Saqib Keval calls the community
and the ancestors to the People’s Kitchen
Photos by Nicki Rosario
Perhaps you have heard legends regarding the challenges of securing reservations at the French Laundry or Chez Panisse? Well, it might be just as hard to book a seat for dinner at the People’s Kitchen of Oakland. The comparison ends there, however. Once you have managed to track down the date and location for the next iteration of this pay-what-you-can community dining experience, you’d be advised to act fast, since the 150 or so seats always sell out.
Staff from Edible East Bay (EEB) were lucky enough to attend the March 2013 dinner and capture some flavors of the People’s Kitchen (PK), held that night at Cosecha in Old Oakland in collaboration with Phat Beets Produce. The following interview with PK founder Saqib Keval (SK) reveals some of the background and motivation behind this unique project.
EEB: In a nutshell, what is the People’s Kitchen?
SK: It’s a community food project that engages, builds, and feeds community through large-scale food events. Over the past year in Oakland, PK has created a wildly successful monthly, sliding-scale community restaurant that couples political education and movement-building with a delicious, local, organic meal lovingly prepared by community chefs. The all-volunteer crew works with a different grassroots political project or social justice organization each month to curate a menu that highlights and reflects the work of that group. Past groups we have worked with include FACES, Kulture Freedom, People’s Grocery, VietUnity, and Phat Beets Produce. All profits from the dinner are donated to that organization to support their vital work. We ask that guests not pay for the food but rather show appreciation for it by donating to the partner organization or project and getting involved with their work.
EEB: How did you initially come by the idea?
SK: Some years ago, I was doing time working through the positions of the restaurant industry at a number of fancy-pants eateries and getting burnt out by the problematic politics of the food industry. As a server, I heard many racist and classist comments. In the back of the house, I realized I was cooking for people I would never meet or have any connection to. I was putting my heart into food that was intentionally exclusive and priced well beyond anything that people in the neighborhood or even the staff of that very restaurant could afford. The atrocious labor politics that are normalized in the industry and the suffocating shadow of capitalism were overwhelming as I tried to come to terms with my role, what I was willingly subjecting myself to, and the price I was paying for it.
Simultaneously, I was working full time as a community organizer on issues ranging from housing justice; police brutality; and deconstructing of patriarchy, racism, and imperialism, while looking for a way to merge my worlds. As I researched and experimented with various food-sharing models, I kept coming back to my family traditions of massive community meals.
To say my family is large would be an understatement. A mid-size nonprofit would have to commit its entire staff to pull off all the events, theme parties, camping trips, and social programs my family organizes. My friends follow the Keval family exploits as if we were some type of reality show. Between the weddings and new babies, I have lost track of how many of us there actually are. What I do know is that at every gathering there is always a lot of food. Family dinners can easily top 100 people and often have lots of singing and dancing. It takes a level of genius to orchestrate a meal that big. It takes a grandmother.
Growing up remarkably unathletic, asthmatic, and awkward—the triple threat—I spent a lot of time in the kitchen with my grandmothers, mother, and aunts, awestruck by the sheer volume of food they would cook without the use of recipes or meddlesome measuring devices. I would regularly be sent to a wooden shed in the backyard to retrieve my grandmother’s pots, which I would place on the squat propane burners that dotted the back porch. The pots are heavy, thick, and massive. As a child I could easily fit inside of them. Now as a slightly larger adult, I can still fit inside of them. I remember once going to a white classmate’s house and being shocked by how small his family’s pots were, concerned that perhaps they weren’t getting enough to eat. I have no idea where my grandmother’s pots came from or how one would go about getting pots like that, but I imagine some type of fierce competition with the kitchen gods was involved. Obviously my grandmother won. These pots played a big role in my childhood and have always served as some sort of benchmark for my cooking. I’ll know I have made it when I have pots that big.
While working toward filling those pots and pans, I have been learning the power of food stories. When people cook together, immense knowledge is shared in the process. Recipes tell us much about who we are, where we have come from, and what we have survived. Our recipes are records of our survival. From the dishes my grandmother would put on the table, I learned how I could map my family’s migration for generations back, from Northern India to East Africa to all over Europe and North America. It is this discovery of food storytelling and community history that I wanted to bring into People’s Kitchen.
EEB: So how do you translate that experience to community-building?
SK: We are using food and recipes as a tool for storytelling and reclaiming community knowledge. We also use these as a lens to critically engage with and support social justice movements and projects. Dishes for each event are extensively researched. Menus are curated to tell the story of that community’s struggle, resilience, resistance, and revolution.
Community organizations can be talented stewards of micro-investments, but they often lack the real tools and capacity for engaging new supporters. At People’s Kitchen, we have developed a new way for projects here in Oakland to share and grow. Of the groups we have selected to partner with in 2013, nine have no staff and all but one have budgets under $35,000. Our mission is to catalyze community investment in vital social issues through food- and dining-centered cultural sharing, culinary programming, and popular education.
EEB: Besides the involvement of your partner organizations, who is People’s Kitchen and how does it all work?
SK: The chef-organizers of the PK collective include Hải Võ, Kay Cuajanco, Aileen Suzara, Jonathan Darr, TC Duong, Jocelyn Jackson, Nuri Nusrat, Raquel Vigil, Yvonne Fly Onakeme Etaghene, Tracy Zhu, and many more beautiful people. Each of them comes from backgrounds in food justice and farming work, arts organizing, and community organizing. Most are children of immigrants or are immigrants themselves. A few of them have formal training in culinary arts, but all of them make serious kitchen mischief. They cook like I’ve only seen my family cook: a whole lot of soul and very little measuring. They fill the kitchen with the voices, stories, and wisdom of their respective families and communities, honoring ancestors and transporting the PK to homelands oceans away. Our kitchen is made up of long hours of crazed culinary laughter and wild kitchen joy, as we humbly cook for thousands of people in Oakland.
Along with providing a hot, nutritious, and delicious meal, we bring together the skills needed to cook each dish. While collective eating is at the heart of the event, it’s the collective cooking that creates so much of the magic. Central to the PK model is the open kitchen practice in which all are welcome to learn and teach how to cook the menu together. By sharing in the labor, we are able to create systems that honor traditional food crafts, providing a space for community to re-skill themselves in the kitchen. While we cook together, we share stories and discussion tied to the theme of the event and the political education pieces designed for that dinner. The conversations are ultimately concluded at the table when we invite guests to share the food and ingest the intentions that were cooked into it. We want the people to be fed well to fuel their resistance. In itself, the Peoples Kitchen is not a revolutionary act—our communities have been doing this for generations—but it is made revolutionary by the oppressive political climate that we are surviving in and actively resisting.
EEB: It seems that food justice is at the heart of your mission.
SK: Yes. Food is immensely political. It is used as a means to directly control not only our bodies and health but also our families, neighborhoods, and livelihoods. Access to fresh food follows lines of race and class. Those who have the privilege of eating farm fresh are often the wealthy. Those who don’t, more often than not, are already disenfranchised black and brown communities. By keeping “farm fresh” and organic foods unavailable to communities of struggle, the state is able to fight its low-intensity war against us on a very basic level, that of our bodies. The People’s Kitchen is an accessible space for community to come share delicious farm-to-table food while actively participating in resisting and deconstructing the white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal structure of the corporate food system we live in.
Although the restaurant industry is America’s largest private employer, it pays some of the lowest wages, second only to what is paid to the farm workers who toil to produce the food. Teenagers and people of color are the preferred employees because their labor is the least valued. They are hired only to be fired at will, given hours “as-needed,” given no benefits, kept in part-time hourly positions, paid well below a living wage, and regularly subjected to unsafe conditions. The success of the food system is predicated on the exploitation of poor black and brown bodies—predominantly womyn of color—throughout every step. Those who grow and produce the food are often undocumented laborers held in slavery—quite literally, when you consider reports of farm laborers chained to their farming equipment at night. The People’s Kitchen works to create an alternative to this reality by operating as a collective, deconstructing the problematic power structures of the traditional restaurant model, and intentionally working with small-scale food producers of color in the Bay Area.
The People’s Kitchen is not alone in creating beautiful justice-based foodways in our community. We are inspired by the many food rebels who came before us, as well as PK supporters: hosting businesses Betti Ono Art Gallery, Miss Ollie’s, and Cosecha Café; Hodo Soy; Phat Beets Produce; People’s Grocery; La Peña Cultural Center; Mirabot Technology Cooperative; FuseBOX; Bay Community Fellowship; East Bay Community Law Center; and Grace Hearth Catering. And of course, there are the folks who have come to every one of our dinners, making PK an instant success that consistently sells out in less than two weeks without any publicity.
EEB: Where do you see this going?
There are many amazing projects named People’s Kitchen throughout the country that involve people eating together in some sort of intentional way. However, the People’s Kitchen model that I founded and worked on has flourished on and off for years as a grassroots project in five cities and three countries. As our PK continues to grow in Oakland, we are working to launch a grassroots fund-raising campaign and expect to make some big moves, such as becoming a full-time food project offering weekly and monthly dinners, cooking classes, theme parties, workshops, and catering, all with our signature PK style and food justice analysis. We are training organizers in other cities in our model, and supporting them in launching their own PKs, as well as taking PK on a nationwide road trip. We hope to publish a cookbook that tells the story of social justice movements throughout the country through recipes that are central to those movements.
Food is where we meet, where we build, where we struggle, where we survive. A shared meal is a space of encounter. It provides a collective moment of engagement and intention of shared sustenance that crosses both tablecloths and borderlands. Between bread broken and plates passed, community blooms, nurtured and nourished by the many hands of the People’s Kitchen. ♠
Stay tuned as People’s Kitchen pops up this summer with dinner parties, cooking classes, and a big July People’s Kitchen one-year anniversary celebration in Oakland. Look for them on Facebook or Twitter (@510pk), and get on their mailing list.
Radish and Wakame Salad
Ikumi Ogasawara and Machiko Saito founded Kome Kome catering because they love to cook. According to their friend Misako Kashima, a health educator and advocate, who teams up with them at the Phat Beets Farmers’ Market, their food is “typical Japanese mom’s home cooking . . . very nutritious, a balanced meal using lots of seasonal vegetables that pleases your senses as well as your stomach.” Look for Kome Kome at the market or Crossroads Café and make sure to try their winning rice burger: five kinds of vegetable tempura sandwiched in a rice bun.
8 red radishes or 1 Japanese cucumber, thinly sliced
Place sliced radishes (or cucumber) in a nonreactive bowl and massage with sea salt. Let sit for about 30 minutes.