A Phone Call with Kim Alter

A chat about sustainability, creativity, and our beloved cutting-edge chefs' collective Gelinaz!
Culinary World Feb 25, 2021 Chelsea van Hooven
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On our phone call with Kim Alter, top chef and owner of Nightbird and adjoining Linden Room, we had the chance to retrace her steps to launching her first solo project in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley and talk about her experience with the chefs' collective Gelinaz!

Chef Alter’s culinary portfolio includes helming some of the most renowned kitchens in the US such as Haven and Plum, Manresa, Ubuntu, Aqua, and Acquarello. Between 2018 and 2019, she earned various nominations from most notable culinary institutions such as James Beard and journals like Chronicle listing Alter’s restaurant in their top 100 or Star Chefs naming her as Sustainable Chef of the Year thanks to her commitment to whole animal cookery techniques and support to local farms.

Hey Kim, It’s great to meet you. Let’s jump right into it. I want to hear all about your journey. How did you become the chef you are today?

It’s good to meet you too. Sure! Well, I knew I wanted to be a chef since I was in grade school. I just knew this is what I wanted to do. So I started working at restaurants at soon as I could. In front of the house when I was 15. Then I would always sneak in the kitchen and try and prep. And then when I graduated, I moved to San Francisco, I went to culinary school and started working at what’s now Acquerello and that was kind of my base. I really just fell in love with the Bay Area but for a minute I moved to Chicago just to do something. I quickly realized the farms and the weather, everything you can get in the Bay Area just spoke more to me, and then I worked on a farm, and two restaurants that had their own farm followed. These experiences changed my whole perspective on sustainability.

How did your experience on the farm change the way you work as a chef?

So now, I explain to my cooks, it’s really hard to grow a radish, you want to make sure you utilize every part of it, as it utilized time, love, energy, water. The same goes for animals, you don’t want to throw away a part that is good. You figure out a way to cook it because that animal had a reason. Being able to work in these different environments and then have a one-on-one relationship with farmers has just really focused my energy on waste, sustainability, and making sure we’re utilizing the best products. That’s why I make sure to go to the market every day, that’s what they grew yesterday, it’s going to be the freshest, let’s pick that and base the menu on that.

You are a chef at Nightbird. How are you holding up? How were you able to make ends meet?

Yeah, we’ve been really lucky. In phase 2 I jumped on with a bunch of nonprofits. So we cook up to 2000 meals for the homeless, churches, and seniors who can’t leave their homes. And even though it’s not creative as such, it’s a good way to utilize the funds and it keeps subsistence funds, so it pays insurance for my staff and then we do burger pop-up and a tasting menu to-go but we’re ready for it to be over. By working with consistency, as restaurants you know how many reservations you’re gonna have and you know that money is going to consistently be coming in. And I think during the pandemic the issue was restaurants not knowing if they’ll be able to do take out. But working with nonprofits and with the government, we know consistently we’re going to be 2000 meals a week. And though it’s $10 a head, it's still consistent. I am still paying insurance on my servers who haven’t stepped foot in my restaurant since march. My partner and I have just been doing stuff that’s important, we started the burger pop-up as a way to make money in the middle. Soup kitchen in the morning, lunch we’ll do burgers, and then at night, we’ll do a tasting menu. Then we have the same staff working a normal shift but then it’s almost like we have 3 different restaurants throughout.

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It’s impressive to hear how restaurants are finding ways to stay over water. Now that customers can’t travel from other places to come visit you how have you adapted your concept to a new customer base.

Nightbird is a 10-course tasting menu. Even though we’re a lower-end price restaurant in San Francisco we’re not an everyday restaurant that people go to, a bigger part of our clientele was definitely tourists. It was hard. It’s really hard to do a 10-course tasting menu to-go and I didn’t want to lose what our brand is so we decided to eliminate delivery. That’s why we started the Night Burger pop-up. There was no sandwich spot open in our little area, it’s like the civic center, kind of the art community which has been very quiet. More than 30+ businesses and restaurants have closed in our neighborhood in the last 9 months. So, my partner is like - let's do something this neighborhood needs. We thought that a sandwich menu would work, and now we’re doing a 3-course tasting menu which is just $60. It’s 3 courses that travel well. That’s the other thing, it's important to try to think about what you can cook that travels well, you don’t know if they’re going to eat it in 20 minutes or 1 hour. That’s the hardest part about readjusting, We’re still using the same farms, same products, but we’re doing bigger portions. First throughout after… How will it taste? How will it travel? How do we do this in the least amount of packaging possible? All these issues we’ve not had to deal with before.

What was your experience with the PPP loan?

We did get a PPP loan. Being on like the coalition, IRC, HQUA, and I helped set up the Bay Area hospitality coalition with 6 other people. Trying to get information out to people who didn’t have access to it like we did and trying to help them get access to stuff like PPP loans. I think that it’s great that the government tried to do something for us, however, it was just to get people away from unemployment. But when you’re so slow there’s no way you’re going to have 60% of your employees. I do because I have a consistent amount of money coming. Unfortunately, about 80% of restaurants don’t have that. And if you don’t pay 60-% to your payroll which is a big part of our expenses, but right now a big part of expenses is PPE, rent and insurance and food pots, and all these other things that PPP loans don’t cover. It’s very scary, you’re following these rules that change every few months and don’t know if you’re going to be forgiven. You could be taking on debt that has very low interest but it’s still debt. If it was a grant it would be different. I’m worried for restaurants who don’t have any employees and need money to pay rent, taking on the debt, knowing they’ll have to pay it back.

What are your thoughts on the coming year? What advice can give chefs and restaurants?

I do feel this year you will see more restaurants close. I feel like a lot of restaurants were able to hold on, they got PPP loans and they did Go Fund Me’s and people were out there getting takeouts at the beginning. Now people like “ugh it’s harder”. So many people have no choice. We all have investors to pay back, insurance, rent, personal guarantee, a big thing in San Francisco and across the country. This is a big thing, I can’t just walk away as can come after me in my personal life. We have to get creative enough to the best of our abilities, doing these side gigs and sometimes it works. We need to keep pushing our governments to try and help us and keep pushing for the Restaurants Act which hopefully with the new administration will come to fruition.

When you think of Gelinaz, what comes to mind?

I get excited, I think of the prize, I think of the art, delicious food, and creativity. I think of Andy obviously. It’s such an interesting concept, always different and rotating. Made to make you really think as a chef, and it’s made the guests have an experience where they’re enjoying the meal but it’s a piece of work, it’s progressive like they’re in an art piece. Like when I was in Peru, it was 21 chefs all using the same ingredients to bring awareness around not eating baby octopus because they were becoming extinct. There were a drink and dessert made with the same ingredients. Like Massimo Bottura did the dessert using the same ingredients as I did for the middle course. It was very immersive, some people did videos, some had dancers. Magnus did a poem. It gets you a little bit out of your comfort zone for sure as it makes you want to create something new and original which I think is very hard today.

The concept of combining creativity, collaboration, and good food. What does collaboration in the industry mean to you?

It’s such an important part of my journey because sometimes you get in every day where you wake up, go to the farmers market, start butchery, prep, line up, drink coffee, the same thing every day. And getting out of that and seeing another chef's perspective, is another way for you to keep evolving and growing. Seeing new products, new techniques, a new way of working with something. That is priceless. I never used to do pithiviers before but learned how to do pithivier entries through a Gelinaz! chef, I actually did some during the pandemic for “to-go”. So, I think it’s always just a fun, great way, and you meet new people. It’s one of the bonuses of being a chef, there’s not a tonne of bonuses of being a chef but getting to travel and meet some amazing people.

How is the chefs' collective shaping the industry?

Just talking to Andy, and the people who run this, you can always feel creativity and energy, it’s so inspiring. I always wanna do a one-up when I’m thinking about what to do, it can’t just be something basic. Andy is reshaping the way not only chefs think but look at food, art, and advocacy and eating out and making sure everyone’s voices are heard not only about food but everything around. Whether it’s about sustainability or government. It’s inspiring to be around people like that because it’s inspiring to not have to put your head down and not have to just do the same thing every day.

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