A Moveable Feast
I found myself missing the food, the music, and the animated conversations in the streets with strangers. I missed the neighborhood gatherings around a TV someone had taken out to the sidewalk, while sharing some snacks and lots of laughter – especially when an old kung fu movie was on.
One day while walking around the city, I saw a rickety pick-up truck with the Radio Africa & Kitchen logo on the side. This was how I met Eskender Aseged and learned about his thriving attempt to bring a communal, African spirit to San Francisco through his weekly nomadic dinners. As a child in Ethiopia, his family was the only one with a radio. He’s used to being at the center of the action.
Since then, I've had the pleasure of sampling Eskender's food on many occasions and in many places: a few times at Coffee Bar, once at an “Africa Rising” event at Project One, at Boogaloos, and at Slim's. In the last five years, Radio Africa & Kitchen has had more temporary homes than I have had in a lifetime, but Eskender has plans to finally settle down in a brick and mortar space in the Bayview this fall. Until then, he’ll continue popping up around town, making people happy wherever he goes.
The common elements that tie all of Eskender's events together are a large communal table, African beats by DJ Goyo, and a crowd as eclectic as the food. The menu is a melting pot of Mediterranean and Red Sea dishes with a California twist. I don’t know if it’s the company or Eskender's energy, but despite their similarities, each event is unique to the night that it falls on and makes me look forward to the next one.
Born in Ethiopia, Eskender Aseged landed in New Jersey some 25 years ago after a long journey via Sudan to escape the civil war in his country. Shortly after arriving in the U.S., he visited San Francisco and fell in love with the warmth of the city and its people, so he decided to move here. Now he lives on a leafy, quiet street where the Mission meets Potrero Hill, in a beautiful studio that's more like a kitchen with a bedroom attached to it. It’s his backyard garden, though, where he grows all sorts of herbs and vegetables that makes him most happy, he says. That's also where he started hosting his popular food parties that eventually turned into Radio Africa & Kitchen.
Eskender doesn't host dinners at his studio anymore, but a couple of times a year he offers a full-day cooking class there. On a rare sunny summer day, I find myself in his kitchen with about a dozen other curious people who are fans of his vittles. The windows wrap all around the studio’s walls overlooking the garden, so some of us are gathered outside looking in. Vases full of herbs and ramekins full of spices line his workspace, with a large old-fashioned radio presiding over the room.
Eskender starts out by showing us what, in his opinion, are the most important kitchen instruments that we should all have: a garlic crusher, a lemon juicer, and a hand-held blender – any Mediterranean mother would agree. He assures us that with the addition of a couple of good pots and pans, we'll be able to make all of the most wonderful and tasty dishes in the world. He first shows us how to make chermoula (a cilantro-based Moroccan sauce used to marinate fish), then gremolata (a parsley, lemon, and garlic condiment that he uses in almost everything), and most importantly, berbere (an Ethiopian paprika spice mix he claims is the secret to his success).
While Eskender is cooking, he tells us stories about his travels in Morocco and cooking with a Moroccan family in their home. He waxes nostalgic about the smell of roasted spices in the streets of his hometown in Ethiopia, sings the virtues of olive oil ("you can never have enough!"), ponders the advantages of having a mortar and pestle instead of an electric blender, and gives us all sorts of tips to make the best out of cooking and feeding other people. At one point he even compares his ideal meal to a group hug.
Aida Catzin is a Radio Africa & Kitchen sous chef of sorts and, according to Eskender, he wouldn't have made it where he is without her help. During the class, she's in the back of the kitchen preparing a huge batch of tomato confit for the dinner at Slim's the next day. From time to time, Aseged asks her to help him find something ("Aida, more shallots, please!"). She doesn't say anything when passing him what he needs, but she smiles to herself when he tells a funny story, as if she's heard it all before.
After the feast in Eskender's garden we're all glowing, and it's not just because of the sun and deliciousness of the food, but there's this sense of connecting to one another through the meal – as admittedly cheesy as that may sound. Before we leave, he urges us to try and make some of the dishes or sauces within the next three days. When I get home many hours later, I feel like an important secret has been told to me, and that it’s my duty to share it with others.
I decide to check out Eskender's newest pop-up at Slim’s to see what else I can learn. Slim’s has been hosting Radio Africa & Kitchen every Monday, offering a very different type of ambiance from Eskender's bright Mission garden. A screen onstage projects African-themed videos, and DJ Goyo is spinning some old Congolese rumba to set the mood. The lighting in the space is intimate, and everyone sits around a large table in the middle of the room decorated with a few heirloom tomatoes. I remember Eskender talking about them almost poetically the day before, saying they are "more valuable than gold.”
Our perky server offers us some drink specials and I end up having a Lillet martini with my mushroom crostini topped with Manchego cheese. Then I order a grilled flank steak with root vegetables, salsa verde, and some of the fragrant tomato confit Aida was making yesterday. Eskender's cuisine focuses on fish and seafood, which he told us he prefers over meat. Regardless, the man knows what to do with a steak. It melts in my mouth while I glow again with satisfaction.
Eskender has waited many years for this, but it looks like his dreams of having his own permanent restaurant are now finally coming true. After many delays, he's planning to open a 70-seat restaurant this fall at 4800 Third Street, across the street from the newly restored Bayview Opera House. This permanent incarnation of Radio Africa & Kitchen will serve lunch, dinner, and weekend brunches. He is also partnering with the city to develop a nearby empty lot into a community garden for all to enjoy, and for the restaurant to source fresh produce. True to its name, Radio Africa will also share the space with a local radio station that will broadcast from there. Although Eskender couldn't give any more details, it's obvious that he's very excited about the opening. I am too.
Until the Radio Africa & Kitchen Restaurant opens, keep up with Eskender’s pop-up dinners via his Facebook page, attend his next home cooking class in the spring, or make his famous edamame hummus yourself at home following this slightly modified recipe that substitutes the rare Moroccan argan oil with olive oil.