How To Resist: In Times Like These What's a Restaurant to Do?
Above: Michelle Polizine of 20th Century Cafe, Shakirah Simley of Nourish Resist and Karen Leibowitz of The Perennial.
In the wake of last November, when it felt to me and anyone else who’d hoped for a different outcome like our country had taken a sinister turn, I stepped back from my work and took stock. The way I’d been writing about food—evaluating it, mostly, and telling the stories of the cooks who made it taste good—was feeling less and less essential. At a certain point, it’s hard to talk about the nuances of pozole against the backdrop of an administration that refuses to recognize the humanity of the people who make it.
The idea of what a restaurant is to me started to expand. Sure, it’s where we go to be fed well and cared for in the company of others, and I think that has got to count for something in a country where belonging is more conditional than ever, but it’s also a place where other pressing issues converge: immigration law, labor and food policy, wealth disparity and wage law.
So I asked: In times like these, what is a restaurant? For some restaurateurs and activists in San Francisco, a food space is the perfect springboard for resistance. But what resistance means depends on who you’re talking to.
Longtime pastry chef Michelle Polzine owns 20th Century Café in Hayes Valley, where she and her team of all women are donating proceeds from alcohol sales to organizations like the ACLU and Planned Parenthood.
FUND THE REVOLUTION
For Michelle Polzine, owner of Hayes Valley’s favorite Eastern European charm factory, 20th Century Café, owning a restaurant is a way to fund the resistance. But Polzine, a longtime pastry chef, is wrestling with the constraints of a thinly margined business in the face of so many organizations in need of financial support. She’s been mustering a quarter of all proceeds from alcohol sales and donating them to the ACLU and Planned Parenthood, and recently she shifted to a more democratic model and leaves it up to a different employee each month to choose where the money goes. But, it’s not as much of a contribution as she’d hoped.
“It’s not the Ed McMahon–sized checks I imagined I’d be writing, sadly. We started out donating 75% but my accountant talked me down because we can’t even cover our sales tax otherwise,” she says.
She’s no stranger to civic engagement, or fighting the good fight. Before she got her first gig as a pastry chef 21 years ago, Polzine spent years knocking on doors and handing out condoms on behalf of a women’s clinic, and working for an environmental organization. She burnt out, hard, but never lost her zeal or her frustration with the powers that be which drove her into the work. Now, she’s making strudel and her infamous 20-layer Russian honey cake, and finding other ways to channel that discontent.
“It was hard to find meaning in what we do,” she says. “I mean, don’t get me wrong: I think it’s important to serve people, and bring happiness to their lives, but it’s a for-profit company, and it’s pretty frivolous when you think about it. I mean, it’s fucking cake and the world is ending. “OK, it wasn’t like ‘Why am I making cake when there’s all these things happening?’ It’s more like ‘I don’t fucking know, I just can’t do anything else right now.’”
The café might be coming up short on funding the revolution, but within the confines of her own food space, Polzine’s team has another important kind of capacity: to care for its own.
Sometimes, there are gut-wrenching reminders of what’s to come, like the time Dolores—the café’s dishwasher/prep cook/runner, was detained in Dallas for two months late last year on her way back from a trip to Mexico to straighten out her immigration status. She was married to a U.S. citizen, and the last time Polzine had heard from Dolores was on her way to the U.S. embassy for her last meeting before returning. Polzine stayed late and “did a lot of dishes in those months.” Dolores didn’t say much when she got back, except that she’d been treated like a criminal.
And then, there is the unique fact that Polzine’s team is entirely women—or “gorgeous dames,” as she likes to say. Being an all female staff provides a special kind of solidarity that’s been especially vital to the team since November 8.
“It was really hard to go to work the next day. But all these ladies came in with puffy eyes, and we were glad to be here all together,” she says.
In the end, contributing funds is something, but it’s far from satisfying.
“Things are so comically horrible; it doesn’t feel real, almost.… I could do nothing, and curl up into a ball, or I could do this little thing right now [and sell alcohol].”
Karen Leibowitz' project Mission Chinese Food has donated a small amount from every entrée to the SF-Marin Food Bank since 2010, to this point funding over one million meals for hungry local people in need.
STAY THE COURSE
Diverting profits to a worthy cause can help other people get things done, but giving away profits will always have its limits. Just a few blocks away from 20th Century Café, The Perennial is practicing its own form of resistance by sticking to the explicit, progressive agenda that it opened with 11 months before the election: Sustainable, regenerative agriculture can help reverse climate change, and a restaurant can support that idea and be successful. The Perennial has garnered good press and enthusiastic support since it opened, but after the gut punch of last November, Leibowitz lost her motivation. “Anthony (Myint, her co-owner) and I looked at each other and thought, ‘What are we doing trying to talk about the environment and sustainability and food, which is such a complicated and niche topic at this point, if our country is so disinterested in climate change that we would elect someone who denies it?” said Leibowitz.
The restaurant operates an aquaponics greenhouse in Oakland, and serves “climate beneficial” beef that restores carbon to soil. Resistance these days is a matter of staying the course, and sustaining hope on the bleakest days.
“There was a time around January 20 when I felt like everything was going to stop. I had a very frightened point of view, but then people continued to fall in love and do all the normal things of life. And people still had to eat dinner, and things kept marching on.… We sat with that despair for a few days, and then we were all the more inspired to do the work that we do because the policy is not there. We felt like we had a greater responsibility to step up and live our values, and to build something in California that is a kind of model that says, ‘This is the kind of food system that we want to have: sustainable and equitable and welcoming.’”
The Perennial is dealing in the big-picture issues, like carbon emissions, that impact the entire country (and planet, for that matter), which made me wonder: Can one restaurant really nudge humanity onto a different path? Or is this another well-branded Bay Area food business with a big and self-congratulating mission and without an informed understanding of what “impact” really means? But Leibowitz and Myint are realistic about their goals.
“We recognize that our particular business is not going to impact the rate of climate change. But in talking about these issues and sharing information and building a network of sustainable businesses, I think we can make a pretty big change,” said Leibowitz. Even incremental moves, she says, add up. Her project Mission Chinese Food has donated a small amount from every entrée to the SF-Marin Food Bank since 2010, to this point funding over one million meals for hungry local people in need.
But the real value of a restaurant in a time like this, says Leibowitz, is the space it provides.
“A restaurant is a place for shared reality, which is something we don’t get right now. What we have in our nation is not only a crisis of politics, of how we get our news, but of the fact that we are not occupying a shared reality. You get that through things like a Little League, things people do together that expose them to a cross section of people, that give everyone a shared sense of the world, and I think restaurants are important for that,” says Leibowitz.
Chef Gabriela Cámara is using her restaurant to exercise the kind of social justice she can’t find in the world outside of it. Photo: Colin Price
TAKE CARE OF PEOPLE
Like Leibowitz, chef Gabriela Cámara is also using her restaurant to exercise the kind of social justice she can’t find in the world outside of it. Only her approach is decidedly human-centered.
At Cala, Cámara’s young and upscale stylish Mexican seafood joint, she is working to right the fundamental wrongs wrought by the wage gap in San Francisco through a model that she refers to in a quiet, hesitating way as “socialist but necessary.”
“Everything in restaurants here is about the sustainability of the ingredients, the farmers, your carbon footprint and all that. But here, your staff can’t live sustainably, and we don’t talk about that,” says Cámara. “What is a living wage, even?”
Most of Cala’s waitstaff have a conviction history, and came to the restaurant through a probation program. The choice wasn’t meant to be a statement, but it’s become one since journalists got wind of it this year and started hearing Cámara out.
Cala’s general manager, Emma Rosenbush, used to work in a prison law office and saw the high rate of recidivism in California and the lack of jobs that caused it. Cámara was looking for a waitstaff who would commit to the job for a long time and who wanted to rely on it as their only career. She’d had trouble finding a committed staff in San Francisco because, in a city where the median rent of a one-bedroom apartment is $3,460, it’s nearly impossible to wait tables and make rent unless there are a few other gigs happening. For a restaurant, that means frequent turnover, and a staff that’s not looking to dedicate themselves to service.
“People don’t have the possibility of making a good living as a waiter here. And what, are we supposed to rely on someone’s passion for cooking for them to stay? We are, and that’s not right.”
Cámara has done away with tips to get the back of the house on a par with the front, instituted profit sharing and taken on a few seasoned staff to mentor new hires. Everyone gets medical and dental coverage, and more than minimum wage (usually a lot more, says Cámara), covered partly by the 20% service charge attached to each check. Most of her staff live on the edge of or outside the city, but they can rely on the restaurant to take care of them sufficiently to stay close, and have their needs taken care of well enough.
“Service is about the joy of serving somebody. The joy of actually being proud of bringing somebody into your dreams, your space or your hospitality. And I just felt that this city has made it very difficult for waiters to actually want to do that, because waiters are only looking for money because that’s what they need. And if they could have that guarantee, maybe they could be better waiters,” says Cámara.
For her staff, restaurant work is a good fit. The rhythm and structure of it provides a valuable kind of mooring for someone transitioning between the regimens of prison life and the world outside of it. Cámara thinks it’s funny that San Francisco is making kind of a big deal out of her program. Her restaurant in Mexico City, Contramar, is held together by a waitstaff with conviction histories and colorful pasts, but here, people asked the kind of questions you wish they hadn’t: How do you know they’re not going to take the knives? Or the food and the wine? “I mean, stupid things,” says Cámara.
“It really is beneficial for them to have a place in which they know they’re appreciated, where they’re expected, part of something and part of a bigger project. They start sort of making sense of their lives.”
To Cámara, hospitality can be a nourishing experience for the server and the served, but that gets lost when a restaurant can’t take care of its staff in a holistic way, and when service is just a gig to make ends meet. At Cala, serving tables becomes more than just a necessity for the people who do it. It can be healing.
“Serving others is really regenerative for your emotional powers. If you’ve never been taken care of, to take care of others is actually a positive thing. And you learn a lot about yourself when you become aware of the fact that you are important in an ecosystem.”
What hasn’t been said is that Cámara is out to de-commodify the last element of San Francisco’s progressive food system that remains a commodity: the people. In the Bay Area, we’ve done a fine job de-commodifying our food; we know that ingredients are not interchangeable. Early Girls are not Brandywines. Coffee from Kenya tastes different from coffee from Panama. But the people who work with that food are recognized as largely interchangeable, and not worth investing in, by the food system. Cámara resists this by embracing the humanity of everyone who works in her restaurant. It’s tragic to say it, but in this era recognizing the humanity of those who are not like you is a radical act.
Cámara is a deeply concerned and compassionate person, proud of what Cala has done, but is inflamed by how impossible the city makes it, and frustrated by how effectively elegantly plated salad can distract diners from the real issues.
“I’m just saying we live in this city where everybody talks about how great food is and how wonderful our farms and produce are. And on the other hand, your staff can’t have a living wage and they don’t have benefits, and if they’re sick, you’re not supposed to care,” she says.
The cost of training a staff with no restaurant experience is high, and to sustain it, Cala is applying for grants from the city. In the meantime, I ask her about what else it takes to bring someone with no hospitality experience up to snuff as a Cala-caliber server.
“It takes an amazing group of loving people,” she says. “And fortunately, we have that.”
For a long time, Isabel Caudillo didn’t have a restaurant, much less one with proceeds to donate, resources to reintegrate the formerly incarcerated or the bandwidth to even begin thinking about reversing climate change.
Sixteen years ago, Caudillo had just moved to San Francisco from Mexico City with her husband and three sons. She was not thinking about what she could do to help others who were in the crosshairs of a supremacist autocrat’s aim because that’s not the kind of thing you often ask yourself if you’re the target.
Caudillo tells me that work was a lot easier to find in 2001; people were spending more money, and the anti-immigrant sentiments were not nearly as loud or pervasive as they are now. When we spoke, her son Vladimir and my sister, who joined me, translated.
"Me, I've always liked cooking. Since I was a girl in Mexico, I have always liked to cook. Then when I got here, it was out of necessity I started selling food." (A mi siempre me ha gustado cocinar desde chica siempre me gusto cocinar desde mexico, y ya llegando aquí por necesidad comence a vender comida.)
She lived with her family in an apartment building of other immigrants who were new to the U.S., and started watching her friends’ and neighbors’ kids for money. After a year, she left childcare and started making and selling plates of frijoles, arroz and guisado with fresca for a flat $7 out of her apartment kitchen.
“Back then, a lot of the people there were just like us … so we were kinda like their family. We’d open our doors to them and sell food out of our house. To us it was really innocent and normal. We never thought ‘Oh, we’re breaking the law,’” said Vladimir.
In Mexico, selling plates of food for a flat fee to friends was something she’d often done, but here, even if she didn’t realize it, she was breaking the law. Eventually, small-food business incubator La Cocina got wind of Isabel’s cooking and set up a tasting. They loved it, told Isabel that an underground kitchen was legally risky and offered to help her get a permitted operation up and running. She spent eight years with La Cocina, got a booth at the farmers market and eventually expanded into her own brick-and-mortar, El Buen Comer. Now, the people she feeds are mostly white Americans, and although it’s harder to connect without fluent English, she feels supported by her customers. Plus, she now provides work for her sons, nieces, husband and her sons’ friends too.
“Some of the friends I went to school with don’t have the best conditions in the neighborhood they live in,” said Vladimir. “So, they like spending time here and we open the doors for them. That feels good too, as a restaurant owner, to be able to employ people and help people out. It makes my mama happy too, helping my friends out.” Isabel says the kids are part of the family and that they stick around to help clean up even after clocking out.
The old community still comes by, but these days there are families of all kinds sitting together. And Vladimir tells me that after the election, if anything, there’s been an upwelling in support for them. After the restaurant closed for the Women’s March, customers came in the next day with hugs. And every once in a while, someone tells them they’re proud of what Caudillo has done, and to keep going no matter what.
“To us, it really makes us happy, that people who aren’t like us accept us. We get a big sense of pride out of people wanting to come here and take pictures with [Isabel] and ask questions.”
Caudillo’s community looks different from the one she cooked for 16 years ago, but through her restaurant she is more broadly connected to a larger cross section of people in San Francisco. This, in many ways, looks like a step away from segregation, towards empathy and understanding. But most profoundly, in triumph against a regime that’s working to alienate and disenfranchise immigrants like her, Isabel Caudillo has found a sense of belonging.
Shakirah Simley supports restaurant owners opening their businesses to organizations at the forefront of the Bay Area resistance so they can have a summit or a coalition, and more importantly, so they can eat well.
GET WISE AND GET BEHIND OTHERS
For long time community organizer Shakirah Simley, a food space is a prime platform for making change happen. But, she says, the place to start is not so much by asking what a restaurant can do, but rather how to feed what’s already under way.
Simley recently left Bi-Rite as the community manager to focus on the multiracial organizing collaborative Nourish Resist, which she co-founded, and which works on leveraging food spaces like high school cafeterias and restaurants to organize communities around local political change.
The collaborative is led by women of color who have backgrounds in the food industry and who are looking for a safe space to come together to talk about what’s happening. They operate on the principle that food is essential to building a movement, that a nourished people is a people ready to resist. Their motto: “Hate won’t feed us.”
And it’s not just food, it’s really good food. Their first organized event, the UnPresidentedMeal resistance dinner at Mission High School the night before the inauguration, kicked off with goods like home-cooked turkey kofta, Tartine flatbread and jeweled couscous with butternut squash for 125 students, activists, and community members. There was a talk on knowing your rights, and a station for making protest art.
“People pay far better attention when their bellies are full,” says Simley. The food also strengthens the bonds between and within the organizing body and the community. “Being in the Bay Area for the past 10 years and doing community-based work, I’ve seen how hard small organizations have to struggle to reach their goals and connect with their community. Food is a really easy way to do that but normally, they just don’t have the budget.”
In order to put food at the center of their agenda, Nourish Resist relies on cooks in the community and restaurants to help feed people. The food is part of the point, but in a larger sense it’s meant to help forge a resilient, well-prepared and well-educated network of people from every step of the food chain from farmers to distributors to restaurateurs.
“The majority of the people who feed us are black and brown people who don’t receive fair wages and don’t have access to health care. And people along the food chain are about to experience a huge labor loss because of ICE raids. This is not just about ‘What do I do as an individual,’ it’s about ‘How do we have a broad-base understanding of all these different points on the food chain and work together to have a well-coordinated, collaborative response to what’s happening?’” says Simley. Breaking flatbread together is one way to start talking.
Launching a movement from a food space, Shakirah reminds me, is nothing new; many of the great social movements we’ve seen started at the intersection of California and food. In the 1960s, farmworkers organized for fair wages and better working conditions, and helped to rally a whole generation of consumers to boycott grapes in support of them. The Black Panthers launched a Free Breakfast for Children program and cooked breakfast for hundreds and then thousands of inner-city youth in hopes a full belly would help them perform better in school. And then there was Compton’s Cafeteria Riot in 1966, when a drag queen threw her coffee in the face of a police officer who’d come on a standard raid of the café. Compton’s was a rare late-night haven where the LGBTQ community could live openly and where police habitually arrested trans women, gay hustlers and drag queens for erroneous crimes. The riot marked the start of a movement towards LGBTQ rights. And of course, let’s not forget the iconic sit-ins to desegregate lunch counters across the South during the civil rights era.
So where, in this history of food space and social progress, do restaurants fall?
“Business owners have a social responsibility to understand this history, and to understand that they may not have a choice but to participate because the types of policies that this administration is using will target the labor in our food chain and issues that affect them, like pesticides, the land and the water,” says Simley. “You may not have answers as a restaurant owner, but it’s important for people to get outside of their own community, start paying attention and funding small local organizations beyond ACLU and Planned Parenthood who are doing things to protect people locally.”
But beyond funding, even more effective is finding ways to support the organizations that are already doing something at the forefront of the Bay Area resistance.
“In the back of those meetings, there’s usually a folding table with donuts and juice or something,” says Simley. “It’s fine, but this is a food mecca. Why isn’t anyone cooking for them? Open your restaurant so they can have a summit or a coalition, so they can eat well. There is so much work being done, [for example] to tackle homelessness or fight people being unfairly incarcerated. Get beyond your restaurant door and see what’s happening in your own neighborhood. I think people should start with what they do best, which is service and feeding folks.”
Chefs, that’s your cue.
How To Resist: In Times Like These What's a Restaurant to Do? was published in the Summer 2017 issue. © 2017 Edible San Francisco. Photos © 2017 Angela DeCenzo.