Ethiopian cuisine has led her to teach Ethiopian cooking classes, first at Paulding and Company and currently through West Oakland’s Brundo.
Six months ago, she was a diner at Guest Chef when David Hung, the CEO of her sister’s workplace, played co-chef with his daughter Maddy, as a bonding experience before she went to Harvard. The evening proved to be inspirational for Selome. Her run at Guest Chef began November 25, and thanks to an overwhelming response, has been extended for a third week, until December 16.
Selome named her restaurant Tayitu in honor of the powerful 19th century Ethiopian Queen. Her signature dish is doro wat (chicken in an aromatic, mahogany sauce) that requires slowly sautéing onions for two days (using no oil) until they achieve caramelized perfection. Then she adds berbere, the famous, fiery Ethiopian spice blend.
Spices have always been precious to Selome, I discover, as she shares her compelling story with me. At the age of 16, she was sent by her mother to the U.S. with her sister to escape the political turmoil in her homeland. The young women attended an all-girls school in small town Mississippi. “Mother packed us some dirkosh (dried injera) and berbere (red pepper spice blend) in case we got homesick. I used to sprinkle it on the bland fried chicken, BBQ meats, rice and eggs.”
“We came here in 1974 because of the political situation. When Ethiopia became a communist country, I got completely cut off from my home and was literally stranded. I had attended a British private school in Addis Ababa and spoke English fluently but all the international students at our college were required to take English as a second language–because it was Southern English we had to learn. At first, we were shocked. But they said, ‘Honey, y’all have to learn the language down here.’ It was tough. But I was young, so it was easier to adapt. And Southerners are the most compassionate people. They were all so sad for our mother, letting her girls go so far away.”
“It was sad to see in America how poor people are. I come from a poor country but the poverty I saw in America was shocking. Some girls from school invited us for Thanksgiving. Three generations lived in a one-room house like cardboard but they spent everything they had to give us a real Thanksgiving. They were so kind.”
Selome’s father was a Supreme Court Judge in Ethiopia who died when she was 13. Her mother raised 7 girls and 1 boy.
“I want to honor what I learned from my mother and grandmothers’ generations and then pass it on to our next generation: spices, dried and blended the traditional way; it takes passion and patience. In the old days, people used to make their own berbere and mitmita but now you can just buy them packaged.”
At this point, Selome presents me with the platter she has prepared so I can taste a variety of dishes: diced ahi tuna mixed with mitmita spices, two kinds of lentils, yellow split peas cooked with garlic, ginger and turmeric, shiro (roasted chickpea flour with spices, she describes as “Ethiopian comfort food”), a bright and tangy beet salad, and addictive collard greens. The centerpiece is the doro wat, in whose depth of flavor, I taste history–and an ancient reverence for spice. Each dish has a complex character that is only achieved by skilled spicing and long careful simmering. Selome’s cooking is equal to the best Ethiopian food I’ve tasted.
Selome’s menu of traditional Ethiopian dishes features many vegan options. This is no doubt influenced by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, whose calendar of “fasting days” (on which no meat or animal products may be eaten) number more than 250 days a year.
The diners at Guest Chef this week have been a mixture of Selome’s friends and co-workers, people who just walk by and Guest Chef regulars who stop in every two weeks to try out the latest chef. Some have never eaten Ethiopian food before and are surprised that no silverware is provided. This is a culture that cherishes eating with the hand.
Food is served the traditional way, arranged on platters of spongy injera and meant to be shared. Rolls of injera are provided and diners are expected to tear off small pieces of the crepe-like bread and scoop up the meats or vegetables with their right hands. “At the end of the day, food tastes better when you eat with your hand,” says Selome. It’s natural.”
With The Guest Chef now booked with eager chefs through March, Scott Cameron seems to have landed on a simple, yet brilliant idea, that elevates a pop-up into a rich dining experience, which is sure to catch on. He and his partner are still scouting for a San Francisco location and “having meetings” to explore the possibility of a reality TV show.
This experience at Guest Chef has made Selome’s secret dream seem more possible: “I would love to have a restaurant like this one, small and intimate. I would get all my spices from Ethiopia and go completely traditional and wash my diners’ hands before the meal by pouring water from a pitcher.”
Next Guest Chef: Dec. 18-23 — Ikeena Reed, Oakland-based caterer who specializes in sustainable, organic, Soul Food dishes.
A version of this story first posted on KQED Bay Area Bites