By Plants Alone
Produce is both heart and soul at CORE Kitchen
By Alix Wall | Photos by Carmen Silva
A sign outside CORE Kitchen at Oakland City Center proclaims: “Welcome to the world’s first produce-only restaurant.”
Of course vegan and plant-based cuisine are familiar terms already, but CORE Kitchen CEO Corey Rennell wants his year-old restaurant to be known as the place where absolutely anyone can eat, no matter their dietary needs or preferences.
“The dream of CORE Kitchen is that anyone can walk in, eat anything they want, and as much as they want, and only get healthier,” says Rennell.
He also wants to make Oakland the healthiest city in the nation. More on that later.
Plant-based cuisine can rely on many processed ingredients, says Rennell, but not at CORE Kitchen, where the popular coconut-almond sauce comes from young Thai coconuts (their meat and juice fresh, not from a can), soaked almonds, and dates. A house-made balsamic “vinegar” is made with mushrooms sautéed in water plus seaweed and grapes. They don’t use oil, vinegar, or or even salt in the cooking, though fear not, you can add flavor to your plate using the salt and dried pepper flakes set out on the counter.
“At culinary school, the first thing you learn to do is put butter and salt in a pan,” says Rennell, explaining how CORE Kitchen is different. “Our menu comes from the minds of people with life-long experience with restrictive diets. They put their burrito in eggplant slices or in a collard leaf to try to recreate traditional dishes in ways that are more diet- or health-centered.”
A Vegan Kid in Alaska
The passion Rennell brings to his mission is immediately apparent. As a child growing up in Anchorage, Alaska, he made the decision to become a vegetarian at age 7, and then went vegan at 11 when his father arrived home with a fresh-killed deer right after Rennell had watched the movie Bambi.
“If you can imagine being vegan in Alaska in the ‘90s, it was pretty intense,” he says, adding that his mother was supportive, but that it barely helped. “I faced really intense discrimination at every meal. I had to build a shell and have resolve over my decision-making.”
Rennell’s diet continued to influence him in profound ways. While initially he tried to study nutrition, he soon realized it didn’t align with his interests.
“Lab science is reductive as it’s done on rats,” he says. “There’s little you can learn about the complex digestion of humans by injecting one chemical into another species. You can’t put a human in a cage and feed them hot dogs for 40 years.”|
Instead, he took an opportunity to travel with BBC and the Discovery Channel, visiting 12 different tribal communities, and observing what the people ate. Rennell’s first major revelation was that no matter where he went, people subsisted primarily on plants. And where there was no refrigeration, they ate nearly everything fresh. Wanting to engage with the food system directly, Rennell took a job at Whole Foods, which he saw as a leader in healthy food. But he quickly learned how grocery stores prioritize items that have the longest shelf life.
“I really needed to start my own company where we challenged ourselves to change the food system to focus back on fresh.”
He started his business in 2010 with CORE Meals. These gluten-free energy bars made from ingredients like organic raw almonds and raisins with no additives or preservatives are sold in the refrigerated section of Whole Foods and other markets. Then he created CORE Kitchen, and he aspires to duplicating the shop in new locations. Noting Kaiser Permanente’s prevalence in the region, Rennell says he’s trying to implement a program where Kaiser patients with dietary issues can be given a prescription to eat at these cafes.
Rennell has established his business as a B Corporation: a corporate entity that includes positive impact on society, workers, the community, and the environment in addition to profit as legally defined goals. On the worker front, a third of the staff at CORE Kitchen has come out of job skills programs like the Center for Employment Opportunities, Bread Project, and ELEVATE.
What’s on the Menu?
While Thai zucchini noodles, with two sauce options, is the most popular dish CORE serves, Rennell’s customers enjoy several salads (including the ubiquitous raw kale salad) and three types of collard wraps. His Caribbean Bowl with black beans is also popular. Although legumes are in some dishes, grains are avoided to suit Paleo dieters.
CORE Kitchen draws a large crowd of women from nearby offices looking for a healthy lunch, but Rennell wants to reach a larger sector. His Meatless Monday catering is resonating with nearby offices, but he wants people to eat this way every day.
The restaurant sells packaged granola that they make according to CORE Kitchen rules. “We call it the first whole-foods granola, because everyone to date has some kind of syrup or oil to bind it and salt, and we don’t have any of that,” says Rennell. Instead, they use flaxseed and water, a common substitute in vegan cooking for eggs, along with pureed raisins to provide sweetness. It took two years to develop the recipe. With that accomplished, they are on to other products.
Shannon Blalack, head chef at CORE Kitchen, says that while she’s been a vegetarian for 20 years and has worked at several vegetarian restaurants, coming here has been a unique experience.
“I love challenges, and this is the biggest challenge I’ve ever had, in terms of [how] cooking goes,” she says. “It’s pretty difficult to create great flavor without salt. It’s easy to get by without oil, as you can sauté in the flavorful veg stock we make. You can even sauté in water and get the caramelized effect, but salt is a whole different animal. Even our patrons think it’s a bit crazy, but they get it, that anyone can eat here, with any type of dietary restriction. And if you want to add salt, it’s available.”
I tried several dishes at CORE Kitchen, and I admit it: I am one of those who reached for the salt. But I am also one who loves healthy vegetarian food to begin with, and with just a few shakes, I fully enjoyed my meals there. Perhaps even more than the meal itself, I loved the lightness I felt afterward.
Look for a second CORE Kitchen opening soon in San Francisco.
A contributing editor of j. weekly, Alix Wall is an Oakland-based freelance writer and personal chef. She is also the founder of The Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called The Lonely Child (lonelychildmovie.com). Find her at theorganicepicure.com or on twitter @WallAlix.