Story By Andrea Pflaumer
photos by travis smith
Commenting on what he perceived as a decline in political activism, satirist Mort Sahl once said, “These days, the bravest thing people do is go to a restaurant that hasn’t yet been reviewed.” These days one of the most political things we do involves where and how we feed ourselves. It’s a truth that is not lost on two of the East Bay’s most ardent food activists, Ari Derfel and Eric Fenster, owners of Gather, Berkeley’s new all-organic restaurant.
On a Tuesday evening—often considered the dead zone in the restaurant business—merely six weeks into its operation, Gather’s kitchen is a blur of activity, turning out a nonstop stream of “elegant rustic” food for eager diners who have filled every available table since the five o’clock first seating. “We were just slammed,” says Derfel, Gather’s general manager, with a combination of exhaustion and awe. Clearly, the East Bay’s notoriously demanding foodies have found a lot to like, not only about Executive Chef Sean Baker’s omnivorously inclusive menu—ranging on any night from a mixed grill of goat marinated in mint and lemon peel to the already famous Vegan Charcuterie—but also in the simple ambiance that wears its rigorous ‘green’ label lightly.
The restaurant is just the latest achievement in a 12-year business plan designed by Derfel and Fenster that began with a shared passion: outdoor adventures. “We started an outdoor company because we always knew that these journeys were very life-changing, lifealtering,” says Derfel. On those trips they provided the kinds of food that they themselves were committed to: all organic, wholesome, and delicious: “Coconut peanut curries, veggie sushi, pad thai, Mexican rice and beans. We brought all raw materials—we had pretty heavy bags,” he laughs. On one trip a participant commented that the food was better than what she ate at home and asked if they would cater a luncheon for her. The food service business was part of their original plan. “I started looking at the restaurant industry and saw how hard it was going to be to get from where we were—no money, no experience, no culinary training—to something like this,” says Derfel, gesturing to the airy dining room. “I learned that lots of restaurants turned to catering to stimulate cash flow. To me that looked like a backward model. I said, ‘Why don’t we turn it around? Let’s do catering first. It will give us a sense as to whether there’s a market for what we do.’” So in 2001 Derfel and Fenster launched the nation’s first all-organic catering company, Back to Earth Catering, with a mission to ‘green the event industry.’ In order to maintain their energy—and sanity—for the goals that remained ahead of them, Fenster took on the full management of the business, freeing Derfel to focus on the next task: developing the restaurant.
Gather’s opening and rapid success have been in themselves remarkable accomplishments, particularly given the monumental challenges of raising capital, building out the space in record time, and navigating the notorious obstacle course that is the Berkeley City Planning Department. Rather than dwell on the negative aspects of the difficult process, Derfel describes it as having been an opportunity to set an example of what a small business can do for the city. “That pathological optimism is what drives everything we do,” he says. Optimism comes easy to these two, coupled as it is with the hard work and thoughtfully maintained relationships that reflect their ethical model. “We run our business on yogic principles: right thought, right speech, and right action,” he adds.
As Derfel describes the interiors at the restaurant, the passion for a sustainable world that motivated the enterprise is evident. “The vast majority of the wood came from one source [Michael “Bug” Deacon], at Heritage Salvage in Petaluma,” he says. Just beyond the kitchen in the welcoming bar (stocked with only organic and sustainably produced wines and spirits), he points to a single polished piece of wood that makes up the entire countertop. “That was made from a Douglas fir from Camp Meeker that was brought down in a windstorm. The lights were made from vodka bottles. The cabinetry at the wait station used to be pickle barrels,” he says, moving briskly through to the dining room. “All the planter boxes were the floor of a grain silo in southern Oregon.” As with the bar lights, the spot lighting along the banquette are of Derfel’s own design. “They’re made from wine bottles. We cut off the bottoms and sandblasted them.” The elliptical ‘fish catcher’ lamps grouped throughout the dining room are one of the very few imports. “They’re from a company in Asia that develops sustainable interiors.” At first glance, the leather seats on the banquette appear subtly striped, but from a few feet closer, something charming and unexpected is revealed. “We wanted leather because it sits well, it regulates temperature well, it’s better than anything, but it’s not sustainable. So we gathered 600 belts from thrift stores, antique stores, the Alameda antique fair, and had them upholstered together to create the leather benches.”
Rows of colorful Mason jars line shelves along the walls, edible art containing last season’s bounty from their many suppliers. All the contents will be used in Chef Baker’s menus throughout the coming seasons: rich tomato sauces, green cucumber pickles, pickled cauliflower, several varieties of jams, peaches, and tiny Crimson Gold apples. Derfel nimbly hops onto a chair to reach the top shelf and brings down a jar whose contents are bright red. “These chiles are beautiful,” he says. “They’re from Lindencroft Farms.”
Derfel’s tour continues, through the kitchen, to the accompaniment of Baker’s iPod playlist, which is mostly bluegrass music and the Grateful Dead. A computer-calibrated exhaust system ramps up and down with the fluctuating heat coming off the cook line to maintain even temperatures. Derfel points out a bank of compressors near the extraordinarily pristine trash and recycling room. “This runs about 70 percent of the refrigeration,” he says. “Normally, refrigeration compressors sit on top of the refrigerator itself, so while they’re cooling the machine, they also heat it. Running them remotely is a much more energy-efficient equation.” The kitchen’s triple-carbon water filtration/ carbonation system eliminates the need for bringing in pricey bottled water.
As do all the staff, Chef Baker shares Derfel’s fierce commitment to sustainability. He spent six years as Chef Eric Tucker’s right-hand man at Millennium, the celebrated vegetarian restaurant in San Francisco. More recently, as executive chef at Gabriella Cafe in Santa Cruz, he turned that restaurant into a local landmark. “We knew from the beginning that we had someone who had the range to do both artisanal meat [dishes] and artisanal vegan [dishes] . . . with grace and beauty,” says Derfel. “And I don’t know of any chef, to be quite honest, anywhere, who has his range.”
Baker joins the Bay Area’s forward-thinking chefs practicing “head to tail” cooking, buying whole animals and using every part. He also goes “root to shoot,” paying homage to the full range of bounty we receive from the land. Choosing a humble brassica to illustrate the concept, he says: “I blanch turnip stems to make ‘noodles,’ tear the greens for salads, and serve the turnip roasted, blanched, or even thinly sliced or shaved raw.”
The restaurant’s “source book” introduces diners to the farmers and ranchers who contribute the bounty, such as Rick Knoll of Knoll Organics in Brentwood, who describes his farm as an ecosystem hosting a myriad of creatures. “It’s the opposite of bringing a tractor in once a year, killing everything, and then planting a crop,” he says. For specialty Italian chicories, chiles, and greens, Baker goes to Linda Butler, whose Lindencroft one-acre farm near Santa Cruz receives all its electricity from solar panels and all irrigation from a 500,000-gallon rain-fed reservoir. Also on the list is Mac Magruder, who ranches on 2,400 acres near the Russian River that have been in his family for four generations. In the 1970s he began the process of converting the Potter Valley property from a pesticide-laden pear orchard to organic pastureland for grass-fed beef and pastured pork. His daughter Grace and son-inlaw, Ben Provan, are picking up the mantle. Ben touts the significant health benefits of grass-fed beef, which is lower in saturated fat than that of grain-fed beef. “The fat is much higher in omega-3’s and linoleic acid. It’s even more so with the pigs because they eat a lot of acorns. The quality of their fat is closer to olive oil.”
Derfel sees Gather as a work-in-progress, a promise of something that will, eventually, more fully live up to its name. Because of the restaurant’s proximity to UC Berkeley, it draws a large number of faculty and visiting dignitaries, affording Derfel the opportunity to function in his favorite role—that of a connector, introducing food activists and environmental activists to one another. Within a larger area he foresees partnerships with local organizations that sponsor and support community organic gardens, and an on-site book club devoted to the subject of food sustainability. He also plans to offer internships for local young people interested in careers in food service, and ‘farmer’s nights,’ where patrons can meet the people who provide the food they eat. There is even a plan to sponsor a food-related film festival at some point. “We have the Brower Center here—there are two classrooms and a theater and an art gallery, so if we’re going to produce a film festival we have a venue to do it in.”
Ari Derfel has put in long hours training for this latest challenge, but he hardly feels alone in the process. He refers to one of his mentors and advisors, Paul Hawken, whose most recent book, Blessed Unrest, describes the rapidly expanding tapestry of individuals, groups, and organizations around the world working to make a difference in areas like sustainable agriculture, food access, forest restoration, renewable energy, and green power. But what he has created is a demonstration project—and a gathering place—that synthesizes the essence and spirit of what is taking place on a global scale. For that reason alone, in this year’s culinary green Olympics, Gather takes the gold.
2200 Oxford St, Berkeley
Local Halibut in Albariño Crazy Water
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
Heat a heavy-bottomed skillet and add olive oil. When oil is hot, add the shallots, fennel, chiles, and garlic. Sauté 4 minutes until soft and lightly caramelized. Add the tomato paste, cumin, and coriander, sauté 1 minute more, and then add the Albariño wine and cook approximately 2 minutes until the alcohol is cooked out. Add the seawater and simmer on low heat for 6 minutes, until all the flavors start to come together. Add the halibut and cook for 2 minutes until cooked through. Add the parsley and oregano. Serve in shallow serving bowl and finish with a drizzle of high quality olive oil. Serves 2–4.
Andrea Pflaumer writes about arts, culture, and the environment from Berkeley. Her work regularly appears in the San Francisco Examiner and the East Bay Monthly as well as nationally. You can keep up with her writing at andreapflaumer.blogspot.com or reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org