The Idealist, The Perfectionist, and The Pied Piper
Three chefs transform dining into dynasties.
The mystique of a chef is like that of a magician. But no sleight of hand puts food on the table. So what’s the secret? We found three of the East Bay’s most successful chefs—all of whom own three restaurants or more—who were willing to pull back the curtain on their operations. There, we discovered the pillars of success: a great staff, a deep connection to the community, and the sheer force of an extraordinary personality.
Charlie Hallowell: the Idealist
Creating success from the ground up.
2005: Pizzaiolo, Oakland
2009: Boot and Shoe Service, oakland
2013: Penrose, Oakland
Undeterred by the dark, dusty space, with its yellowing linoleum and peeling low-hung ceilings, Charlie Hallowell signed to take over the lease for his first restaurant.
“I could tell that under all the rot, it was a really beautiful building,” he says. “I could just feel it.”
He transformed the former dilapidated hardware store on Oakland’s Telegraph Avenue into Pizzaiolo—a name that would become synonymous with artisanal thin-crust pizza.
What drives Hallowell—behind his ragged beard, wild eyes, and gentle manner—is his passion, which he has channeled into three incredible Oakland restaurants, including Boot and Shoe Service—another paean to artisanal pizzas—and Penrose, the hip grill-driven restaurant he opened late last year.
So having three successful, high-profile restaurants should be a dream come true, right?
“I am a very reluctant entrepreneur,” Hallowell says. “For so long, I identified as a cook. I really loved to kill it on the line. I felt like a pirate. But now I’m 41: If I had to do that today, I’d probably collapse.”
Hallowell has reconciled himself to his new responsibilities, however, by becoming a champion for the hard-working mates on his ships.
“That’s literally why I have three restaurants,” he says.
Hallowell starts almost every cook as garde-manger—a fancy way of saying “at the bottom”—cleaning the walk-in, making employee meals, and putting away all the deliveries. Stocking the kitchen is how Hallowell spent his first two years at Chez Panisse.
“You literally touch every piece of food,” he says. “It’s the best education, especially if you want to be a chef. You see the entire year in seasons of Northern California produce.”
Colin Etezadi, an early student of Hallowell’s, started as a cook at Pizzaiolo and worked his way up through the ranks. “He was ready for more, and there wasn’t anything more for him,” says Hallowell. That’s when Hallowell conceived of Boot and Shoe, and made Etezadi the opening chef. In the end, Etezadi gained the confidence necessary to open his own Oakland restaurant—Slicer Pizzeria—last summer. It’s a point of pride for Hallowell.
Hallowell’s ideals have been stoked by almost two decades’ spent in Oakland. He was a free spirit in his youth, traveling and living on his own in Shanghai when he was 18. But at 21, when the love of his life—who had roots in Oakland—became pregnant, he made a new pact with himself.
“This is where I am,” Hallowell recalls thinking. “Oakland is the place I’m going to be.
As soon as I accepted that, I really began to love it here.”
At full swing, Hallowell’s restaurants have a feeling of controlled chaos. Pizzas are pulled from the Boot’s wood-fired oven seconds before their crusts blacken, and flames lick at thick steaks and pork chops on the smoking-hot grill at Penrose. Even on quiet weekday mornings at Pizza-iolo—where caffè americanos and artisanal toast can be had until noon—there’s an air of restlessness as the line at the coffee bar, rich with plates of scones and house-made donuts, begins to wind toward the door.
Controlled chaos is not a bad descriptor for Hallowell’s personality, either. More accurately, he might be called “unfiltered”—a one-word summation made by Pizzaiolo’s sous chef, Ben Harris.
On a morning at Pizzaiolo, Hallowell holds forth, listing the ruinous effects of soft drinks on kids and fast food on the poor, and calling for fairer wages in the restaurant industry. “Cooks who are 35 with children are making somewhere about $16 an hour, while waiters are walking out of here with roughly $250 in their pockets,” he says, as an affront to his own business. “I’d like to open a restaurant with a very overt political agenda in an impoverished neighborhood.”
The fans lazily turn, MacBooks glow, and a break in the bricks shows off a patch of faded preserved wallpaper from the old hardware store. “This place is like the 31-year-old Charlie,” Hallowell says. “It’s rough around the edges.”
Rough, maybe, but it was the idealism of 31-year-old Charlie that revolutionized pizza in the Bay Area and sparked a hunger in his young staff.
Marc Baltes, the current chef at Boot and Shoe, who has worked with Hallowell for nearly a decade, remembers responding to Hallowell’s job listing on Craigslist back in the day.
“It was the silliest ad,” says Baltes. “It read something like, ‘Do you want to make gnocchi like an Italian grandmother? Do you wake up in the middle of the night dreaming about bollito misto? Do you think about tagliatelle Bolognese while making love?’
“I thought, Well, two out of three. I’ve worked for him ever since.”
Boot and Shoe Service
3308 Grand Ave., Oakland, (510) 763-2668, bootandshoeservice.com. Morning café Tues.–Sun., lunch Tues.–Fri., dinner Tues.–Sun., brunch Sat.–Sun. Seats: 120. Chef’s fave: Panna pizza: tomato sauce, house-made sausage, red onion, Calabrian peppers, cream, and Grana Padano cheese.
3311 Grand Ave., Oakland, (510) 444-1649, penroseoakland.com. Dinner Mon.–Sat. Seats: 80. Chef’s fave: Monterey squid a la plancha.
5008 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, (510) 652-4888, pizzaiolooakland.com. Morning café Mon.–Sat., dinner Mon.–Sat. Seats: 78. Chef’s fave: Fried chicken with chili oil and succotash.
James Syhabout: the Perfectionist
Four restaurants, one eye for detail.
2009: Commis, Oakland
2011: Hawker Fare, Oakland
2013: Box and Bells, Oakland
2014: The Dock, Oakland
This summer, James Syhabout opened The Dock—his fourth restaurant—on a 100-year-old loading dock at the Port of Oakland. It was a joint project with Adam Lamoreaux, who started Linden Street Brewery in the same spot five years before, bringing business and attention to a long-neglected part of West Oakland.
“None of James’ restaurants is an ego project,” says Lamoreaux. “They each have a specific purpose. Commis is artsy; it’s a restaurant put together with tweezers,” he says, referencing the primary tool Syhabout uses for Commis’ precise plate presentations.
“Hawker Fare is much more accessible. No plate is more than $10. Box and Bells is inspired by staff meals: It’s the food cooks make for each other. James covers the whole food spectrum, one that hits every price point.” (Commis has a $91 prix fixe menu.)
A phone call from Syhabout initiated The Dock. “There are two or three chefs in all of Oakland I might do this with, and James is number one,” says Lamoreaux. “I told him I will personally put my wife and my family’s future on the line for this.”
The Sunday after Syhabout’s return from a month-long “immersion” in his native Thailand, he was working on the line at his Michelin-starred restaurant, Commis. Syhabout, a slender and serious chef in his thirties, seemed particularly relaxed that night. He flashed smiles and moved gingerly from station to station, using his tweezers to garnish beef cheeks with wild lovage and a tiny spoon to arrange grams of frozen sorrel alongside bites of spot prawn.
There was no indication of concern that come Wednesday, there would be a new chef de cuisine—a member of Syhabout’s staff who, as he would say, is “submerged in the spirit” of Commis’ culture. Chef de cuisine Aaron Martinez was finishing up his last night. He would be packing for Chicago, where he would soon open his own restaurant.
“James is probably the best chef and mentor I have worked for,” says Martinez. “He gave me great advice about running a sustainable business and teaching my cooks.”
In 2009, Syhabout opened Commis on a quiet stretch of Piedmont Avenue in Oakland, the town where he grew up and in which he still lives with his wife and two young children. Syhabout calls Commis “a coming home,” after apprenticing for years in Europe’s finest restaurants and cooking at two of the five Bay Area restaurants that have two Michelin stars: Daniel Patterson’s Coi in San Francisco and David Kinch’s Manresa in Los Gatos.
Syhabout (pronounced see-HAH-boot) opened Hawker Fare in 2011. The name Hawker Fare refers to food, be it pork rinds or squid jerky, that is hawked on the streets of Thailand. Syhabout’s family left Thailand when he was just two. Hawker Fare is truly a homecoming; it was built in the same building where his mother once operated her own Thai restaurant—a hangout for Syhabout as a child and teenager.
The menu is as authentically Thai as an American restaurant can be. The kao mun gai is a simple dish of moist poached chicken, sliced cucumber, and perfumed sticky rice simply fashioned on a bright mosaic plate. The breast’s meltingly thin layer of skin along with a touch of chicken fat in the rice give it a rich fullness that is cleansed with a garnish of cilantro leaves, and the sweet and pungent side sauce of fermented soy. Ordered with griddled mung bean pancake—enlivened with mint—and chased with a bottle of pure palm juice, it becomes a meal no one should miss.
Syhabout’s respect for tradition drove his recent journey to Thailand with Manuel Bonilla, whom Syhabout hired and eventually promoted to chef de cuisine at Hawker Fare. “Why not go straight to the source? Be a sponge, and get lost in the spirit of the food, people, landscape, and the way of life,” says Syhabout.
Last fall, Syhabout opened Box and Bells—a name meant to evoke bonding moments: wedding bells, dinner bells, gift boxes, jukeboxes, cigar boxes. The restaurant looks imposing from the outside, with an ancient castlelike door and a heavy boot-sized bell up high. Inside, the restaurant feels a bit like a medieval tavern or a mine. But it’s thoroughly modern, becoming a kicked-back setting for a blues and rock-and-roll party at night.
Chef Benjamin Coe and manager Jason Friend—Commis and Hawker Fare alums, respectively—run Box and Bells. It was conceived and built around Coe’s staff meals to create the kind of restaurant where cooks might want to gather after a mentally exhausting 14-hour shift at the spotless, intensely focused and fine-tuned Commis.
“You want to go some place with an old-school vibe, with dusty animal heads on the wall,” says Coe. “You want to eat something comforting and have a beer and shots of whiskey.”
Box and Bells captures that spirit in the most refined way possible. Immaculate cooks with white aprons use never-stained towels and still “cut the tape,” as Coe says, referring to the right-angle snips, not ragged tears, of the masking tape strips used to label and date everything in the walk-in.
Box and Bells’ most popular dish is probably the fried chicken with oyster mayonnaise—a dish first conceived at Commis when Coe found a couple of oysters on the staff meal shelf. Coe pureed the oysters with a little tarragon, whole eggs, and black pepper, and turned it into a mayonnaise.
“I was in charge of family meal every day at four,” says Coe. “You don’t dress the salad at four. It’s up at four. Not 4:02. Not 3:58. And your station is clean. It’s a lot of pressure, so the only way to have fun is to cook stuff you like.”
Box and Bells’ Spanish tortilla—a layered egg-and-potato casserole—is constructed in a terrine mold with bacon and oil-blanched french fries. It’s blasted in the oven until crusty and topped with salsa vasca, a dark and intense sauce made with sherry vinegar and smoked paprika. To cut the acidic and spicy sauce, the dish is topped with a generous quenelle of airy house-made mayonnaise. It’s absolutely, undeniably delicious.
“Dunking french fries doesn’t mean you’re at the bottom of the barrel,” says Coe. “Let’s take it to a whole other level.”
Over at The Dock, you’ll find linguiça corn dogs, falafel waffles, and jerked chicken wings. “There’s more wiggle room,” says Syhabout. “We are not married to one particular cuisine here.” But it still adheres to Commis’ precise cut-the-tape standards.
Lamoreaux witnessed the exacting menu development process.
“This is not a little bit of this and a little bit of that,” he says. “Everything is measured to the gram—literally, to the gram. The staff will spend a week or two dialing a dish in. They sit around the table for a taste test, adjust the recipe, and come in the next day to start all over.”
So now that The Dock is in full swing, will there be a restaurant number five?
“I’m a dreamer. I’ve always got something in my head,” says Syhabout. “In the next little while, I don’t have my eyes on anything. But then again, nothing was ever planned; things just arrived. I don’t see myself in New York or in the suburbs, but you never know. I never say never.”
Box and Bells
5912 College Ave., Oakland, (510) 923-2000, boxandbells.com. Dinner Tues.–Sun., brunch Sun. Seats: 80. Chef’s fave: Fried chicken with oyster mayo.
3859 Piedmont Ave., Oakland, (510) 653-3902, commisrestaurant.com. Dinner Wed.–Sun. Seats: 28. Chef’s fave: Anything with squab.
95 Linden St., Oakland, (510) 338-3965, thedockoakland.com. Dinner Tues.–Sat. Seats: 65. Chef’s fave: The linguiça corn dog.
2300 Webster St., Oakland, (510) 832-8896, hawkerfare.com. Lunch Tues.–Sun., dinner Tues.–Sat. Seats: 48. Chef’s fave: Kao mun gai (poached chicken with rice).
Rodney Worth: the Pied Piper
If he builds it, they will come.
2004: The Peasant and the Pear, San Ramon (moved to Danville in 2006)
2008: The Peasant’s Courtyard, Alamo
2010: The Little Pear, Danville
2010: The Prickly Pear Cantina, Danville
2012: Ferrari’s Cucina Italiana, Danville
2012: The Pear Southern Bistro, Napa
As soon as Rodney Worth opens a restaurant, people come. It could be Cajun or Italian. It might be a sandwich shop or an upscale bistro. It could even be a Mexican cantina. It doesn’t much matter. In eight years, Worth has opened six restaurants, some in jinxed locations, and they are still going strong. Why do people come? Just ask them: They come for Rod.
“Rodney has a big, warm, wonderful personality that really draws people to him,” says Robin DeMartini, a Pleasanton resident who has been eating Worth’s “nonfussy” fare since the tiny Peasant and the Pear opened in San Ramon.
When the sandwich shop evolved into a full-service restaurant in 2006, taking over a beautiful French bistro in Danville, DeMartini became even more devoted. It’s been more than a decade now, and she continues to frequent his restaurants week after week.
“He’s like the Pied Piper,” says DeMartini. “I always think of the Pied Piper as so sly. Rod’s not sly on purpose, but I laugh because that is what he is.”
Another customer, Tom Kortizija, says he’s also drawn to Worth’s priceless and magnetic personality.
“When you go to Rod’s places, you feel at ease,” says Kortizija. “It’s like Cheers. He spends a few minutes at every table. He’s witty and a little sarcastic. Practically his entire staff knows I don’t like cheese. So Rod asks my waiter to bring me extra cheese.”
Worth’s big, jovial personality is often on display; he once let loose as King Tut at the Blackhawk annual costume party, says Kortizija. “He can go toe-to-toe with anyone,” adds Kortizija, recalling the Halloween bash.
But a boisterous persona is just one dimension of Worth’s signature style. He also nails the concept of each restaurant while never straying from a culinary approach that is honest, uncomplicated, and hearty.
“I like real food that’s made from scratch,” says Worth. “My style is kind of old school, but I want to be great at what we do. I want my beans to be perfect. I love a steak. I love butchery—grinding meat and making sausages. Our older clientele just loves our food.”
Each of Worth’s restaurants has a particular attraction. Customers choose the casual, open-air square at The Peasant’s Courtyard for a juicy burger. For breakfasts, it’s The Little Pear, with its great omelets and waterside patio. At dinner, it’s lamb shank, with a rich sauce served over polenta, at The Peasant and the Pear. And Worth’s faithfuls can always dine on Diablo prawns at Ferrari’s or dig into carnitas at the colorful, 140-seat Prickly Pear, the Mexican cantina that turns festive at night.
While Worth often wonders at his good fortune, it hasn’t been an easy journey—from his long days both learning and mentoring at Diablo Valley College’s culinary program to his first job in the catering department at The Restaurant at Wente Vineyards where he peeled 100 pounds of onions and 100 pounds of carrots every day. Even when his first restaurant was rolling, he often scrambled to make ends meet.
“I had $58 when I opened The Peasant and The Pear. That’s my piggybank and everything,” Worth remembers. “I didn’t have enough money for my first meat order. But the landlord had a similar background to me and appreciated my hard work. He gave us a seven-year lease. We served 110 people on Valentine’s Day and it started all falling in place. We were busy after that.”
Since then, it seems Worth can’t stop opening restaurants. Even in Wine Country, where he was inspired after one visit to the Napa Riverfront.
“I call it the Mississippi River. When I looked at that river I said to myself. ‘We ate a po’ boy in Mississippi in a place that was just like this. That was it. In my mind it was done—it was going to be a Cajun restaurant.”
So what’s next?
“I want to do a New York deli with real pastrami and real rye bread,” says Worth. “I want to open a California steakhouse that still offers vegetable-driven dishes on the menu. And I want to do a little bistro called La Petite Poire with black-and-white floors that serves French onion soup and quiche. I have a computer filled with these crazy ideas.”
Ferrari’s Cucina Italiana
3451 Blackhawk Plaza Cir., Danville, (925) 309-4180, rodneyworth.com. Lunch and dinner daily. Seats: 40. Chef’s fave: Spicy Diablo prawns.
The Little Pear
3407 Blackhawk Plaza Circle, Danville, (925) 736-4800, rodneyworth.com. Lunch and dinner daily. Seats: 24. Chef’s fave: Crispy fried artichokes.
The Peasant and The Pear
267 Hartz Ave., (925) 820-6611, Danville, rodneyworth.com. Lunch and dinner daily, brunch Sun. Seats: 90. Chef’s fave: Lamb shank.
The Peasant’s Courtyard
3195 Danville Blvd., (925) 362-0088, Alamo, rodneyworth.com. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily. Seats: 40. Chef’s fave: Smoked chicken salad sandwich.
The Pear Southern Bistro
720 Main St., Napa, (707) 256-3900, rodneyworth.com. Lunch and dinner daily, brunch Sun. Seats: 120. Chef’s fave: Chicken and waffles.
The Prickly Pear Cantina
3421 Blackhawk Plaza Cir., Danville, (925) 984-2363, rodneyworth.com. Lunch and dinner daily, brunch Sun. Seats: 140. Chef’s fave: Chile relleno.