Food & Drink » What the Fork

Allow Me to Introduce Myself

Meet the Express' new food writer. Plus, an allergen-free commercial kitchen.

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So no one accuses me of trying to bury the lede, let's start with this: Last week I officially started my new job as the East Bay Express' resident food writer, taking over for my esteemed colleague, Jesse Hirsch. I couldn't be more thrilled.

Around this time three years ago, I was teaching high-school English — saving my sharpest barbs not for $15 cocktails or overcooked chicken, but for poems about pet puppy dogs and the never-ending stack of Great Gatsby essays that had taken over my dining-room table. When I finally decided to hang up my red pen and try my hand at freelance journalism, it was the Express that bought my first pitch — 3,000-plus words on an East Bay coffee scene that was starting to really blow up.

Since then, I've had the privilege of writing, here and elsewhere, about school gardens and YouTube videos, about comic books and Chinatown politics. But mostly what I've written about is food.

And why not? I grew up in a family where the subject of dinner conversation was often, well, dinner — whether the dumpling skin was too thick, whether the shrimp scampi was as spicy as the version we'd had at some random restaurant ten years ago. My dad likes to joke about how people from his home province in China will eat anything with four legs except the kitchen table; my mom is one of the finest home cooks I know. For me, food has always been the currency.

Besides, it's true what my friend Lillian says about the Bay Area — about the East Bay, in particular: It's a paradise for people who like food. Lillian is the one who lured my wife and me out to Oakland to begin with, plying us with soul-warming caldo de pollo from Fruitvale, with the Laotian crispy rice salad known as nam khao, with impossibly fragrant melon and strawberry varietals we hadn't heard of before. Warm bagels and red-sauce Italian of my East Coast upbringing notwithstanding, there was never any contest.

In short, it's been a pleasure to write about the gelato geniuses, the badass butchers, the off-kilter food trucks and nouveaux Jewish delis that populate this rich culinary landscape. Something for all palates, as they say. And not to get too English-teachery on you, but I think of my favorite line from The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter: "I like a story with something to eat in it."

If that isn't a food writer's manifesto, I don't know what is. And I doubt there's a much better place to dig into those stories than here.

An Allergen-Free Kitchen

In this golden age of pop-up restaurants and specialized artisan food-makers, commercial kitchen space is a hot commodity. In one five-hundred-square-foot kitchen, you might find a guy smoking a batch of pastrami, someone else straining fresh cheese, and yet another person pickling some radishes — one after the other, or sometimes side-by-side.

It's a wonderful tribute to our diverse food economy. But for people with serious food allergies — for whom one tiny smidge of dairy or nut might be a matter of life or death — it's a nightmare.

Enter INNA Jam's Dafna Kory. Fresh off a successful Kickstarter campaign that raised nearly $28,000 to equip her newly leased commercial kitchen in Emeryville, the jam-maker is celebrating the long-awaited shift from renting a workspace to having a place of her own.

Before, she and her employees were "like gypsies," Kory explained. Her business was spread out across about five different places — one to cook, one to store the products, one to serve as an office space, and so forth.

Now she'll be able to consolidate all of those functions. At the same time, Kory says she still plans on sharing the love — on making the kitchen available to other makers of artisan food products. The difference, she says, is that her kitchen will be contamination-free and allergen-free. It'll be reserved for the preparation of fruits, vegetables, herbs, and spices — nothing else. No meat, no nuts, no dairy, no gluten.

"People with allergies were always asking if there's dairy in the kitchen," Kory explained.

Before she could never guarantee that there wasn't. Now she can.

And so the first artisan food-makers to rent out kitchen space from Kory include a pickler and a tea-brewer.

The Express first featured INNA Jam in last year's story on "recession-era entrepreneurs," which recounted Kory's 2010 decision to transition from a career as a video editor to one as a jam-maker. At the time, Kory was hopeful that INNA Jam's success would allow her to eventually quit video work altogether.

The new kitchen brings her one step closer to full-time jam-making, as Kory expects she'll be able to step up production. That way, INNA Jam's most popular flavors — strawberry and apricot — might not sell out early, as they have the past two years.

Kory hopes to start production at her new facility later this month, when local strawberries will be approaching their peak.

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