Recently, I was given a precious gift – homemade tempeh – by a Bay Area chef, Philip Gelb. I was introduced to Philip several years ago and immediately knew we had a connection. First of all, we both often eschew processed vegan staples for the homemade version. Secondly, Philip plays a Japanese flute called the shakuhachi (if you’ve seen Kurosawa films, you’ve heard the eerie-sounding bamboo instrument), something that I myself studied for several years in Japan. Visit Philip’s Oakland loft, where he regularly presents underground restaurant dinners, and you won’t find jars, bottles, and packages of store-bought goods, but fresh, handcrafted tofu, tempeh, pickles, and bread. We’ve had a connection based on our respect for the handcrafted and homemade (and hint, hint…this may be what my next book is about). It’s the careful thought and attention to every detail in a dish that distinguishes Philip’s food from many others. If he’s making a tofu dish, it means he makes the tofu.
That philosophy extends to the fabulous underground restaurant meals he presents on a regular basis in his loft. And we’re not talking just food. He pairs the meals ever so beautifully with live music, presenting musicians of various genres that somehow add that extra perfect glaze to the dishes and keeps diners coming back time and time again. What are his plans for growing his underground restaurant? He’s hoping to take it on the road, so he may be coming near you!
I had a chance to catch up with Philip over some delicious vegan Chinese food in Oakland recently, which is when he gifted me his fabulous tempeh. I’d like to share his thoughtful ideas on food and music, as well as one of his stellar tempeh recipes.
1. How did you get started in the underground dinner business?
The underground restaurant is a combination of 2 ideas I had in mind for many years; the idea of an underground restaurant and the idea of a house concert. House concerts were adopted widely by the folk music community in the 1970s’ and other genres of music also moved their concerts into homes. The model that I found particularly intriguing of house concerts was Sam Rivers’ loft series in New York City, featuring jazz, avant garde and experimental musicians, mostly African American. This happened when I was a young kid in the city I grew up in New York. Sam Rivers and his wife, Bea opened up their loft in New York to frequent concerts providing young and experienced musicians a venue to create music; free from the constraints of the music industry, from the needs to sell alcohol at a bar. It provided a listening room, not a place to go and be seen but a place to go and truly listen to musicians in a very intimate space.
During my last 2 years in Florida, where I attended college and grad school, I got to know and befriend Sam Rivers and his wife Bea, 2 truly amazing human beings. Sam is certainly one of the most inspiring musicians I have ever been around; a master of tenor and soprano saxophone and a brilliant flute player. He had tireless energy of supporting younger musicians as well as his colleagues, giving them space in his ensembles and for many years, giving them physical space to present their own music. Spending time with him, hearing him talk about music, talk about his wonderful stories of his gigs playing with Billie Holiday, Miles Davis and countless others. He was intrigued that I knew of the loft series, let alone found it so fascinating. Sadly, by the time i started my own “loft series”, Sam was in his 80’s and no longer traveling far from home. He left us last year, leaving a legacy of music, pedagogy and arts presenting to admire, honor and try to develop from.
About 8 years ago, in a loft in West Oakland, I started my underground restaurant. We seated 20 people, turning away about 20 more requests for reservations. Our first night, we presented 4 courses and the musician was my shakuhachi teacher, visiting from Kyoto, Yoshio Kurahashi (now goes by Yodo Kurahashi II).The food consisted of homemade tofu in mushroom broth with greens and seaweed. Homemade noodles with sesame sauce and homemade tempeh with shitake gravy, among other dishes. Of those 20 seats, at least half have become regulars and most of the others have returned. One can easily see the evolution of my cooking style through these events, which is often commented upon. I became a professional chef, much later in age than most, already in my late 30‘s and thus far less experienced that most other chefs my own age. So, obviously a lot of mistakes were made in the first 2 years of doing the underground restaurant series (as well as with the catering/personal chef work). As my skills and knowledge grew, the menus evolved and more and more risks started being taken. It has come to the point where i often do not post menus for the underground restaurant till the day. This, understandably, is a problem for some who are not familiar with my work. For many regulars, they give me great confidence in their trust in knowing i will not disappoint them.
Looking back, a major turning point was when a new sous chef entered my scene, Cori. She is not only an exceptional baker and far better pastry chef than myself but she is also a ceramist. She brings a great sense of sculpture to our team and she can produce far prettier plates than I can. Often, I give her my ideas for the plating and she refines them and can present my work far better than I can. Like any kind of music ensemble or athletic team, the more you work together, the easier it becomes and thus more improvising and experimenting becomes available.
When i was in graduate school, studying ethnomusicology, a book came out by Hakim Bey, “TAZ”. Taz stands for Temporary Autonomous Zones, the idea of creating temporary structures outside of the ruling forms of control. This was already happening in various places, particularly in some art scenes in Eastern Europe where “underground events” were necessary since certain kinds of performance were considered illegal. A TAZ is creating something in the moment, that will only happen on that occasion, not to be replayed again. A temporary autonomous zone is a direct response to the corporate controlled state we exist in, it goes against the grain of the mono-culture, providing a different paradigm that is in opposition to global capital and corporate structures. It is a response to totalitarianism and is something that inevitably happens.
TAZ are about community and the development of community. The underground restaurant develops community around 2 essentials of human existence; food and music. We have to eat in order to survive. Do we have to listen? Do we have to feel the vibrations of music? The simple fact that every known culture has some form of music provides the obvious answer. Food feeds the body, music feeds the spirit. Most of our guests at the underground restaurant sit at communal tables where new friendships and relationships are often created. We have many who come alone, knowing they will see other regulars as well as meet new people.
And food, when seen in the larger picture should always be about community. Community is developed when you meet the farmers who grow your food and the tofu maker in town who makes your food and the baker at the bakeries who bake your breads. The menus are about community! Always sourced locally and often from sources we directly know and practically everything is handmade in our kitchen. Occasionally we get bread from Arizmendi collective in Emeryville, right down the street or tofu from the 2 awesome tofu makers in the east bay, Hodo and Tofu-Yu. It is community when i pick up bread from Victor or Jabari who just pulled it out of the oven or if i pick up tofu from Kevin or Minh. When someone goes to whole foods and buys a tofu in plastic, there is only corporate control, the opposite of community! TAZ are models that show we simply can live without those constraints and when it comes to food, without their horrible products.
Recently we took that removal of alienation of where does food come from a further step. For the first time, we hosted a reader/speaker on the underground restaurant, Marcy Masumoto, of the famous Masumoto Family Farms in Del Rey, California charmed us between courses reading from her new book, “the perfect peach” as well as from her husband David “Mas” Masumoto’s books. Stories about the farm, about the trees, about the peaches, about the 4 generations of Masumoto’s who have farmed this land, in between 8 courses of peach dishes using heirloom peaches from their farm. We will certainly be featuring more writers in upcoming events.
2. You frequently combine music and dinner. Can you tell us about your musical background and how you pair your music with your food?
As a musician, I play and teach shakuhachi, a Japanese bamboo flute. I have studied music since I was 9 years-old and came to shakuhachi in my last year at the University of Florida. The shakuhachi is a very old instrument, dating back to the 14th century and for a long period was only used by wandering Monks of one particular sect of Zen Buddhism. Besides playing and teaching traditional music, I am known for more modern and experimental uses of the instrument, often collaborating with dancers and film.
First, I never perform and cook at the same event. So I am not pairing “my music” with “my food”. The food is entirely mine, with some influence from my sous chef. The musicians often come from my own background as a performer; musicians I have met or collaborated with. In the past I have programmed concert series and music festivals, both self produced as well as working for galleries (Meridian Music at Meridian Gallery in San Francisco is a series I started and curated for 5 years and is still going strong many years later).
The underground restaurant usually pairs world renowned musicians with food in very intimate spaces, about 20 seats. Due to size of the room and concerns for disturbing neighbors, we feature solo and sometimes duet performances. In 8 years we have featured over 80 musicians from 13 countries. (I can provide you the list of performers, if you like)
3. Unlike many vegans, you have eschewed fun, processed foods. Can you share with us your philosophy on making things from scratch?
The San Francisco Bay area offers me access to a local harvest 12 months a year. I have no need for any cans or frozen packages in my kitchen since I can always find wonderful, freshly grown organic produce without shopping at any corporate store! I love food. I have always loved food. I have never loved processed food, even as a kid. It rarely ever tastes very good to me. Fake meat usually reminds me of really low quality meats I sometimes had as a kid. The reason, as it was pointed out to me, is the low quality meat is loaded with fillers such as glutens, texturized soy protein and other industrial ingredients. No thank you. I want to support the local farmers in my area and keep them going. The only way they are going to keep providing us with well grown, fresh food is if we go and purchase from them at farmers markets or the local stores we have who support these farms. With fresh fruits and vegetables, dried grains, beans, nuts, a few microrganisms here and there and some spices, I can create whatever I need. I do not need to buy things made in factories, packed in plastic, shipped far away and then eventually arrive on a shelf before I take it home. That corporate food model simply makes no sense to me! Food comes from the earth, not from boxes. If one really cares about the quality of the food they eat and the planet, their kitchen must be very active. We eat daily, usually more than once. If we are eating things from packages every day, examine the amount of waste that is created (and disposed!). All that plastic, all those boxes are no longer needed to be created, let alone tossed out when one starts creating their own food. For example, when i started to make my own soymilk, almond milk, and other nut and grain and bean milks, i stopped purchasing countless boxes of this stuff. Instead I bought dried beans and nuts, saving a huge amount in costs and reducing my ecological footprint. At the same time I was producing a far superior tasting product that what was on the shelf, made thousands of miles away.
4. What is your favorite thing to make from scratch, and why?
It is hard to say I have one particular favorite but if i have to pick one it is tempeh. There is such a vast difference between homemade tempeh and what one finds on a shelf in a store. With rare exceptions, it is very difficult to find freshly made, unpasteurized, not frozen tempeh in the United States. The difference in flavor and texture is extraordinary, worth the effort to make. My clients always rave about it and request more of it and it is something i eat at home, fairly often.
Ice creams and sorbets are easily a second choice. Again, the difference in what one makes at home is so far superior to what one finds in a freezer section of a store. At home, one can control the ingredients and thus the outcome of the dish. Most frozen sorbets and vegan ice creams are laden with sugar, diglycerides, “natural” flavors, gums and other stabilizers, only needed when one industrializes and thus manufactures food. The manufacturing of food destroys all desirable flavors and texures and these artificial enhancers for texture and flavor are necessary to make them remotely palatable. At home, one can rely on the wonderful flavors available via “basic” ingredients such as fresh fruits, dried nuts, homemade nut creams along with spices and other flavors such as chocolate, various alchohols, etc. Rather than relying on the highly addictive and nutritionally empty sugar (organic evaporated cane juice, or whatever they are putting on the label to sound more friendly), one can sweeten with fruit or maple or other natural ingredients producing far tastier, yet healthier dishes.
5. What are your ethnic culinary differences, and how do you try to combine flavors from different places?
I grew up in New York City, a third generation family of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. My grandmother and aunt’s kitchens at holiday times were a huge treat with knishes, kugels, latkes, schlishkes, ruggelach, matzah ball soups, blintzes, cabbage soups, stuffed cabbage leaves stewed or baked in tomato sauce and many other delights of Ashkenazi cuisine. Of course, little of this was vegetarian, let alone vegan, but over the years i have figured out ways to veganize most of these dishes.
As an adult, I started spending time in Japan, and became enamored by the food in that part of the world, both the traditional dishes as well as the ingredients and what they can do outside of the tradition. My second trip to Japan was in November, 1998. Everywhere I went I was tasting a unique, to me, citrus flavor, with an exquisite aroma. This was my first encounter with yuzu, the Japanese citrus that is becoming more widely known to chefs and food lovers around the world. It is an ingredient i always look forward to in the fall as it is becoming more easily available in this area.
As a lover of food, I find myself exploring constantly. Again, living in the bay area comes to an advantage. We have such a large community of immigrants and many Asian families who have been here up to 6 generations! And everyone brings their food, their chefs and often, their farmers. Ingredients for most Asian cuisines are available within a few miles. At the same time, the Americanizing of many restaurants, particularly Thai, has led me to study these culinary traditions in great detail. I do not want to go to a Thai restaurant and taste sugar with some packaged curry paste (always with fish or shrimp or something else i prefer to avoid). In my kitchen, we create curry and other pastes from citrus leaves, lemongrass, garlic, ginger, chilis, and various spices and figured out ways to replace the fish sauces. Since sugar is not part of traditional Thai food, we simply use what they use in Southeast Asia, palm sugar, a far healthier and tastier product.
Fusing my love of Thai food and my love of Japanese ingredients led to some of my dishes such as creating a yuzu curry paste which I like to create tempeh curry with and serve it in yuzu that I make bowls out of. Spicy, sour curry, one of my favorite cool weather dishes!
Fusions become relatively easy once you understand food chemistry and know what your ingredients taste like, how they react to different types of cooking techniques. When you know what salts and fats and acids do, coming up with combinations is just improvising using what you know about. Veganizing recipes becomes easier too, of course! It is the same as composing a piece of music. Improvising is the same as composing except it is in real time. Composers have an eraser where an improviser presents the piece as they compose it with no way to go back and edit or erase in real time. You start with a plan and develop it as you go along.
6. Where do you want to go from here?
Just started working on my first cookbook which many people have been requesting. With such a glut of vegan cookbooks on the market, I have been hesitant to add yet one more.
Hoping to find another private chef position. Meanwhile, I am enjoying teaching cooking classes, offering underground restaurant events and offering my catering services all over the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond. Doing our first event in Canada this fall, heading to Toronto to cook for a 45 year birthday bash. I’d like to take the underground restaurant series on the road.
To visit Philip’s blog, log onto http://philipgelb.blogspot.com/.