Clay with Your Food – Jered’s Pottery Challenge 2016


Chef’s Mis en Place

On Sunday, June 5, I was fortunate to be the guest of a good friend and fellow food enthusiast, Donovan Unks, better known on Twitter as The Dapper Diner. He’d been invited to judge the annual cook off contest held at Jered’s Pottery, which includes a trio of challenges designed to produce a victor in the kitchen. The challenges themselves are unorthodox, and the results were entertaining. Dapper’s fellow judges included Sara Paloma, a local ceramic artist, and Owen Rogers, a designer and partner from, a non-profit design and innovation organization focused on designing products, services, and experiences to improve the lives of people in poor and vulnerable communities.

The Chef-testants featured Kelsey Kerr from Standard Fare in Berkeley, Mark Liberman from AQ in San Francisco, and Galen Vasquez from Sons & Daughters in San Francisco. All were great sports, rising fearlessly to the various challenges, as guests watched while enjoying the wine and cheese provided by our host during the event.


Whole Rabbit wrapped in guanciale, ready for the kiln

In the first of three events, the chefs were tasked with preparing a dish in the kiln, which was heated to an intimidating 800 degrees. Chef Kerr prepared a simple dish of anchovies, and I was selected to be the taste tester from the audience. I found the sardines cooked to perfection, despite the unorthodox preparation method, giving the dish a thumbs up. Chef Vasquez’ attempt to defeat the blast furnace temperatures was a whole boned rabbit, seasoned with fresh picked herbs, and wrapped in guanciale to keep it moist, but it was the offering from Chef Liberman, a black cod steeped in miso, resulting in a buttery soft flesh imbued with stellar aromatics, that took the first round of judging. Fortunately, I was allowed a taste of all three, and while I found the rabbit delectable, I can’t find fault with their selection. The cod was spectacular, made all the more impressive in that it was cooked at 800 degrees, in a kiln no less.


Pottery Challenge – Pictured: (L-R) Jered Nelson; Mark Liberman; Kelsey Kerr; Galen Vasquez 


The next challenge was for each cheftestant to create their own serving dish out of clay. After a brief lesson from master “Clayboy” Jered Nelson, each bravely took to the pottery wheel. Results produced varied degrees of success, but they gave it their all and did pretty well considering the amount of time they had to acquaint themselves with the process and their lack of experience. The event was a rousing success with the crowd as the cheering and hollering from all present would attest. It was delightfully orchestrated chaos.

As a final challenge, each chef was given one of Jered’s creations on which to plate the perfectly presented dish. The products of this effort were mind-bendingly beautiful. The sleek and surreal shapes of Jered’s imaginative creations, upon which were placed delicate morsels of food in artistic shapes and designs, were sublime.

The winner was declared at the conclusion of the plating portion, with Chef Mark Liberman taking the prize.  Guests and judges finished off the afternoon with a buffet of okonomiyaki (a Korean pancake), kimchi fried rice and refreshing soba salad, all furnished by Namu (the folks behind both the food truck and Namu Gaji), it was the perfect end to an enchanting day. If you haven’t yet eaten at the restaurants represented, you should. If you’ve never checked out Jered’s incredible creations, that’s a must as well. I know I’ll do both.


The winning plaing entry, by Chef Galen Vasquez

Jered’s Pottery
867 S 19th Street
Richmond, CA 94804

Namu Gaji
499 Dolores Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
Phone:(415) 431-6268

LA MARCHA TAPAS BAR – Sharing is in the Heart

La Marcha Interior - photo credit Kristen Loken

La Marcha Interior – photo credit Kristen Loken

The first time I heard about tapas, a friend had just returned from Spain. He spoke for weeks about these extraordinary small plates that he’d experienced, as he dined across Spain in its restaurants and bars. He’d enjoyed the experience immensely, and described sampling tiny mouthfuls of smoked octopus, chicken covered in garlic and chiles and shrimp paella, each dish served in bite-sized proportions atop tiny plates. The first thing I thought then was, how would one get enough to eat? Yet today, after decades of sampling the “small plates” now so prevalent in our food culture, I’m a convert to the concept. I don’t think I’ve ordered a main course intended for just myself in over a decade. No meal is complete without shared plates.

The tradition of tapas itself hails from a time between the middle ages and modern Europe, when bad roads and difficult travels forced weary travelers to rest often. Hungry and exhausted, they’d find succor at many a roadside inn. The innkeepers of these establishments, often were unable to read or write, and so had no menus to offer their patrons. Wanting to be as hospitable as possible, they would offer their guests a sample of the dishes available, on a “tapa” (Spanish for pot cover), instead. The first tasting menu, if you will, and thus, tapas were born.

Chefs Emily Sarlatte and Sergio Monleón have partnered to bring their version of tapas to Berkeley, opening the brick and mortar version of their

Tortilla de Patatas - photo credit Phi Tran

Tortilla de Patatas – photo credit Phi Tran

wildly popular food truck “Ñora Cocina Española” in mid-October. The restaurant interior harkens back to that tradition of bar-hopping and bites that is uniquely Spanish. The overall effect is welcoming, and the effort itself clearly a collaboration, as the large expressive and colorful paintings of what appear to be colorful arches adorning the walls, are the product of Chef Sarlatte’s artist father.

La Marcha offers more than sustenance, it’s food reflecting the great pride in the art of combining flavor and providing a variety of tastes, that is at the heart of shared dining. It is clear that Chefs Monleón and Sarlatte understand that a well-prepared dish can have the power to envelop your senses, warming the heart like a grandmother’s hug. The idea that hungry travelers will cross their threshold and find not simply a meal, but a dining experience worthy of a memory, seems to be the thrust of their undertaking here in Berkeley.

At the recent soft-opening gala, I was able to sample many of their food offerings. There were thoughtful little amuse bouche of anchovy and peppers

Paella Mixta - photo credit Phi Tran

Paella Mixta – photo credit Phi Tran

to whet the palate, the tart acid of the peppers a lovely foil for the oily fish. The Albóndigas (wild boar meatballs) were juicy and plump, lightly acidic from the tomato cream sauce, and melted in the mouth, leaving a lingering blend of meat and cheese caressing the tastebuds. The bite-sized morsels of Tortilla de Patatas, a creamy egg and potato concoction that reminded me of my grandfather’s fritatta (no small compliment) were delicious. But the house special, Paella, was definitely the show stopper everyone came to taste, and it was splendid, chock full of seafood and well-developed flavors.

There was such pride in the house, both chefs clearly possessing a deep passion for the art of feeding people. It means something to them. The foods they serve brighten up a plate with the natural resonance on the tongue that is the joy found when food comes from the heart. The menu reflects that passion. Dish after dish offering the tang of tomato, fatty fish, well seasoned proteins, crafted together with peppers, and cheeses, each conjured nicely to be presented to their diners in the classic style that is “tapas.” It makes perfect sense. I’m heading back to have a full meal. I’ll bring some friends and make a memory. How about you?

La Marcha Tapas Bar
2026 San Pablo Ave
Berkeley, CA 94702
b/t University Ave & Addison St
Phone: (510) 269-7374

Chefs Sergio Monleon and Emily Sarlatte - photo credit Phi Tran

Chefs Sergio Monleon and Emily Sarlatte – photo credit Phi Tran

FONDA SOLANA FLASHBACK – Cinderella’s Mexican Feast & the Fairytale Ending

Not much left for the photo
of this Tequila laced concoction

It’s been almost two years, and I still salivate over the duck tacos.  The menu at Fonda Solana in Berkeley is a fascinating blend of elevated latin flavors, all served simply in shared-plates style.   They call it Mexican food, but it is so much more than that.

The occasion of my visit to Fonda (it seems they have all but dropped the Solana) was my daughter’s reunion with both her long-time paramour (now recently acquired husband) and the West Coast.  She’d missed the flavors of California and was needing a bit of reminding.  Dining out at Fonda Solana was just the ticket.  So we made our reservations and six of us headed there for drinks and delights.

Posole? Chicken soup?
Whatever they called it, it was delicious

What she didn’t know, but the rest of us did, was that next month, during her much-anticipated return to California, the boy would ask the girl to marry him. Their story was one of timing, and it was finally right.  Patience and commitment had brought this particular fairy-tale full circle.

But back to the food.  We ordered well, and soon found ourselves sated with the magnificent libations offered at this establishment.  As the courses came, we ooh-ed and ahhh-ed at the lovely presentations and blissfully developed flavors.  At the time I went the restaurant was one of the K-12 group that includes Lalimes and T-Rex (the latter having recently undergone a change in ownership).  To date, I have found a delightfully reliable uniformity of excellence in all restaurant establishments bearing the K-12 stamp.  Each one was worth a visit, many have seen return trips by this diner on the hunt for a food adventure.

The remarkably decadent
duck taco

Among my favorites of the menu we sampled included delightful empanadas drizzled in creme fraiche, hot fried cheese sticks full of oozy goodness while being light and airy as a creampuff, and a heavenly duck taco that incorporated pomegranate into the seasoning.  The duck taco was a revelation in flavors, but everything else was likewise delicious.

It was a magnificent way to relaunch my eldest child back into her native state and its myriad cuisines.  Mexican is something she felt she could never get in New York City, at least not to her California standards.  I can’t imagine NYC doesn’t have any good Mexican food, but on a budget perhaps extremely hard to find.  We reconnected over shared secrets and delicious food.  These are precious memories, which is I suppose why the surface now, on the almost two month anniversary of her nuptials with the lovely young man in the scene.

We talk often of food being love, and yes it is.  It can conjure love, secure love, bind love and remind us of times when we were loved.  It reminds of those who prepared it, the people we shared it with.  Our senses are so moved by the aromas, and the tastes can transport us to moments long gone but that will never be forgotten.  It is a meme I repeat, because it is like breathing.  Food and fond memories. The fabric of life.

Fonda Solana is a great meal if you like Mexican flavors, but don’t expect platters of heavy beans and rice.  The food here is delicate, though the flavors pack a whallop.  Pay it a visit and check it out, make a memory of your own.

Mexican “Wedding” cookies anyone?

Fonda Solana
1501 Solano Avenue
Albany, CA