Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one-year anniversary.
[Photos: Aubrie Pick]
Longtime pop-up turned restaurant Radio Africa & Kitchen celebrated its one-year anniversary this month, and owner and chef Eskender Aseged has much to say about the transition from temporary restaurant to neighborhood fixture. A brief history of Radio Africa & Kitchen: Aseged moved to San Francisco in 1987, starting out in the restaurant industry as a waiter at Cafe Majestic. He cooked with Jeremiah Tower, Daniel Patterson, and Joyce Goldstein, among other leading local chefs, before starting Radio Africa as a pop-up in 2004. The first Radio Africa dinners were held at his home on York Street in the Mission, and later expanded to Velo Rouge, Coffee Bar, and even a one-night stint in New York. Eater sat down with Aseged to talk about his first year in business and his community involvement in the Bayview.
You've been open for a year now. How has it been? What has surprised you?
The first six months were the most difficult part. The transition from a pop-up to my own real first-time restaurant was kind of tricky. At first it looked really easy, because I was moving around for seven or eight years with the pop-up. When I was doing that, it was very easy in that I had no attachment to anything else. To the employees, to the buildings, to anything. I was really an offhand chef. When we moved from a pop-up to here, it should have been easier because now I have my own kitchen, my own office, my own tables—all of that was really great and exciting. But the fact that it's busy all the time is a challenge. [Laughs.] That was a little bit surprising for me, how much work it was.
The other unexpected factor was moving from the Mission, which was the main place I was doing my pop-up, to the Bayview, which is completely different. Entirely different kinds of clientele. It was a lot of up and down the first six months. But the last six months have been really great. Especially 2013. For the first three weeks of January, I took a vacation and I went to Israel. Every January, I travel to a different country. I took those three weeks off, which were very necessary for me to sort of rethink, re-evaluate myself, re-evaluate the restaurant and how it's going to be. I learned so much; Israel is a great food country. When I came back, we were very busy here.
Busier than you had been?
Yeah, especially in the catering department. So many events, left and right. Now we're settled and are just doing what we love to do, which is cook without any restrictions. Without trying to label anything at all. Like soul food, or black food. [Laughs.] I just want to do what I used to do, which is food inspired by old recipes from Africa and other countries. Especially Ethiopia, Egypt, Algeria, and then touching a bit on areas like Turkey and the southern Mediterranean, such as Spain, France, or even Italy. The first six months was kind of trying to find our groove, and the last six months have been trying to fine-tune. Trying to casualize the menu a bit more, which is key for this neighborhood. Although our food is really well-priced compared to what similar restaurants offer, I still feel like it's not reasonable enough for the neighborhood. We're working towards that without compromising the quality of the food, which is very difficult with the ingredients we use, such as organic produce, fish, and so on.
Do you find that the people who come here live in the neighborhood, or are they mostly from other parts of the city?
It's a mix of people now. More and more people that live here are trying it out, but the majority are coming from all over. Marin, San Mateo, Oakland, Berkeley. We're still a destination restaurant, and the reason is very simple. The reason is the type of food we serve. It's a modern African take that is simple, organic and not too overwhelming, so I can see why it attracts other neighborhoods versus the area. The area, I think, still thinks it's too foreign. We're not frying anything, we're not doing hamburgers. We're experimenting, we're thinking about incorporating those dishes, but we don't know. We tried doing fried chicken for example, but I don't want to sell out. We're not trying to become just another soul-food restaurant. However, we want to cater to what people want. We're trying a couple dishes that are very good, like a nice organic fried chicken breast. It's not going to be served every day, but we may have it as a special. We want to educate people. You don't always have to eat fried chicken and French fries. There are a lot more tasty dishes out there.
How has your food changed since your pop-up days?
The menu's a little bit bigger. I would say it's a little bit more refined, but minimal too. In the earlier days, [my work] was based in the frustration of not being able to open a restaurant. I was working in this fancy restaurant, and they had so much money, but they never really cared for [customers]. I was anti-restaurant. But now I have one. [Laughs.] The irony of life. But then you realize it's not as simple to do a pop-up forever. A pop-up is great as a stepping stone, but it's not long-term.
What would you say is better about having a restaurant? And what aspects of the pop-up do you miss?
For the most part, I like having the restaurant. It's more sustainable, more calming. You can just focus on your art, which is the cooking, versus the other logistics. Because 80 percent of the time what you are doing with the pop-up is the logistics. Getting the ingredients, finding a place to cook them, transporting your plates and pans and glasses. Here, at least, I have time, and I really believe great productivity is all about time. If you have the time and a relaxed atmosphere, I think you can create whatever you imagine it to be. What I miss about the pop-up is the independence, and not having to worry if it's too fancy. Now I have be conscious of what to put on the menu and what not to put, mainly based on the neighborhood. Sometimes I don't put something on the menu because it sounds fancy.
Can you give an example?
The use of uni for example. If I'm doing a shellfish dish, I use uni. We use a lot of shiso, which I love. Nettles, which grow wild in my garden. All this stuff, we don't mention too much because then we sound "downtown." The word "downtown" means "fancy" to me. When I did the pop-up, I just used whatever I could find, and there were no worries. I did the pop-up at Coffee Bar for nearly three years, and it was really a great location. Most of the people who came there were young, affluent people. The average age were maybe 25 to 35. Mostly, about 80 percent, women. Professional women. We used slightly fancier items, like duck, Maine scallops, crayfish. Things I don't use here because of the price point. What I miss about being a pop-up is the fact that you can put anything you want [on the menu]. That was the idea.
Are there dishes you created at the pop-up that are now mainstays on the menu here? Items that will never leave the menu?
The leg of lamb dish, cut loin-style, grilled. With seasonal vegetables. That was the favorite for people, and it's still here. The edamame hummus comes back occasionally, but we don't put it on the menu all the time. And the smoked trout baccala. In fact, that's the most popular item.
Who do you cater for? And do they make special off-menu requests?
I would say about half of the catering is lunch, like downtown tech offices. We create a special menu for them, and usually, we do Ethiopian dishes. Chicken, lamb, injera, all that. And then, of course, some of the menu is off [the restaurant's] menu. A good one-third of [our catering] is for schools, fundraising. We work with lots of non-profit organizations. And then there are other corporate venues. When we were a pop-up, we used to do two to three weddings a year. This year we did one wedding.
Do you see a lot of people coming to the restaurant who were regulars at your pop-up?
Absolutely. Especially those who missed me a lot, because we were kind of inconvenient. The location and the time, not being open every day.
You gave a talk and cooking demo at Macy's earlier this year, which is where you saw your mentor Joyce Goldstein give a talk when you were first moved to San Francisco. Have any other events occurred during the year that made you think, I can't believe this is happening?
Absolutely, because that's kind of a cheesy, wild moment. I remember when I was watching Joyce twenty years ago, I was like God, I could never reach that. But I realized that if you work every day and learn and get the information, anything is possible. In fact, one of my main dreams during the pop-up wasn't only for a restaurant, it was actually telling any artist, musician, scientist, that you don't need a box to show your passion. You can produce anywhere. Very often we're stuck with this boxed stuff, like a university has to have a building. A fence. It doesn't have to.
What are your goals for the year ahead?
I would like to be open every day. Ideally, I want this restaurant to be a neighborhood restaurant, where it's open day and night. Casualize it more. Because it's a great space, we're developing some casual foods now. Eventually, by the summer or fall, I want to have some music going on. An acoustic trio or jazz. Because the neighborhood is happy, which is a blessing. They're throwing bigger parties in here, birthday parties, gatherings, school fundraisers in here. So there are a lot of little activities going on.
What advice would you give to people starting pop-ups, or even in the position you were in when you first moved to San Francisco?
There are two things about doing a pop-up. The first thing is that you've got to love what you're doing and not worry about the results. Enjoy the process, even if it means sometimes failing. I did have some failure moments, but you have to be humorous and you have to be humble. Number two is stamina. Stamina is so important because I think many people jump into wanting to make money right away, and then they get discouraged. We didn't make money the first couple of years, really. A labor of love, they call it. Say yes to every situation. No kitchen, no problem. No water, no problem. Bring a bucket of water. There's one other important thing: create something people can't find anywhere else or can't make by themselves. Something special. That's why when we had a pop-up we never cooked chicken or beef. It had to be some kind of beautiful wild fish, or quail, or duck, lamb, goat. All kinds of vegetables people can't find anywhere else. One time, we even brought camel's cheese.
Really? I've never had camel cheese.
It's good for you. It's expensive, and you can't get it very often. But, the point is that you really have to intrigue. We used to call it an event. It's not a restaurant; it's eventful. You have to get excited: "Oh, look at what he's doing." We used to do a whole lamb or a whole goat. The whole big fish wrapped in a banana leaf. That visual aspect of it. It's kind of an art show.