Monday, March 12, 2012

Dominica's Cosecha: One Haute Mexican

Dominica Rice, founder and chef of Cosecha, is petite with long glossy hair pulled back into a thick braid that makes her warm eyes stand out--they sparkle with humor and what I like to call “mad food love.” When asked about the roots of her passion for cooking, she explains that it started with her grandmother.  “I was born in Chinatown (in Los Angeles) like my mother. She still lives there, and that is where my grandparents have lived since the 50’s,” she shared before taking a sip from her glass. “We were there every weekend with my grandmother--she was this little old lady from Chihuahua, Mexico, and it was really nice hanging out with her. She cooked all of the time, but after church she would take us out to eat.  Sometimes we would go to Olvera Street for Mexican food, or Chinatown for a Chinese Won Ton soup brunch, and she always wanted to try different places--it was a blast.” 

Almost everyone in Dominica’s family is currently involved in some aspect of the restaurant or farming industries, and it all began with her grandparents who got their start as field workers in Northern California.  When they moved to Southern California, her grandfather entered the restaurant industry, while her grandmother stayed home to take care of their growing family. 

Community Tables at Cosecha
Dominica remembers most clearly the time with her grandmother and the very “old-style” way she had of doing things--no one was ever allowed to sit around idle.  “My first memory growing up, my first memory of life, was being at my grandparent’s early in the morning and my grandmother sorting frijoles, getting ready for the cooking,” she explained. “She was really good about letting the kids be a part of the process.”  There was always something to do, whether it was ironing, knitting, cleaning, composting or gardening.  “If you couldn’t get on board with that, then you couldn’t hang out.”

 Christmas was a special time, and people would get competitive about who made the best tamales. The little grand kids were put to work cleaning the ojas, which are the cornhusks that are used to wrap the tamales.  There is a process to cleaning the ojas--they are dried and then the remaining corn silks and any “little critters” that crawl in between the drying and packing need to be removed.  Afterward, the ojas are soaked, washed, and dried again, and that is where the kids start to learn about and participate in the cooking.  Gradually, they are invited to learn the next steps of tamale making and some will eventually graduate to helping prepare other dishes.  Dominica is continuing this tradition with her niece and daughter, but most of her family is located in Southern California, so she also enlists her husband and friends to help prepare for parties, and everyone gets to learn how to make items like fry bread and salsas.

Dominica was 14 when she made her industry debut at what she refers to as “...a silly job that was actually really fun...“ working at Baskin Robbins making ice cream cakes and frosting decorations.  In 1993, she moved to San Francisco to attend the Culinary Academy, and when her training was complete, she worked for a couple of small restaurants before getting one of her first big breaks--a job at Stars Cafe (part of Chef Jeremiah Tower’s very famous, now defunct, Stars franchise).  “I remember growing up in LA reading Elle magazine, and they always had a great food section,” she says. “It was all about Stars and Jeremiah Tower.”

When asked about her time at Chez Panisse, she remarks “I don’t remember reading anything about Alice when I was young, but when I was in cooking school in ‘93, I drew Alice Waters name out of a hat, and I wrote a paper about her and Chez Panisse.” Dominica continued to explain, smiling as she politely waved ‘hello’ to a passing customer, “After doing my research, I decided that I wanted to work for her some day.”

“I heard about this mathematical master where if you worked for him, or were a student of his, you were separated by one degree.”  This is in response to my idea to create a game called “Six Degrees of Chez Panisse, although I now realize that it should probably be “Six Degrees of Alice Waters.”  There was a time early on when Alice was in the front of the house and a waiter, and since then she has moved around in a variety of roles.  “I worked with some of the original sous chefs who worked directly with her (Alice), and now they have gone off and opened their own restaurants and companies, but they remember when she worked in the kitchen, so my degree of separation would be “two.” 

Still in her early twenties, Dominica moved to Manhattan, and worked two jobs for a year and a half.  Her anchor job was a union gig at the Four Seasons restaurant, but being passionately driven to excel and learn, she would work on her days off at Restaurant Daniel, a famed traditional French establishment on the Upper East Side.  One of Chef Daniel Boulud’s jewels, Restaurant Daniel is noted by the New York Times as being among a handful of elegant restaurants that maintain the rituals once synonymous with superior cuisine haute French, and it was a time Dominica found exhilarating and exhausting.  “The labor laws in Manhattan kind of go out the window,” she explains. “Waiters that earn no wage, just their tips, and a similar situation for dishwashers.  There were no breaks, ever--never a sit-down break.”  The shifts were 13-hours long and if anyone was allowed to eat, they would do so standing up.  “There were people from all over the world, from Haiti and London, Paris and LA, so it wasn’t like you could complain about how you needed your 15-minute break--you would have been cut immediately.”  
Papel Picado at Cosecha

She moved to Mexico City in 1995, and this is where the glimmer of inspiration for Cosecha has its roots.  Dominica was there for a year and a half, and she loved taking the bus everywhere.  “It was great, you would get into work at ten, take a siesta in the afternoon, and then work into the night.”  She worked at the French Restaurant Soleil in Mexico City and made the circuit to all of the farmer’s markets, mercados and tianguis (an Aztec term for flea market). These types of markets are located all over Mexico City--some of them are permanent, some occur regularly at the metro stations, there are some that just pop-up, and then there are the traditional farmer’s markets that occur once a week at a specific time. 

These markets, and their food stands are the true inspiration for Cosecha.  Dominica wanted to create an experience that straddled California style and the fun street food of Mexico City, something she has executed with the successful precision of an inspired and seasoned professional.  “Like our (Cosecha) quesadillas--they look like huaraches, which are essentially huge corn tortillas, folded over,” and with this she describes her experience at the Merced Market in Mexico City.  “The way it came around is that I went to a market stand, and asked this guy who makes huaraches to make a quesadilla for me, but he gave me something totally different. He just folded over his huarache, and that was my quesadilla.  It was fantastic, it was perfect!”
Fantastic and perfect...hmmm...just like everything showcased on the Cosecha menu. 

The menu and area where Cosecha is located appear deceptively simple at first glance.  Dominca has transformed a warehouse space into a cheerful restaurant with a bright aqua wall, hip modern lamps, an amazing and intricate example of custom papel picado celebrating the idea of harvest, an open prep line and wide wooden communal tables that invite social engagement.   They offer a daily a la carte menu, a Friday evening expanded dinner menu, a weekend brunch menu and occasional pop-up dinners that tend to occur on Saturday evenings and are reservation-only. Cosecha also supports quality up-and-coming local artisans during Friday night dinners by providing space for pop-up vending. 

If you don’t like brunches, give Cosecha a chance, and it will prove to be the exception to your rule.  The mere notion of eggs and pancakes is elevated to a new and lofty level. Their Chilaquiles feature scrambled eggs that are Paris tea house perfect (think the little tea house on the Left Bank, hidden up a set of unassuming stairs and packed with locals) transformed into moist, fluffy curds atop crunchy house made chips that are sautéed with your choice of freshly created salsas, and topped with a generous sprinkling of queso fresco and thick slices of tender, ripe avocado. They make their own ‘Spam’ with Niman Ranch pork and had the vision to marry this novel yumminess with airy pancake batter for a sweet/salty breakfast delight.

The tacos on the a la carte menu, both soft and crispy, are an absolute delight.  Patrons demand the constant presence of the ever-popular wild shrimp taco, but the fish and pork belly tacos shouldn’t be missed.  There is a crispy butternut squash taco that appears occasionally, and is a little slice of fried vegetarian heaven.  In previous posts, I have rhapsodized about their Pozole, braised ribs and coffee.  I could go on and on.

The moment of truth is at hand—now is the time to swing by downtown Oakland, check out the Oaktown Pop-Up neighborhood of shops, and experience Cosecha.  Prepare to be surprised and delighted.

Cosecha Mexican Cafe
907 Washington Street 
Oakland, CA 94607
(510) 452-5900

No comments:

Post a Comment