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Bay leaves, peppercorns, and red chiles are three of the key ingredients in Chris Lee's turkey brining kits.

Oakland’s Pop-Up General Store preps for a flavorful Thanksgiving

on November 22, 2010

A spice grinder filled with hot pepper unleashes its fumes into Grace Street Catering’s cavernous kitchen. Choking through the fiery dust, veteran chef Chris Lee perseveres in his tinkering with a fussy meat mixer, and then hoists a huge bowl of ground pork onto it. He wipes his brow. “Welcome to the glamorous life of cooking,” he says. “Sometimes you’re a mechanic, a scientist, an M.D.—all these things you never thought you’d have to be.”

For the founders of Oakland’s Pop-Up General Store—Lee and fellow chef Samin Nosrat—food is, indeed, a labor of love. Since early 2009, the former Chez Panisse and Eccolo chefs have been selling gourmet goods out of Grace Street Catering in North Oakland. Once a month, Lee, Nosrat and a team of helpers prepare homemade delicacies and, along with a host of other specialty food vendors, set up for an afternoon and sell them to an ever-expanding group of Oakland and Berkeley foodies. Patrons can order beforehand online or buy up whatever is left on the spot.

“Chris and I don’t make any money off of the Pop-Up Store—I haven’t made one dollar since it started,” says Nosrat. “We want to be a bona fide business, and do everything the right way, which can be the hard way.”

Lee has been cooking for 35 years, and is known for his cured meats and sausage.

Nosrat, a writer, chef, and cooking teacher, is a pasta enthusiast—pasta is what she usually makes for Pop-Up. “When I teach people how to cook, I teach them how to make pasta first. It’s the thing that I love to do,” she says.

Using their combined powers, Lee and Nosrat often sell some variation on pasta and sausage, accompanied by either a sauce or soup, at their Pop-Up stand. But this Tuesday, the store will take on a theme. “For Thanksgiving, we thought, ‘No one’s going to buy pasta,’” said Nosrat. “We’re going to do things a little differently this month.”

Instead, shoppers will find a bevy of holiday-friendly choices from the vendors. For their part, Lee and Nosrat (or “Chris & Samin,” as they have branded themselves on their packaging) are offering, among other things, loose fennel sausage, chicken stock, and turkey brining kits.

The brine—a salty, herby marinade for your bird—is a version of a recipe Lee helped create for a New York Times piece on Alice Waters’ Thanksgiving that the late R.W. Apple wrote in 1999. At Grace Street, Nosrat and her team—which this Sunday featured Mikaela Dunitz, Michael Wasserman, Cedric Tolosa, Jessie Washburn, Tracy Tingle, Sasha Lopez and Christa Chase— blend the dry ingredients, including salt, sugar, bay leaves, chili peppers, peppercorns and juniper berries, in a precise assembly line. Each item is weighed out, poured into a small container and then they’re all mixed at the end. Customers need only add the liquid and a turkey for tasty results.

Across the kitchen, Lee is leading a sausage-making team. They cube pork belly, fatback and pork shoulder. They chill it, making it easier to grind. Lee is a quiet but authoritative leader, a tall man with a ring of white curls rimming his head, professional-looking in his white chef’s coat. The word “Eccolo,” is embroidered on the lapel­—the name of his Berkeley restaurant that closed in 2009. Lee multi-tasks, butchering the pork, measuring spices and supervising his sous chefs all at the same time.

For any other Pop-Up, Lee would stuff his ground sausage into casings, but this month he’s leaving it loose so that his customers can use it in stuffing. After the meat is ground, he pours in a frothy white wine and garlic mixture, adds dry spices and blends it all together. Then he samples it, frying up a disc of sausage in a sauté pan on the stove. After Lee takes a bite, the rest of the kitchen pounces on what remains. Meanwhile Lee chews, brow furrowed. “It’s a little under-salted,” he says. “But that’s good. I reduced the salt by about 12 percent, so that folks can add their own seasonings to the stuffing.”

Later in the afternoon, Nosrat breaks out the chicken stock she made the night before. She wears a simple striped shirt and jeans and sneakers (Chuck Taylors are boss in this kitchen), and her dark curly hair, like her manner, is lovely and slightly wild. Jumbo ladle in hand, she begins skimming several vats of stock, transferring white globes of fat into a separate bowl.

The day’s final tasks include packing olive tapenade, which was not for pre-order, into containers and divvying up the loose sausage into individual portions, with Lee standing by to oversee the packing. On Monday, the group will gather together again to label the goods. On Tuesday, they’ll put on their Pop-Up, along with other vendors who have embraced the Thanksgiving theme.

Blue Chair Fruit, an Oakland-based artisan jam operation, is offering a cranberry sauce duet, made exclusively for the Pop-Up General store. Ebcb (aka, East Bay cookie baker Chelsea Pence) is peddling a variety of sweets, including blood-orange almond biscotti, fleur de sel caramels, and salty chocolate cookies.

Four Barrel Coffee, a gourmet coffee distributor located in San Francisco, will be on hand with a bold selection of brews, Homeroom, a restaurant opening in Oakland come January and a brand new Pop-Up vendor, is bringing its signature mac and cheese to the table (available with either Vermont White Cheddar or as a vegan entree). Homemade English muffins, perhaps for breakfast Friday morning, are on the menu courtesy of Lori Podroza, who vends under the moniker Goulash. Grace Street Catering tops off the list with a trio pack of crème anglaise in vanilla, cinammon and rum flavors.

For those customers looking to avoid Butterball turkey, this Pop-Up is offering Niman Ranch heritage turkeys at a cool $100-$150 a bird. “A couple of years ago we did a turkey tasting with Bill [Niman], and it was phenomenal,” said Nosrat. “A lot of people have placed orders.”  But if turkey is feeling sooo four centuries ago, there’s another meat option: Devil’s Gulch Ranch in Marin County will be selling antibiotic- and hormone-free rabbits.

The Thanksgiving Pop-Up will take place this Tuesday from 5-7 p.m. at Grace Street Catering, located at 4629 Martin Luther King Junior Way in Oakland. For more information, you can check out the Pop-Up General Store web site.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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