Oakland’s Worker-Led Restaurant Understory Wins at James Beard Awards

A Filipino American man, Chinese American woman, and Chinese American man dressed in festive outfits stand in front of backdrop that says "James Beard"
Jenabi Pareja, Diana Wu and Seanathan Chow at James Beard Foundation Leadership Award ceremony. Photo by Clay Williams.

The James Beard Awards, which took place in Chicago this year from June 10-15, is considered the highest honor in the food industry.

One of the Emerging Leadership awardees from the James Beard Foundation this year is Oakland’s Understory. The worker-run collective opened during the pandemic as a restaurant, bar, and shared kitchen alongside nonprofit Oakland Bloom. The restaurant and bar serves a rotating menu of Filipino, Moroccan, and Mexican cuisines as well as pop-ups and collaborations with Oakland Bloom’s chefs of diverse backgrounds. Understory is Oakland Bloom’s first cooperative restaurant. 

“We are so grateful to work among an incredible collective and to be in partnership with many movements and organizations working on broader issues that are central to our work, because food justice cannot be separated from racial justice, anti-capitalism, indigenous sovereignty, public health, disability justice, or queer liberation,” Understory cook and worker-leader Jenabi Pareja said at the awards event.

Oakland Bloom’s Diana Wu and Seanathan Chow were present at the awards. In an email with Oakland Voices after the awards, they noted that attending the awards helped them connect with local Oakland chefs who were nominated for awards, with local Chicago-based organizations such as Urban Growers Collective, and the other Emerging Leadership awardees such as Monica Ramirez of Justice for Migrant Women. As an Oakland Chinatown-based nonprofit, they also appreciated the opportunity to meet Grace Young, who received the Humanitarian of the Year Award for her work supporting New York City Chinatown and beyond, and Chef Martin Yan, who received the Lifetime Achievement Award who is also deeply passionate about saving Chinatowns.

In addition, with many Oakland chefs, restaurants, and writers nominated this year, they noted that what makes Oakland a unique space for creative, delicious food includes the history of activism, from the Black Panther Party to the fight for ethnic studies. “Local BIPOC and immigrant-owned farms and grocers also offer incredible produce in the Bay Area that enable this creativity and excellence in food,” Wu and Chow noted. “Oakland is also a place that embraces the creative and the weird, which I think also fosters restaurants that develop really interesting and high quality offerings where food is bold and unapologetic.”

Lily Fahsi-Haskell, an Understory cook and worker-leader, also agrees that the uniqueness of Oakland—with its history of racial solidarity and between immigrant, people of color, queer, and working class communities—provides the opportunity for a non-traditional restaurant space. “This backdrop is part of the foundation that enables Oakland Bloom and Understory to create a different vision of restaurant, community kitchen, and venue that is worker-led and community-centered,” Fahsi-Haskell said. “In Oakland, we are surrounded by a network of visionary and liberatory projects that engender this openness and possibility in our community and ourselves.”

a diverse group of chefs from Oakland stand in front of a step and repeat
Oakland chefs and food industry celebrating at the James Beard Foundation Leadership Awards, including Diana Wu and Seanathan Chow (left), Bryant Terry, Jenabi Pareja (third from right), Reem Assil (second from right), and Ashara Ekundayo. Photo by Taylor Stussi.

Other Oakland chefs and restaurants and writers also received recognition at the James Beard Foundation Awards. Reem Assil received a Best Chef nomination. Reem’s California’s first brick-and-mortar was in the Fruitvale neighborhood, and Assil now has a restaurant in SF’s Mission district.

A Best Emerging Chef nomination went to Crystal Wahpehpah of Wahpehpah’s Kitchen, in the former location of Reem’s in the Fruitvale. Wahpehpah’s Kitchen is one of only a few Native American-run restaurants focusing on indigenous cuisine.

A Best New Restaurant nomination went to Horn Barbecue in Oakland, helmed by Matt Horn, who also opened Kowbird in West Oakland earlier this year. Both of Horn’s restaurants opened during the pandemic. He noted in an Instagram post that although he did not receive an award, that “the pandemic exposed the true strength and resilience of our industry….How can we lose when we have so many different peers that continue to elevate their cuisine? We will continue to feed and support our wonderful city of Oakland. We wouldn’t be who we are without your support and the hard work of more than just a few.”

Oakland’s James Syhabout of Commis on Piedmont Avenue received a nomination for Best Chef in California. Commis is the only Michelin-starred restaurant in Oakland. Syhabout also runs Hawking Bird in Temescal.

Oakland’s Bryant Terry received two nominations this year for his cookbooks in the Media and Journalism Awards: Black Food: Stories, Art, and Recipes from Across the African Diaspora (4 Color Books) in the US Foodways category and for Vegetable Kingdom: The Abundant World of Vegan Recipes (Ten Speed Press) in the Vegetable-focused Cooking category. Terry received the Leadership Award from the foundation in 2015. 

Chef Tanya Holland of Brown Sugar Kitchen is an awards committee chair and was a presenter during the Chef and Restaurant Awards ceremony.

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Momo Chang is a part of the voting body of the 2022 James Beard Awards.

Author Profile

Momo Chang is a freelance journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is the Oakland Voices Co-Director. Her work focuses on healthcare, immigration, education, Asian American communities, food and culture. She is a former staff writer at the Oakland Tribune. Momo has received journalism awards from the Society of Professional Journalists for investigative reporting and the Asian American Journalists Association, among others. Her work has appeared in the East Bay Express, San Francisco Chronicle, Wired, and The New York Times. Momo is primarily a print journalist who also produces audio and visual stories for documentary film and radio. She is a Senior Contributing Editor for Hyphen and formerly the Content Manager at the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM).

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