Part pop-up restaurant, part real-life episode of Top Chef, College Avenue’s newest addition, Guest Chef, introduces an innovative business model that is new to the foodie scene: a new chef, cuisine, and menu every two weeks. And the clincher: anyone can apply to be a chef. Yes, even you.
The brainchild of Scott Cameron, an Oakland-based commercial and residential builder, the restaurant is based on the premise that variety is good, and that giving talented chefs an opportunity to run a restaurant for two weeks—regardless of their experience level or profession—is even better.
“It seems like being in the restaurant business is something that appeals to so many people, and that almost everyone has that dream at some level,” said Cameron, who credits this trend to the growing number of food and cooking-related shows on television.
The space, which is owned by Cameron’s friend and business partner, Jerry Boddum, used to be a clothing store. It appealed to Cameron because of its high-profile location in Rockridge. “I was thinking, ‘What can I do with that?’ and that’s what really started it,” he said. Owning and designing a restaurant seemed like fun, and bringing in a rotating list of chefs was a good idea, he said, because “I’m not a food person. So clearly if I was going to have a restaurant, I had to come up with some way to have people come and cook.”
The cozy, wood-paneled restaurant, which can seat up to 19 people, opened in early November and at first featured a Zacatecan Mexican menu prepared by Eva Santillanes, a 56-year-old housecleaner from San Leandro. For both lunch and dinner, Santillanes served up chicken or beef sopes, quesadillas, chicken enchiladas, chiles rellenos and fajitas to the dozens of customers who were the first to dine at the restaurant.
Cameron, who was familiar with Santillanes’ cooking before her stint at the restaurant, said one of the reasons why he hired her as the first chef was because this was her first time working in a restaurant. “We’re new at this and she’s new at this,” he said, “so if we stumbled the first few days, she’d be understanding. And if she stumbled the first few days, we’d be understanding. And that’s really kind of how it went.”
Santillanes’ talent as a chef was another draw, which Cameron—correctly—predicted that customers would notice as well. Although he said that the first week was a bit of a “rollercoaster,” the restaurant has averaged about 30 diners a day, many of whom are repeat customers.
Rae Schindler, a 27 year-old graduate student studying Medieval Literature at Mills College, said that she first came into the restaurant as a lark a week ago, but has since returned twice because the food was so good. “I live in the neighborhood and when I saw the sign, I was interested in trying it out,” she said. “The food is so good that I’ve come back and I’m trying new things each time.”
Cameron, an easy-going guy with a patient air that may have come from years of being the lone male in an otherwise female-dominated household, said that the key to his model is adaptability and a willingness to try new things. “It’s a new idea and, as far as I know, this idea has never been done in a restaurant before,” he said. “So, things will change and we’re always open to new ideas.”
One example of this is the current vetting process for new chefs. To apply to be a chef at the restaurant, you must first fill out an application on the restaurant’s website providing basic information about who you are, what you’d like to cook, and what your culinary experience is. Then, you will be asked to come in for a face-to-face interview with Cameron and Mark Valentine, his long-time friend and former head chef for Bucci’s in San Francisco, to go over logistics and see if you’d be a good match.
“If they really seem like they know what they’re talking about, they’ve got all the buzz words, and they seem like they know their game, that’s enough for us to schedule them,” Cameron said. But, if he has any doubts about their competence or if the applicant seems a little dicey, he will ask them to cook a few dishes first. “We actually haven’t done that yet,” he added, “but we could.”
The restaurant provides everything for the chef—the kitchen, the dishware, the appliances, the hostess, and the venue. The only thing that the chef needs to bring are the groceries and a sous-chef, if they so desire. The profits, which are split between the restaurant and chef at the end of each two-week period. For the first $5,000, the profits are split 50-50 between the restaurant and chef. For the next $5,000, they are split 40-60. And for any amount raised after that, the chef gets 70 percent of the gross.
It’s not a huge moneymaker, Cameron said, especially for the first few chefs, but this model is more than about just making money. It’s also about exposure. “If they do well, we’re interested in setting them up in a permanent spot,” he said, adding that both he and Boddum own empty building space in Temescal. “I’d like to take people who really shine, people who are stars but don’t have the financial wherewithal to open their own place or don’t want to take that risk, and provide a space for them.”
But, before he does that, he wants to first work out the kinks that might prevent his restaurant from being a financial success. Because eating at a restaurant where the food is prepared by a rookie chef can be risky, Cameron wants his prices to be reasonable and affordable, based on a concept that is “slightly more elaborate than a food truck.” His target price range, he said, is about $4 for appetizers and $10 to $12 for entrees, but these ranges might also change if a chef wants to feature special dishes with pricier ingredients.
For instance, the menu prices for the most current chef, Vera Ciametti, who specializes in Italian cuisine and is an occasional chef at 123 Bolinas in Fairfax, are a tad higher than they were the previous week because she is offering more dishes using higher-end, specialty ingredients such as pancetta and gourmet cheeses.
The restaurant is open for both lunch and dinner, and the menu, although different for each chef, will be limited to about ten or 12 selections of appetizers, entrees, and sides. This week’s chef, Ciametti, who will be cooking at the restaurant until December 4th, is offering a rotating menu of nouvelle-Italian food with differing selections from lunch to dinner. Some of her dishes from earlier in the week included butternut squash and spinach lasagna, a meatball mozzarella sandwich, antipasti, and homemade orange sorbetto.
As word about the restaurant grows, so, too, does the number of applicants who want to be chefs. “It’s funny how much it spread,” Cameron said. “Anytime anyone would be standing outside, I’d come out and talk to them and most people would say, ‘I know somebody who would do that.’ Everybody had somebody who they thought they would be perfect for it.”
Although Guest Chef is still accepting applications, Cameron said they already have a number of chefs lined up for the near future, including Shelly Kitchen, the owner of the San Francisco-based food truck Brass Knuckle, whose specialties are buttermilk fried chicken sandwiches, Cuban-style pork and Swiss cheese waffles; Paul Skrentny, a writer for Alameda Magazine, who cooks a variety of paellas for catering events and food fairs; and Tim Setiawan, the owner and chef of Arki (short for The Architect’s Kitchen), a food truck that serves crispy fried chicken, flatbread wraps, fresh-cut French fries, and donuts.
“We’re trying not to be close-minded about anything, which I think is another appeal about it,” Cameron said. “If you want to try something different, we’ll kind of see how it works and give it a go.”
So far, diners seem to be responsive to the constantly changing, somewhat experimental menus at Guest Chef. “I think it’s a great concept because people love to come down to College Avenue and try different restaurants,” said Jane Baack, a retired professor who was visiting the restaurant with her husband for their second time last Thursday. “This way we can try new things every two weeks and it will keep us coming back.”
And for some customers, the appeal isn’t so much the food as it is the concept. “I read about it in the Contra Costa Times food section a week ago and I thought it was a novel concept,” said Benicia resident Pat McKittrick, who brought along her friend Irene Takahashi. “For people who cook, I think it’s kind of everyone’s fantasy to have a restaurant for a few weeks, and although I would never qualify to do it, I’ll support someone who does.”
Cameron already has plans for the future, including opening up more restaurants in the Bay Area based on this model or setting up a permanent venue for some of the more popular chefs. But for now, he’s content to take things slow and see how the restaurant grows. “We’re looking to generate a little energy, a little synergy, to get customers through the door,” Cameron said. “And it’s really working out the way we hoped it would.”