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    Oakland Chef Nelson German Hopes to Become America’s Next Top Chef

    By David Landis–

    For Nelson German, a young Dominican American chef from the streets of New York who now helms two of Oakland’s most revered restaurants (alaMar and Sobre Mesa), being selected as the only Californian to compete in Season 18 of Top Chef (premiering April 1 on Bravo TV) is a dream come true. With a catch.

    “Having the Bay Area and California on my back was a lot of pressure,” German explains to me for the San Francisco Bay Times, “but a lot of motivation, too.”

    The Gay Gourmet caught up with Chef German right after the March 4 re-opening of his tapas/cocktail bar venture, Sobre Mesa—and right before the 7th anniversary of his first restaurant, Alamar (May 1), as well as the premiere of his Top Chef debut. Needless to say, it’s a busy time.

    Gay Gourmet (GG): With all that’s on your plate, I guess there’s no rest for the weary.

    Chef Nelson German (NG): It’s what I do. It’s a chef’s life.

    GG: Why do you think the producers selected you for this Top Chef season?

    NG: That’s a good question. I’m not sure, but perhaps it’s because of everything we’ve done for the community and for our restaurants—and for the recognition I’ve been getting the last few years, especially locally. Perseverance, too. We’ve survived the pandemic and are still running the businesses.

    GG: What was your Top Chef experience like? And what was a typical day like?

    NG: The experience was amazing: an overwhelming, but gratifying experience. On the first episode, there is the awe, walking in to see the judge’s table, seeing the kitchen—the feeling of looking around and realizing it’s real. You’ll see it in all of our faces. Just to be chosen, you realize that when you step into that kitchen. It’s like making it, in a way. After all the grueling hours, the burns, cutting yourself, you’ve finally made it. Typical days were long days, just like working in the industry: really long hours. We’re used to that. Knowing you are part of something special keeps you going.

    GG: What was it like working with the celebrity judges: Tom Colicchio, Padma Lakshmi, and Gail Simmons?

    NG: From watching throughout the years and knowing they’ll critique you, it’s nerve wracking. It’s like a million yelpers staring at your food. It was also great seeing a local legend like (Top Chef winner) Melissa King.

    GG: How did having the show tape in Portland influence you? Do you have favorite restaurants there?

    NG: Portland is amazing. I love that city and what it stands for, especially the food scene. They really respect food, history, and all sorts of life no matter what gender or race. Everything. Mama Bird is a new grilled chicken favorite in Portland and I also enjoyed Bake on The Run, a Caribbean restaurant.

    GG: I understand you had to execute a cohesive 7-course tasting menu. What’s the secret to that when there’s such a short timeframe?

    NG: The secret is to go back to your roots. Cook food that is special to you and tells people who you are. You have to feel comfortable. There’s a lot of composition to prep for, so it’s important to go back to foods you like to cook, your go-getters. I go back to things I grew up with, with a modern touch. It has to tell a story—like braised oxtails with plantains and pickled cabbage. Those dishes remind me of my family gatherings.

    GG: Will being on Top Chef influence the way you cook, now that you’ve returned home?

    NG: Definitely. It already has. People will see it in the style of the food, how we plate, and the stories being told.

    GG: You’ve just re-opened Sobre Mesa, your Afro-Latino cocktail/tapas bar. You did it on its 1-year anniversary, following shutting down for the pandemic.

    NG: We had a great celebration, starting with live music. Our music is a combination of Afro beat and jazz—music that is embedded in my history and culture: mambo, Cuban, and salsa. People really showed up in a safe way. It was amazing to get back to that kitchen that tells the story of my roots.

    GG: You’re not afraid to make new combinations, like Suya steak and Oaxaca cheese empanadas, but you also offer some classics like lobster thermidor.

    NG: The lobster thermidor is definitely inspired by the traditional recipe, but with a Caribbean-African influence (the Oaxaca beer cheese). It comes with a black bean puree and squid ink. It’s important to take inspirations, telling different stories with food. My cooking tells the story of my Dominican roots and the African diaspora and making sense of it. You need to make something unique: make yourself stand out.

    GG: You’re one of the few Bay Area restaurants to offer sancochito stew. Is it a family recipe?

    NG: It’s a smaller version of sancocho, a hearty stew with 7 different types of meat. It’s delicious. It’s the national stew of the Dominican Republic. It’s based on my grandma’s recipe; she’s the master. Everyone is always trying to top hers.

    GG: I adore rum and am glad to see your cocktail program reflect that. Do you think rum has regained its rightful place in cocktail culture?

    NG: I think it is regaining that. Mixologists are telling stories with their drinks, combining flavors that are seasonal and local, not using premade syrups. It’s important to use quality rum; all rums are different. It depends on the terroir and who is making it. We have our own special blend created by Berkeley’s Mosswood Distillers for our signature Sobre Mesa cocktail.

    GG: alaMar has kept going throughout the pandemic, and during that time you’ve also done a lot of community work.

    NG: We were fortunate. At alaMar, we were open for so long before the pandemic that we had a big following, so we could stay open. Yes, we did a lot of charity work through alaMar. We delivered 20,000 meals to the World Central Kitchen effort over several months. (Editor’s note: The World Central Kitchen delivers meals to children and families, as well as seniors, during the pandemic.) And we delivered 300 meals per day to laid-off industry workers last April and May through the Lee Initiative (a restaurant workers’ relief program).

    GG: What’s next?

    NG: May 1 is our 7th anniversary for alaMar. Watch for details. There are a lot of great things on the books. Follow us and support us. There’s a lot on the horizon.

    GG: And thank you, Chef Nelson, for giving our readers one of your popular recipes.

    NG: It’s braised chicken, my favorite Dominican dish. Every time I visit my mom or grandmother, it’s the one dish I always ask for.

    Dominican Braised Chicken (Pollo Guisado)

    Courtesy of Chef Nelson German, chef/owner of Oakland’s alaMar and Sobre Mesa

    Yield: 8 portions

    8 chicken thighs (boneless & skin on preferred)
    1/2 cup soy sauce, Maggi or tamari (use tamari to keep it gluten free)
    3 pints chicken stock/broth (vegetable stock is okay)
    1 cup chopped garlic
    3 small red onions (sliced)
    4 tablespoons ground cumin
    3 tablespoons lemon pepper seasoning
    1 tablespoon smoked paprika
    10 green olives chopped
    3/4 cup tomato paste
    2 oranges (zest & juice)
    1/2 cup canola oil
    1/4 stick butter
    3/4 cup sofrito (recipe follows)

    Dominican-style Sofrito
    Yield: 2 cups
    1 bunch cilantro (use leaves and stem)
    12 cloves garlic 
    1 red onion (chopped)
    1 green bell pepper (chopped)
    2 tablespoons kosher salt
    1 tablespoon crushed black pepper
    1/2 cup olive oil
    Preparation for the sofrito:
    Add all ingredients in a food processor and blend until mix is smooth.

    Preparation for the chicken:

    1. Combine sofrito ingredients in a food processor or blender and blend well. Reserve 1 1/2 cups of the sofrito for marinating the chicken thighs and set the last half cup aside.

    2. In a large Ziplock bag, place the quartered chicken and sofrito. Marinate for 3 hours or overnight.

    3. Preheat a medium aluminum or stainless-steel pan with 1/4 cup oil for about 5 minutes on medium high heat on the stove. This will allow the pan to heat up evenly so the chicken will not stick. Add the chicken pieces and cook for 2 minutes until golden brown then turn them.

    4. Lower the heat to low and then add the onions and garlic to the pan. Sweat down the onion and garlic until soft. Now turn up the heat to high and deglaze with the soy, tamari or Maggi. Turn chicken twice so it can absorb the seasoning.

    5. Add the cumin, smoked paprika, lemon pepper, and stock. Bring liquid to a boil and add tomato paste then sofrito; stir both well until dissolved. Add orange zest plus the juice, then the olives.

    6. Lower the heat to low and cover with lid. (If there is no lid for the pan then use aluminum foil.) Braise chicken for 90 minutes or until preference of tenderness.

    7. Plate the chicken on top of rice without sauce. Then add butter to sauce and stir until dissolved.

    8. Add your delicious sauce on the chicken and enjoy!

    alaMar, Oakland
    https://www.alamaroakland.com/
    outdoor dining, takeout/delivery

    Sobre Mesa, Oakland
    https://www.sobremesaoak.com/
    outdoor dining, takeout starting late March, check for delivery; indoor dining at 25%, reservations only

    The Lee Initiative
    https://www.leeinitiative.org/

    World Central Kitchen
    https://wck.org/

    Bake on The Run, Portland
    https://www.yelp.com/biz/bake-on-the-run-portland-4

    Mama Bird, Portland
    https://www.mamabirdpdx.com/

    The Gay Gourmet’s Bits and Bites

    Occasionally, I’ll be adding some food-related tidbits at the end of my column. Feel free to ping me with any Bits and Bites ideas. Today’s Bits and Bites? Two different foodie-oriented events:

    Sony Pictures Classics premieres a film that’s piqued my interest called The Truffle Hunters. It’s a heartwarming fairytale about truffle hunters and their dogs in Piedmont, Italy, as they hunt for the elusive white Alba truffle (four of my favorite subjects). Who steals the show? Truffle-hunting dog Birba, whose octogenarian guardian treats her like the princess she is. It debuts locally at the Embarcadero Cinema in San Francisco and AMC Saratoga on March 26. It got accolades at Sundance, the Telluride Film Festival, the Toronto Film Festival and the NY Film Festival. Worth seeking out! Trailer is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KFYhrc0AnVw

    And, in other foodie news, Michelin-starred Spanish-American chef Jose Andrés speaks online about food sustainability at 7 pm, April 6, as part of the ongoing Wallace Stegner Lecture Series presented by the Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST). He’s the founder of the World Central Kitchen, which is a nonprofit devoted to providing meals in the wake of natural disasters. Cost is $30 (proceeds benefit POST), but that entitles you to all the lectures in the series. POST protects open space on the Peninsula and in the South Bay for the benefit of all. Info: https://openspacetrust.org/wsls-erin-brockovich/#subscription

    David Landis, aka “The Gay Gourmet,” is a foodie, a freelance writer and a PR executive. Follow him on Instagram @GayGourmetSF, on Twitter @david_landis, email him at: david@landispr.com or visit him online at: www.gaygourmetsf.com

    Published on March 25, 2021