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Chefs to Watch: Five emerging Bay Area chefs, bakers to put on your radar

What is a rising star? In the food world, it typically means a young chef working his way through the tension-riddled ranks of Michelin-starred kitchens, one tweezered herb at a time. But for this collection of Bay Area chefs and bakers, we sought out emerging talent with promising futures in their own, singular visions of the American dream.

One classically-trained baker is putting Danville on the map for her Indonesian-inspired pastries. Another, a Vietnamese couple, share the dishes of their homeland along South Vietnam’s Mekong River Delta with East San Jose. And yet another reached into his early career in Jewish cookery to launch a pastrami brick and mortar that is sure to take Berkeley by storm.

All were bitten by the cooking bug at a young age, learning from mothers or grandmothers, or, in the case of Oakland Iranian chef-baker Helia Sadeghi, feeding the family herself by the age of 7. And all are doing uniquely Bay Area food that deserves your attention. Here are five Bay Area chefs and bakers to watch.

Duy An and Hieu Le are the creators of Het Say, a farmers market pop up specializing in dishes from Southern Vietnam’s Mekong River Delta. (Courtesy of Het Say) 

Duy An and Hieu Le, Hết Sẩy

Southern Vietnam’s Mekong River Delta is a region known for floating markets, fermented fish, chocolate farms and the dying art of cải lương, traveling folk opera troupes specific to the area. Hết Sẩy, a colorful San Jose pop-up, blends all of these into one.

Enter the boldy colorful farmers market tent, designed to mimic a traveling troupe’s stage, and you’ll find owners Duy An and Hieu Le dressed in jaunty top hats and vintage slacks. They may greet you with a bowl of banana leaf-wrapped savory sticky rice and pork sausage sweetened with their own spiced wine, or braised banana ice cream with green mangoes and pistachios.

Het Say's farmer's market staples include (right) a caramelized pork belly banh mi with tangy fish sauce pickle and (left) savory puff pastries, steamed coconut rice cakes with coconut cream and housemade veggie Champa-style curry. (Courtesy of Het Say)
Het Say’s farmer’s market staples include (right) a caramelized pork belly banh mi with tangy fish sauce pickle and (left) savory puff pastries, steamed coconut rice cakes with coconut cream and housemade veggie Champa-style curry. (Courtesy of Het Say) 

The duo launched Hết Sẩy — it means “awesome” — in 2020 and have grown it into one of the few places in the Bay to experience dishes from this part of Vietnam. They source freshwater river fish, unrefined palm sugar, coffee, chocolate and more from the Mekong Delta. Everything else, including the fresh herbs adorning nearly every dish, come from local markets. They get bread from the plethora of immigrant-run bakeries in the East San Jose neighborhood they call home.

“We try to encompass both worlds, but the soul of our food is very California,” says Duy An, who lived in the Mekong Delta until she was 18.

A chocolate chunk cookie offered via Pastel straddles both cultures. There are no cookies in Vietnam, but the Les created one — a soft, fudgy chocolate chunk using single-origin dark chocolate from the Mekong — to highlight the region’s growing bean-to-bar movement.

“We do Vietnamese food that’s represenative of modern Vietnam, of how it’s evolving right now,” Hieu says.

People have noticed. In May, James Beard Award-winning chef Brandon Jew of Mister Jiu’s invited the Les to pop up inside his Moongate Lounge in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

Sharing their dishes with a wider audience has inspired them to go mobile. Starting this fall, the Les will travel around the Bay Area with a trailer, expanding their reach beyond the weekend farmers markets. Just look for the brilliant red and gold tent.

Details: Currently on hiatus, but returning in late August, when you can find Hết Sẩy on Saturdays at the Rose Garden Farmers Market in San Jose and Sundays at the West Coast Farmers Market in Cupertino; www.hetsaycali.com.

DANVILLE, CALIFORNIA - JULY 28: Gaby Lubaba puts out fresh pastries at her new bakery, East Bay Bakery on Thursday, July 28, 2022. (Wangyuxuan Xu/Bay Area News Group)
Baker-owner Gaby Lubaba puts out fresh pastries and baked goods, including a banh mi danish, at East Bay Bakery. The Danville bakery opened in June. (Wangyuxuan Xu/Bay Area News Group) 

Gaby Lubaba, East Bay Bakery

East Bay Bakery is a deceptively simple name for one of the area’s most innovative new bakeries.

Owner and head baker Gaby Lubaba makes sweet and savory pastries and baked goods in the classic French tradition, but with an Indonesian twist. Most days, the glass case of her Danville patisserie is lined with golden croissants and apple danishes, chewy pretzels and sugary morning buns, liege-like croffles and the tiniest dome-shaped shortbread filled with pineapple jam.

On weekends, you’ll also find pandan coconut cruffins, curry puffs with real curry leaves and banh mi danishes stuffed with tamarind-tinged meatballs and pickled veggies. The offerings are extensive and include traditional Indonesian pastries with Lubaba’s modern touch. Her jajan pasar, the colorful gluten-free mini cakes, is made with natural butterfly pea flower.

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DANVILLE, CALIFORNIA - JULY 28: Gaby Lubaba poses for a portrait while highlighting her fresh pastries at her new bakery, East Bay Bakery on Thursday, July 28, 2022. (Wangyuxuan Xu/Bay Area News Group)
Gaby Lubaba specializes in both savory and sweet pasries at East Bay Bakery. (Wangyuxuan Xu/Bay Area News Group) 

“I wanted a place that reminded me of the bakeries in South Korea, Japan and where I grew up in Indonesia,” says Lubaba, who moved to the Bay Area 11 years ago.

Lubaba’s versatile croissant dough is the vehicle for many of her sweet and savory creations, while her cookies and breads incorporate some whole grain flours, like kamut. “Whole grain adds nutrition, flavor and that nutty aroma,” Lubaba says.

Lubaba credits her mentor, Thomas “Mac” McConnell of Mountain View’s The Midwife and The Baker, for the whole grain trick — and more. “Mac taught me so much,” she says. “Lamination, the importance of milling your own flour.”

Lubaba met McConnell while studying at the San Francisco Baking Institute, where he was an instructor. She ended up working at The Midwife and The Baker for over a year before launching the East Bay Bakery at weekend farmers markets in Orinda, Walnut Creek and San Ramon. The brick and mortar opened in late June, and Lubaba plans to add a cake program in the near future.

Details: Open from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday at 9000C Crow Canyon Road, Danville; Find the bakery stall at the Orinda and San Ramon farmers markets on Saturdays and the Walnut Creek farmers market on Sundays.

Jesus Varguez, chef and co-owner of San Jose’s Pre-Hispanic Mexican Cuisine, with his signature dishes, Octopus and Chorizo Taco with costa de quesos, onions, chili oil and lime (left) and the Al Pastor Yucateco with recado negro, fresh pineapple, epazote oil, lime and onions. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group) 

Jesus Varguez, Pre-Hispanic Mexican Cuisine

Jesus Varguez’s cuisine is inspired by his childhood growing up on the Riveria Maya on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. As a young man, he worked at an ecological park one mile from the sea. After work, he’d catch more seafood than he could ever eat, whipping up aguachiles bursting with shrimp, chiles, fresh kelp and lime.

“I have a lot of influence from seafood and the indigenous food of my people,” says Varguez, who has been cooking in South Bay kitchens, including Zona Rosa and Orchard City Kitchen, for the past 20 years.

Last year, he struck out on his own with Pre-Hispanic Mexican Cuisine, a scratch-cooking San Jose food truck he started with business partner Cenobio Mendoza. The two met while working in various restaurants up and down Santana Row. Almost overnight, they started popping up at breweries and other venues in the area.

Pre-Hispanic is not your typical taco truck. The menu is seasonal and celebrates the regional dishes and indigenous ingredients from across Mexico and Latin America. “We are from Mexico, but we are also from Brazil and Peru,” he says. “We all have some indigenous blood.”

Pre-Hispanic Mexican Cuisine’s Al Pastor Yucateco with Recado Negro comes with fresh pineapple, lime, onions and a squirt of epazote oil. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group) 

Varguez’s signature is octopus and housemade chorizo sprinkled with costra de quesos, a three-cheese Mexican blend. His al pastor is not ruddy but blackened using recado negro, a chile paste made from chile de arbol and habaneros, native to the Yucatan Peninsula. He uses it to marinate the pork for 24 hours, and finishes it with fresh pineapple and epazote oil.

“These are the recipes from our ancestors and our land,” he says. “We have to treat them right.”

For him that means using seafood from San Francisco’s Royal Hawaiian; heirloom corn varieties from Oaxaca; dried chiles from the Mexican flea markets of San Jose; and organic tortillas made through nixtamalization, the process of soaking and cooking dried corn in an alkaline solution before grinding it into masa. In the fall, he plans to add a squash blossom quesadilla and green mole enchilada. And maybe that shrimp cocktail.

“Our dream is to open a restaurant, so we can grow the same fresh ingredients and bring our culture to the table here,” he says.

Details: Open Tuesday-Sunday. Hours and locations vary but include noon to 8 p.m. most Tuesday-Fridays at Moitozo Park in San Jose. Find the weekly schedule at www.instagram.com/prehispanicmxcuisine.

A catered Persian brunch spread from Big Dill Kitchen includes sheeps milk feta sprinkled with dried rose petals and mountains of fresh sabzi, or herbs. (Helia Sadeghi)
A catered Persian brunch spread from Big Dill Kitchen includes different types of feta sprinkled with dried rose petals and mountains of fresh sabzi, or herbs. (Helia Sadeghi) 

Helia Sadeghi, Big Dill Kitchen

“When I was 7, I would stand on the step stool and fry falafels by myself,” recalls Helia Sadeghi, a queer UC Berkeley student and emerging Iranian chef-baker behind Oakland’s Big Dill Kitchen. “By fourth grade, I had mastered the perfect tachin.”

The impressively layered rice tower — not to be confused with crunchy tahdig — is difficult even for grown-up cooks. But as the eldest child in her family and with both parents working two jobs as doctors, Sadeghi fell into the role of feeding the household. Before long, a passion was born.

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Sadeghi left Iran in 2016 at the age of 17 to pursue an education in California. Homesick, she turned to baking — lime-soaked honey cake with crushed pistachios, cardamom cake with orange curd filling and orange blossom frosting — and throwing Persian dinner parties for friends.

Helia Sadeghi of Oakland whips rose frosting for a pistachio-yogurt sponge cake. She started her pop up, Big Dill Kitchen, six months ago and is booked with cake orders through September. (Mekah Kaur)
Helia Sadeghi of Oakland whips rose frosting for a pistachio-yogurt sponge cake. She started her pop up, Big Dill Kitchen, six months ago and is booked with cake orders through September. (Mekah Kaur) 

“It is so hard being away from home,” says Sadeghi, who studies psychology and human rights. When she’s not baking, she works at the Human Rights Center on campus. Did we mention she’s studying for the LSAT? “Cooking is what kept me going.”

Six months ago, Sadeghi turned her hobby into Big Dill Kitchen, an Instagram-based business. The logo — the Middle Eastern evil eye amulet with a heart inside — and name are significant. Dill is a common herb in Iranian cooking. Pronounced as del, it is the Farsi word for both heart and stomach. “I’m Iranian at heart, wherever I go,” she says.

Sadeghi takes commissioned cake orders and also caters Persian-themed parties. Brunch is her favorite meal, a time to put out platters of fresh sabzi, or herbs, cucumbers and walnuts; her carrot jam tinged with rose; and fresh, nigella-seeded naan.

“It’s so vibrant and delicious,” she says. “I like to offer Persian tea and omelet, a tomato egg dish I made for my family when I came home from school and didn’t know what else to make.”

Pop-ups and a website are in the works. Until then, Sadeghi takes orders via Insta. In the future, she hopes to fuse her love of cooking with human rights work, maybe in the field of food justice.

“I have a real passion for that,” she says.

Details: Big Dill Kitchen takes cake and catering orders via Instagram. Sadeghi’s next pop-up is 3 to 7 p.m. Aug. 20 at Crisis Club Gallery, 5887 San Pablo Ave., Oakland; www.instagram.com/bigdillkitchen.

Cash Caris and Anahita Cann, Delirama

San Jose natives Cash Caris and Anahita Cann are currently in possession of 2,000 pounds of small-batch, barrel-aged brisket that has been brined, smoked and steamed into flavor-packed pastrami. They’ll need every last tender morsel for the opening of their North Berkeley restaurant, Delirama, on Aug. 8.

The Bay Area has always lacked in the Jewish deli meat category. This husband-and-wife duo helped change that in 2020 with their hit pop-up, Pyro’s Pastrami, an idea that came to Caris, a chef of 20 years, while he was driving around Oakland one day. That night, he dreamt he was in a coffee shop and overheard two guys talking about this place you have to try. It was called Pyro’s.

“I got a feeling in my heart,” Caris says. “I woke up and told Anahita.”

It wasn’t entirely random. While Caris has cooked all over the South Bay, including with Kenji Alt-Lopez in San Mateo, he spent his formative years in the Jewish food world. Caris opened and ran the deli at the Addison-Penzak JCC in Los Gatos. Before that, he worked with the same Israeli owner-caterers in Santa Clara, making kreplach, sauerkraut, corned beef and eventually pastrami.

“There were these new ingredients and spices flowing in the air,” says Caris, who brought the food home to share with his grandmother, who raised him. “It was incredible and really stuck with me.”

The couple’s pastrami program at Delirama is rigorous. Pastrami is brined for at least 26 days in seven spices, including pepper and coriander, before getting rinsed, air-dried and rubbed in mustard and more spices. They serve it on house-baked rye bread and in ways you’ve likely never seen: Pastrami cream cheese on freshly-baked bagels, pastrami bacon, and pastrami-spiced potato chips. They even make vegan pastrami. And there’s talk of pastrami candles.

“They’re going to have bits of real pastrami in them,” Caris says.



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