Rip, Scoop, Eat: Oren’s Hummus brings authentic Israeli cuisine to the mainstream

STORY BY SIDDHANT KANWAR, PHOTO BY ARYA NASIKKAR

When visiting Oren’s Hummus, it’s hard to miss the quintessential “Rip, Scoop, Eat” slogan accompanied by cheerful images of children demonstrating the technique. In an effort to establish Israeli food as a cuisine staple in the Bay Area, the two leaders of this chain restaurant (and the poster children’s parents) display the approachable presentation at every location.

“We came up with the Hummus Eating Guide, which is to take your pita, rip it, scoop a big bite of hummus out of this bowl, and repeat,” executive chef and partner David Cohen said.

Cohen wanted to welcome a variety of diners to explore Israeli cuisine, not excluding those unfamiliar with the concept of eating a bowl of hummus as a meal, he said.

Oren’s Hummus began with Oren Dobronsky, a successful Israeli entrepreneur, when he decided to depart from his established career in tech and share his passion for the flavors of his beloved hometown, Tel Aviv.

Dobronsky and his wife, a restaurant professional, opened their first hummus shop on University Avenue in Palo Alto. Today, the chain has five restaurant locations around the Bay Area.

The management of Oren’s Hummus also offers alternate, scaled-down formats of the shop: pop-ups, express kitchens, and — to Cohen’s delight — farmers’ market stands.

When Cohen first moved to the Bay Area, he became enamoured with the Californian concept of farmers markets and harbored fantasies of offering a stand. When he became involved in Oren’s Hummus, Cohen saw the opportunity to fulfill that dream.

Finding opportunities to sell at numerous local farmers’ markets was “really a passion project to expand the brand, but also something [he] always wanted to do,” Cohen said.

Through these efforts, Oren’s Hummus has spread the love of authentic Israeli cuisine beyond their restaurants, making it available to a broader scope of customers. Even during the pandemic, the business distributed meals for public service workers and students in need.

“We [gave back to] the community by providing meals to schools that needed them because many school lunch programs and subsidy programs were closed,” Cohen said. “When kids were dropping off or picking up homework, they were getting a brown bag lunch of healthy Oren’s Hummus cuisine that we were preparing for hundreds of kids.”

But the more consumers Oren’s Hummus has aimed to reach and feed, the more difficult their mission for consistency has become.

“Of course, it’s always a challenge to make sure that the guest is receiving the same bowl of hummus in Palo Alto that they are in San Francisco and in Los Gatos,” Cohen said. “There’s the challenge of maintaining a consistency in the guest experience and the quality of that component to the overall restaurant operation.”

Despite the importance of consistency, Oren’s Hummus does not cut corners by using no-fuss equalizers like packaged hummus or reheated pita bread; freshness always comes first, according to Cohen.

The attention to detail across all locations stems from the restaurant’s commitment to quality and authenticity. A unique aspect of this is using spices that have been sourced from the Middle East.

“The quality of our product is second to none, everything is mixed every day,” Cohen said. “The hummus is mixed in every location every day, sometimes twice a day. Pita is baked all day long so that it’s always fresh and warm and fluffy. The baba ganoush and the other dips are made every morning. The falafels are fried to order. Everything we do is about freshness.”

A modest guide to the Sunday morning Mountain View farmers’ market

STORY BY CARLY HELTZEL, PHOTOS BY CARLY HELTZEL AND ARYA NASIKKAR

It can be hard to navigate the more than 80 diverse stands at the Mountain View farmers’ market — each stocked with an array of fresh produce and quality products — but it’s hard to go wrong.

Here are some booths to look out for at the Mountain View Transit Center every Sunday morning:

AVILA FARMS

(Carly Heltzel)

Among the first stands you’ll spot is Avila Farms, a Hollister-based family farm that sells seasonal and year-round vegetables such as zucchini, cucumber, broccoli, cauliflower, celery, carrots and beets. 

Jeannette Avila, who works on the farm and at farmers markets, said that with their large family of eight all helping out, Avila Farms has expanded from the five-acre space her parents first bought in Watsonville to the 23-acre Hollister property they have operated on since 2002. Her parents first founded the farm after her mother moved to the U.S. from being a farmer in Mexico.

Smiling, Avila said she most enjoys interacting with customers at the farmers’ market.

“You see them more like friends and family, not just customers,” Avila said. “And they tell you how they made their produce or what meals they had with the vegetables, and it’s really nice to hear.” 

WEST FLOWERS

(Carly Heltzel)

Aside from food, the vibrant and full-bloomed bouquets of flowers at the family-run West Flowers Farm stand catch eyes further into the market.

While the choice between newly in-season sunflowers, soon-to-be-sold-out dahlias or full petaled rose-like ranunculus can be difficult, the TLC put into each one is clear.

“We love what we do and it shows in our flowers,” said Alma Calderon, daughter of West Flowers’ founders.

Her parents started the business over 30 years ago and have established relationships with their clients — going so far as to even trust their customers to pay for flowers at the next weekend’s farmers market. 

The flowers are freshly cut every night at their nursery in Colma and arranged in bouquets by Calderon’s mother. She described her mother as having a great eye for flower arrangements, with each bouquet ending up “different in its own right.”

“The whole thing that we’re doing here, it works well because my mom and dad just care so much about the growing and the people that they sell to,” Calderon said. “That’s what makes it successful, us wanting to be here every weekend with all the clients.”

A typical farmers’ market day means Calderon and her family all wake up at 4:30 a.m. to load the truck with everything picked out the night before, carefully selected based on customer preferences. They arrive around 7 a.m. to set up the stand before opening at 8. Calderon said the rest of the day goes quickly, because she’s doing work she’s passionate about.

“We just love working together and love being here,” Calderon said. “And we love seeing the expression on people’s faces when they come in to buy things.”

RODIN RANCH

(Carly Heltzel)

One of the most unique vendors at the market is Rodin Ranch, a family-run Almond farm that sells raw, unpasteurized almonds, flavored almonds, dried fruits and a plethora of almond butters.

The Modesto-based farm’s most popular items include the butter toffee almonds, or the more imaginative chili lemon flavored almonds as well as the honey roasted almond butter.

Vendor Charlie added that his family has been selling at the Mountain View Farmers Market for over 17 years now.

“I like the customers, the vendors, the vibe, the families that come in with kids,” Charlie said. “Yeah, just everything.”

LIVE EARTH FARM

(Carly Heltzel)

The 140-acre Watsonville-based Live Earth Farm has it all. The all-organic certified produce includes year-round vegetables and sold-out berries, stand worker Erin Harris said. She added that she “hands-down” likes their berries the best.

Harris, who used to work in the fields at Live Earth, said they rotate various crops on the 50 acres of farmable land so that nutrients are properly and naturally restored to the soil.

When asked about her favorite aspect of the farmers’ market, she said that the intra-vendor bartering system is always a fun way to get her morning yogurt, but she appreciates the overall “vibe” too. 

“It’s a nice little community,” Harris said. “You get to meet a lot of people.”

RAMOS FARM

(Carly Heltzel)

In a small Fresno County town called Sanger, Ramos Farms was founded almost 7 years ago and has been selling fruits at the farmers market ever since.

Specializing in stone fruits and citrus, depending on the season, Ramos Farms has “any stone fruit you can think of,” according to vendor Hugo Ramos, but he said he is partial to the “funny looking” and baseball-sized yellow peach variety called “Sweet Dreams.”

Ramos said he most enjoys teaching people about the nuances of the stone fruit world and having the opportunity to interact with so many customers.

“I love talking to people,” Ramos said. “I like meeting them and seeing what’s new [and] what they should learn about, what color [the fruit] is, how it should ripen up, anything like that.”

Parting with a simple message, Ramos said he encourages everyone to eat more fruit, citing health benefits — and of course that delicious taste.

COUNTRY RHODES

(Carly Heltzel)

As vendor Omar Cisneros described it, Country Rhodes is a “one stop shop” for all your produce needs, growing everything from avocados and cucumbers to tomatoes and watermelons.

And although Cisneros said his personal favorites are the figs and grapes, he said that Phil Rhodes, the son of the farm’s founder and its current owner, is known as the “Tomato Man” and tomatoes are considered their specialty. 

The family-owned farm was founded in 1945 by Phil Rhodes’ father in a small town in the San Joaquin Valley called Visalia.

Cisneros’ typical day at the Farmers’ Market mirrors that of most other vendors, he said, which largely includes running around the stand, getting everything organized, and serving their produce to as many people as possible. 

At almost every stand, the vendors seemed to agree that interacting with customers and providing a vital service is a mutually fulfilling experience.

“My favorite part is coming out here and bringing fresh produce to people who would otherwise have to go to grocery stores and get everything pre-packaged,” Cisneros said. “Being able to bring fresh produce to people makes my day.”

A slice of California: State of Mind Public House and Pizzeria serves locally-sourced passion

STORY BY NAINA SRIVASTAVA, PHOTOS BY ARYA NASIKKAR

Enter a new state of mind: the embodiment of all things California, tossed into the form of a family-owned pizzeria.

Known for its distinct Californian dishes and family-friendly dining experience, State of Mind Public House and Pizzeria embraces the entire founding family’s passions. The Downtown Los Altos restaurant — and Palo Alto counterpart — offer an eclectic array of specialty pies, California brewed beverages and even ‘90s arcade games. 

“This is something that I’m passionate about … I love making pizza, and I love playing pinball, and I love craft beer, and I love local produce and we do all those things,” chef and co-owner Lars Smith said.

Chef and co-owner Lars Smith is pictured in the State of Mind kitchen.

As chef, Smith carefully assembles State of Mind’s frequently changing menu, experimenting with in-season, local produce. The newly available summer menu features some of Smith’s current favorite dishes, including the “Been All Around This World” pizza topped with summer squash and the award-winning “Elotero” pizza, inspired by Mexican street corn.

“I couldn’t imagine doing the same thing every day [with] a menu that never changed,” Smith said. “I love, every three months, having to put out a new menu… It’s just exciting for me.”

The entryway view of State of Mind’s open kitchen is pictured.

Unlike many family-owned restaurants, State of Mind opened a second location, called State of Mind Slice House, located only a half mile away from Smith’s childhood home in Palo Alto.

With almost the entire Smith family being born and raised within the Bay Area, the locality of both sites are significant to the family’s personal connection to the community. 

Opening a family-owned restaurant like State of Mind was a long-held dream for the Smiths, with two generations of restaurant business experience backing them up.

“When my dad started getting close to retirement, he [said] ‘Let’s talk about this. Let’s talk about a family restaurant,’” Smith said.

Nearly every member of Smith’s family helps run State of Mind, whether it be choosing which beverages to serve, hiring or managing finances. Even Smith’s eight-year-old son helps out by building new tables for the restaurant with his grandfather.

To the family, State of Mind isn’t just a restaurant and source of income, but a part of who they are: a way for them to funnel their passions and connect with the community.

“I bring my kids here on my days off and my brother is here playing pinball on his days off,” Smith said. “This place is very authentic to who we are and our experience, and it’s really, really fun to share that with other people.”

Smith is pictured tossing pizza dough.

Smith’s pizza making experience began with a job at Pizza My Heart, which he started a few months after graduating high school. Initially, he intended to use the job as a launching pad to a different kind of career in dining. 

“I had this idea [that] ‘I’m going to do something great and then work for a really fancy restaurant,’” Smith said. 

He attended college and majored in history, but soon returned to the culinary scene. After dipping a toe into the world of fine dining, he found himself drawn back to the more casual, accessible charm of Pizza My Heart.

“I fully embraced it,” Smith said. “I loved it, I worked my way up in the management and corporate structure of the company [and realized] I really like pizza. And I really like wearing a t-shirt and jeans to work,” he said.

Despite the happiness that Smith found at Pizza My Heart, he had other ambitions.

“I always had in the back of my mind, ‘I’m going to do something on my own someday,’… with the goal of owning my own restaurant or food truck catering,” Smith said. “I didn’t know what it was, but I knew that I wanted to do my own thing.”

Fulfilling this dream, Smith established State of Mind with his family members and two former Pizza My Heart co-workers: his wife and his business partner. 

Along with the two co-owners, Smith brought a vision for a more casual environment from Pizza My Heart. He regularly interacts with customers as they bounce between seating, the bar and the arcade.

The possibility of opening a third location, still within the South Bay Area, is something which the co-owners are looking into, following the success of their second restaurant location. 

“We would like to expand thoughtfully and sustainably for us in ways that make sense, [so] that we could still keep the family values we have: treating employees well, highlighting local and seasonal produce,” Smith said.

However, Smith said that the restaurant won’t expand outside of the local region, staying true to State of Mind’s roots and mission to serve the diverse community that they hold close to heart.

“We’ve created a place that’s open for everybody to come,” Smith said. “It’s all about neighborhood and community and celebration.”

State of Mind currently offers indoor dining and a fully open bar and arcade in adherence with county COVID-19 guidelines. You can order online here, visit State of Mind Public House and Pizzeria at 101 Plaza N, Los Altos, CA 94042 or visit State of Mind Slice House at 3850 El Camino Real, Palo Alto, CA 94306.

INdGO: Simple yet delicious Indian to-go food to satisfy everyone

STORY BY RODRIGO SEPULVEDA SAGASETA, PHOTO BY EMILY MCNALLY

Gurinder Singh was stumped. The pandemic had crippled his Modesto banquet hall’s business, canceling all his bookings and making the 9,000 square foot operation far too costly to maintain — and the end of the pandemic was nowhere in sight. He had to shut it down.

So Singh found his life at a standstill. Should he take a break? Should he visit friends in Canada, Malaysia and Australia? Those questions ultimately went undecided, but it eventually became clear to him that he could no longer sit around at home: And the vision for INdGO was born.

Simple yet delicious Indian to-go food to satisfy everyone from an avid Indian food eater to a curious person hoping to start exploring the magic and flavor of the cuisine. Singh personally prepares and cooks this food to perfection, but also underwent the struggle of attracting people to his relatively unknown restaurant.

While INdGO — the name of which stands for Indian To-Go — radiates simplicity, Singh’s journey in opening the restaurant has been much more complicated.

Founded in the middle of a pandemic, INdGO is one among many restaurants and small businesses trying to survive the likes of few clients, rising prices and staff shortages, until things can fully reopen and people come back. 

INdGO boasts a classic menu with a few special add-ons including the likes of butter chicken, mushroom makhani, and for those wanting something simpler, fire-grilled salmon in a delicious coconut and onion sauce. 

Singh is pictured in his kitchen.

All his dishes are inspired by the journey and barriers he had to break early on. Having grown up in India, he said his parents expected him to become a doctor or engineer — but he wanted to be none of the above. 

Frantically, his parents sent him off to culinary school in Switzerland in hopes that he would find success there.

Initially, he was able to take advantage of Europe’s low drinking age and manage the school’s bar, but he quickly developed a passion for cooking. But he struggled with European cuisine, as it consists of much less seasoning than the food he was accustomed to, or as Singh described it, a mix of only “salt and black pepper.” To the disapproval of his professor, he would sneak seasonings like chili powder into his dishes.

With his newfound passion for cooking, Singh traveled around the world to destinations like California, Australia and India to share his culinary talents before ultimately settling down and opening up his own banquet hall near Modesto. It took Singh nine months to remodel and remake the place with many menu items; a stark contrast to INdGO. Although business was slow at first, Singh said he was fully booked for 2020. 

“But then the pandemic hit, and parties started canceling,” Singh said. “And then, I just said to myself, ‘I don’t know how long it’s gonna last,’ so [I] just [tried] to get rid of the place, because it’s a huge space and it [was] gonna cost more to maintain [it].”

But moving on wouldn’t be so easy, as Singh struggled to decide what to do next. 

Eventually, while visiting Mountain View, he found a small space that would fit his vision of a simple Indian restaurant — although the journey of INdGo would be anything but simple. 

Only a few weeks into running his new restaurant, Singh contracted COVID-19, and was forced to temporarily shut INdGO down. Luckily, only getting a mild case, Singh was eager to get back to his restaurant after his 14 day quarantine. Although getting back to work wasn’t as easy as he expected.

“My body would start hurting. I would work for 10 minutes and be out of breath,” Singh said.

Singh soon encountered other struggles like slow business, staff shortages and rising ingredient prices. He said that the staffing shortage has required him to “wear all kinds of hats,” from cooking and washing dishes to fixing broken machines. 

But Singh, who himself knew of the complexities of opening a restaurant, blames no one but himself for the rocky start. With critics often questioning if Singh was “crazy” for opening a restaurant mid-pandemic, Singh confidently responds, “I am crazy, yes.” 

Hopefully, INdGO isn’t one of the many businesses Singh predicts will have to close doors in the following months, and Singh will be able to continue spreading his charismatic and outgoing personality through his cooking.

“What are you going to do?” Singh said.“[Even] before COVID, this was a tough business. Now it will take some time to get [people] back.” 

“COVID has to disappear altogether. The prices of food have to come down and the employees have to come back,” Singh said. “That’s when we can get back to normal.”

INdGO is a take-out only business due to its limited space, but patrons can call at (650) 386-1725 or order online Tuesday–Sunday from 11:30 am–3pm and 4:20 pm–8:30pm on DoorDash or at https://www.in-d-go.com/.

Carly Heltzel contributed to the reporting on this story.

Beyond satisfying local sweet tooths, Los Altos’ Sweet Shop is a community staple

STORY BY CARLY HELTZEL AND SIDDHANT KANWAR, PHOTOS BY EMILY MCNALLY

Harry Logan is such a regular at the Sweet Shop on Los Altos Ave. that the register has a special key just to ring up his order: a ham and scrambled egg sandwich with a coffee au lait.

The Sweet Shop — which likely has many patrons with a sweeter tooth than Logan’s — strives to have “something for everyone,” although there are some clear favorites. The staff at the shop have largely concluded that the Sour Rainbow Belts and Sour Patch Kids are the most appealing to kids, while adults seem to have a more refined taste, preferring dark chocolate. 

Apart from candy, the Sweet Shop also sells savory items, such as the “Croissantwich” (a croissant with eggs and melted cheese), or the “Egg White Skinny” (a croissant with egg whites, goat cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, pesto and spinach).

Most of the recipes for the savory meals are made by Sandra Colunga, the store’s manager, and taste-tested by employees. Colunga, apparently, tries to come up with healthier food options to counterbalance the sweetness. 

Harry Logan sits on the Sweet Shop patio. (Carly Heltzel)

As Logan — a Los Altos resident of 51 years, who has frequented the shop almost every day for the past 11 years — could tell you, the property has changed hands many times through the years (he nostalgically recounted the story of when his son tried to pay for a Tootsie Roll at Foodland with a $100 bill, only to later be busted for stealing it from his mom’s purse). 

But despite the Sweet Shop’s relatively recent history, Logan said that it’s definitively the best shop that has been there, and by far the one he has visited most frequently.

Sitting in the quaint parlor for a few hours every morning and striking up conversations with anyone who is willing to hear his war stories or talk about their own hopes and dreams, the loyal customer perfectly embodies the heartwarming atmosphere of this community-oriented and historical local business.

NEIGHBORHOOD-CENTERED

Twelve years ago, Stacy Savides Sullivan and her family bought the unusual property — which sits in the middle of a residential area — after it had been on the market for four years, and renovated it before opening the doors in August of 2009. With the hope that it would once again become an active part of the community, the Sweet Shop was born.

“[Sullivan] saw the opportunity and said ‘What if we buy this property, fix it up, and bring it back to give something back to the community,’” Colunga said. “And part of that was because when she was in high school, when there would be a special occasion, she and her friends would ride their bikes here and get one piece of candy. So there was some history for her personally as well.”

Since its beginning, the Sweet Shop has consistently retained its high school employees for around three to four years, some even staying through their years at community college. One such worker, Dania Zavala, an employee of three years, said that she has stuck around because “the hours are great and the people are great.” 

The Sweet Shop as viewed from Los Altos Ave. (Emily McNally)

“[The customers] are all regulars for the most part, so we know them by name, and they’re just really nice and they take the time to actually learn our names,” Zavala said. “Because of that, it’s just like a neighborhood.”

The friendly neighborhood aspect and close proximity to school make the Sweet Shop a local hotspot for elementary and middle schoolers, with mayhem ensuing when minimum days roll around. 

“It’s fun — super fun — but it’s non-stop for a couple of hours,” Colunga said. “[On] minimum days often kids can get sandwiches and candy and the whole thing. It’s just full of kids and bicycles and chaos.”

Normally, even when she stations someone at the door to mediate the number of people in the shop, it quickly becomes “jam-packed” with candy flying everywhere, Colunga said. 

PHILANTHROPY

With its largest demographic of customers being local students, the Sweet Shop decided to give back to the community by donating 5% of its yearly proceeds to local schools.

“We’re trying to support schools, basically where the customers are coming from,” Colunga said. “So Egan, Santa Rita, Gunn, Los Altos High School and Mountain View High School.”

Every year, Sullivan reaches out to the schools to find out what they might specifically need, and the Sweet Shop donates funds to fulfill that need.

One year, as the Egan photography teacher had been taking her students on field trips to the Sweet Shop to take artsy photos of the candy, Sullivan and Colunga decided to donate money to buy the kids better equipment.

“It’s a good thing for us and it’s fun for them, and [the teacher’s] been doing this for years,” Colunga said, describing the field trips. “So we gave them some funds because they are in need of better equipment for photography in general.” 

As a family-friendly establishment, the Sweet Shop is also home to a little library, a mailbox-type neighborhood book swap which Colunga bought a few years ago and continues to maintain. She said she loves seeing grandparents take out picture books to read to their grandkids on the Sweet Shop patio, or elementary schoolers swapping out their old novels for new ones.

“It’s the most self-maintained thing I’ve ever had because you don’t really do anything,” Colunga said. “Once in a while we clean the cobwebs and straighten the books, but you rely on the community; they come and bring you books.”

COVID-19 IMPACT

As it shut down during the first lockdown in March, the Sweet Shop management has had to change operation to follow county safety standards, particularly tricky given the nature of the candy shop.

Being unable to use the inside of the store led to the end of people being able to pick and choose what they wanted from different jars, a highlight for many customers but there have been some benefits.

“Probably one of the best things that came from COVID was the amount of money we’re saving on candy because when we have the kids and it’s a crazy Friday afternoon, candy is flying on the floor because everyone’s so excited,” Colunga said. “Now, there is no wastage.”

Instead, the Sweet Shop now offers pre-bagged candy packets, which Colunga says they’ll likely stick to for the foreseeable future. 

Even without its free-flying candy, the Sweet Shop has remained a unique and charming locale embedded in the community it serves throughout the pandemic.

And as more and more people come across this endearing establishment, the Sweet Shop’s loyal clientele continues to grow.

“You don’t have to live right down the street, you know we have people from across town, and other towns because they’ve discovered it,” Colunga said. “It’s become their special little spot.”

Monday, May 10: A previous version of this article had incorrectly stated the name and ingredients of the “Egg White Skinny,” and misspelled Dania Zavala’s name. The errors have been corrected.

Getting a cheesecake from Basuku is like winning the lottery

STORY BY OLIVIA HEWANG AND MADISON YUE, PHOTOS BY EMILY MCNALLY

Melt-in-your mouth creamy, deeply caramelized and notoriously hard to come by nowadays, Charles Chen’s Basque cheesecakes have burst onto the Bay Area food scene. Basuku Cheesecakes, founded by Chen, has gained a cult following during the pandemic and now boasts pop-ups in San Francisco, Oakland and Palo Alto as well as national shipping. 

Barely a year ago, Chen, a food consultant, began baking for the first time as a hobby during the pandemic. He was intrigued by Basque cheesecake — a fusion of a traditional Spanish cheesecake and a Japanese style souffle cheesecake that has become increasingly popular — and a friend’s tips helped him perfect his own recipe. 

Chen’s cheesecake quickly caught on, with his chef friends posting about it on social media and the cheesecake mania snowballing from there. Chen, who had never expected a business to grow out of his cheesecake experiments, found himself inundated with orders that were quickly overwhelming his kitchen. 

The cheesecake maestro compared his sudden success to getting “struck by lightning,” from the perfect timing of starting pop-ups during the pandemic to the growth of his social media — where Chen has amassed a following of almost 13,000 cheesecake fanatics. 

Chen’s Basque cheesecakes.

Despite his rapid growth, Chen is still a “one man show” who bakes roughly 150 cheesecakes a week and struggles to keep up with the tide of demand. Dubbed the “most coveted cheesecake in the Bay Area” by fans on Instagram, Chen’s cheesecakes have spawned plenty of longing comments from fans who desperately want to get their hands on one. 

“I did not make this cake for it to be something that was exclusive,” said Chen, who recently finished a 33-day stint in the kitchen without a day off. “I’m working six, seven days a week.” 

As for Basuku Cheesecakes’s future, Chen says a permanent storefront is the next step, but he has no intention of expanding his menu beyond his iconic cheesecake. 

“I’m not a baker, not a chef,” Chen said. “I like to specialize in one product and I try my best to make that one product as best as I possibly can.” 

Chen may not be professionally trained, but he’s far from a newcomer to the industry, saying that his perfectionist approach to his cheesecakes comes from a lifetime of growing up in food and beverage. 

“My family had a Japanese restaurant, which operated for 30 years,” Chen said. “It’s just what I do, it’s in my blood, I live and breathe this stuff.” 

Despite all of his success, Chen still feels pressure to produce the best product he can.

“[When I’m] speaking to bakers who’ve been doing this for 25 years versus a year like myself, I say, ‘Every single time I put something in the oven, I’m still nervous,’ and they’re like, ‘Well, that’s because you care.’” 

Aside from keeping up the quality of his cheesecakes, Chen also cares about putting down roots in the community. Chen, who has recently used his social media platform to raise awareness about violence against Asian Americans and support fundraisers, said he wants Basuku Cheesecakes to not only be a go-to for tasty cakes, but to be a brand for people to rely on in rallying the community. 

Working with Oakland businesses, Chen was able to raise $13,000 in donations for the organizations Asian Americans Advancing Justice and Stop AAPI Hate, a number that rose to almost $40,000 with the added support of Silicon Valley companies. 

“Right now, the community needs something to bring us all together,” Chen said. “And whether it’s a cheesecake, whatever it is you know, I’m just trying to do my part to do that.”

Basuku Cheesecakes’ pick up locations: 

The Morris in San Francisco starting at 5 p.m. on Wednesdays 
Nightbird in San Francisco from 10–2 p.m. on Thursdays
The Commis Restaurant in Oakland from 2–3 p.m. on Thursdays
Vina Enoteca in Palo Alto starting at 11 a.m. on Fridays

For more information on how to pre order and frequent updates, check out Basuku Cheesecakes on Instagram.

Teen chefs connect with the community through food

STORY BY OLIVIA HEWANG AND AGNES MAR, PHOTOS COURTESY OF CARLY WATSON, AMANDA YUN, KYLIE DE LA CRUZ AND SOFIA RODRIGUEZ BAQUERO

For many, quarantine opened up rare time to explore new new hobbies, from crocheting to creating the perfect loaf of sourdough. But food is more than a brief COVID-19 obsession for these teen chefs; rather, baking bread has been a way to stay connected with their communities during the pandemic.

The Post asked Carly Watson, Amanda Yun, Kylie De La Cruz and Sofia Rodriguez Baquero about their culinary journeys and what they’ve been cooking up during quarantine. 


CARLY WATSON

Carly Watson is a junior at Los Altos High and president of cooking club Hot.S.Pot who also runs an Instagram with her sister Macy, where the two try international recipes. 

The Post:

You have an Instagram (@_carmalized_), where you’re making a dish from all 196 countries — why did you decide to take on that challenge? 

Watson: 

Once I realized quarantine wasn’t going to be two weeks, my sister and I decided that we wanted to take on the challenge of making a dish from every country in the world. We’re still working on that; we’re about halfway done. Discovering recipes from different countries and exploring different cultures makes me want to go visit more countries, especially the smaller ones many people don’t know about. 

The Post:

Tell us about your club Hot.s.pot.

Watson:

The name is based off of the Chinese dish hot pot, and then it’s called hot spot because it’s online. I started it with two of my friends, who are both from China, so we decided to cook different international recipes. We’ve done one from China, a couple American dishes, some from Japan, and each week a different person teaches it. 

The Post:

What sparked your passion for food? 

Watson:

I’ve always really liked cooking, especially cute food, such as animal shaped meringues. I really started liking it when I was three or four, and I would help my dad cook in the kitchen. Over quarantine, just more recently, I started ramping up my cooking. I think it’s pretty therapeutic as well. It’s very relaxing and fun, and pretty rewarding in the end.

The Post:

Where do you get inspiration from?

Watson:

Food is one of my favorite parts of traveling, so it’s kind of cool to take my favorite part of traveling back to my house. It’s helped me reconnect with a lot of people who are from different countries. I can reach out to them and ask them what recipes they recommend from their culture. 

For example, for China, one of my friends took me to Ranch 99, and I’ve never been there before. It was quite an experience. She showed me all the good things and helped me pick out a bunch of unique dishes. She went on a Zoom with me and helped me make Chinese pork dumplings. 

I also have some friends in Germany, so I was able to reach out to them and ask them what German food they would recommend. Some of my sister’s friends were living in Poland, so we asked them for recipes as well.


AMANDA YUN & KYLIE DE LA CRUZ

Amanda Yun and Kylie De La Cruz are sophomores at Palo Alto High School and co-presidents of Paly Eats, a cooking and food journalism club. 

The Post:

Tell us about your club Paly Eats 

Yun:

I was thinking about starting a cooking club for about a year. Kylie and I met in our freshman year and we found out that we had a connection over cooking and baking. So I asked her if she would want to start the club with me. We wanted to introduce others and bring people together over food and have a place for everyone to share and to learn. 

De La Cruz:

I was really excited to start this [cooking] club when I realized that we didn’t have one at Paly. When Amanda talked about it, she wanted to have people learn more about cooking and order dishes from restaurants and recreating it. That sounded like a lot of fun, and I wanted to be a part of that.

Yun:

Especially with the pandemic, I realized that there were a lot of businesses that are shutting down. I thought that it would be good to introduce people to more restaurants around the area, and kind of give local businesses more attraction since people aren’t going out that much. After we try dishes from a local restaurant, we look online to find similar recipes. Our first restaurants were Jin Sho [on Palo Alto’s California Ave] and Taro San [in Stanford Shopping Center]. So we had people recreate Kakuni Don, a Japanese pork and rice bowl, and wild salmon bento. 

The Post:

What sparked your passion for food? 

Yun:

I actually haven’t been cooking and baking for most of my life. It started around seventh or eighth grade. I just got really interested in a bunch of recipes I used to see on YouTube and different cooking channels. I love Binging with Babish and Joshua Weisman.

De La Cruz:

I’ve been cooking for a while. When I was younger I helped my mom bake cookies, stuff like that. I loved cooking all through middle school, and then with COVID, I’ve been bored, so that’s why I’ve started cooking a lot more.

The Post:

What’s your cooking style?

Yun:

My parents are both really into food; we consider ourselves foodies. Sometimes I go to San Francisco to try new restaurants. Like I said, YouTube has been a big influence on me in terms of what I cook. I find things that interest me and that seem challenging. I like to experiment with things that I haven’t tried before or things I haven’t heard of before, and just try to recreate them. 

I look forward to the weekends when I can escape for a few hours into something I’ve been waiting to do the whole week. I would definitely say that cooking is a distraction and something to look forward to at the end of the week. 

Yun’s raspberry, pistachio and passionfruit dessert. (courtesy Amanda Yun)

De La Cruz:

I prefer to make desserts, I just find that more interesting. My dad is from Peru, so I’ve grown up on a lot of rice based or noodle based dishes. I love playing around with the proportions of ingredients, because I believe I can do that a lot more with desserts than other dishes. At the end of finals week, I was so happy to be done with finals so I baked a cake. I definitely find baking to be a stress reliever.

De La Cruz’s Valentine’s Day and Peru sugar cookies. (courtesy Kylie De La Cruz)

The Post:

What’s your favorite part of the cooking process? 

De La Cruz:

When I’m trying to change a recipe, figuring out the proportions and then writing them down is fun. When I change how much flour or how much sugar and then when I see the end product, I’m like, “Yes, I did it. Okay, now I can change this for real.” I like being able to see that.

Yun:

I enjoy the process, especially with things such as bread. I like to knead the dough, or doing things with my hands, and the idea that I’m creating something. I tried this experimental recipe, I was inspired by a bunch of desserts you see in fancy restaurants where they’ve got a bunch of different components. I tried layering a bunch of little cakes, and then sticking them into molds, and then kind of making my own mousse recipe based on other recipes I’d seen. I like the idea that I can create something new and something that all tastes good.

You can check out the Paly Eats food blog here and their Instagram here


SOFIA RODRIGUEZ BAQUERO

Sofia Rodriguez Baquero is a senior at LAHS who posts photos of her culinary creations to her food Instagram @cookwithsof.

The Post:

What sparked your passion for food?

Rodriguez Baquero: 

I’ve been in the kitchen since I was little with my parents — they cook a lot, and they taught me a lot of things. And I just like sharing food with other people. It’s really fun because I’ve been able to talk to people I wouldn’t be reaching out to otherwise. 

It’s been really nice to share and like have friends text me pictures of food. And they’re like, “Oh, I was thinking about you when I was making this.” And it’s just so exciting.

The Post:

What’s your cooking style?

Rodriguez Baquero: 

My cooking style is definitely looking at a lot of recipes and then not following any of them. I keep temperatures and cooking times in mind as I go, but everything else I’ll either eyeball or be like, “Oh, I don’t really want to use that.” I’m very chaotic in the kitchen. Like a chaotic good, I’d say. 

The Post:

Where do you get inspiration from?

Rodriguez Baquero: 

I think a good amount is from social media, just seeing what friends and chefs are cooking and sharing. And also food magazines: I really like Bon Appétit’s magazine and New York Times Cooking a lot. When I’m kind of not paying attention in class and I open a new tab, it’s normally to look at recipes. I have a running list of things that I want to try just written down in a notebook.

A lot of the food that are staples in my family are things that we picked up while traveling [or] restaurants around here just because we have so many different cuisines around us.

The Post:

Who are your favorite chefs?

Rodriguez Baquero: 

My most favorite-ist is Melissa King. I remember in sixth grade, we had to write an essay about somebody that we admire and I wrote about her. Other people were writing about athletes and singers, and here I was writing about a chef. But she’s so cool, she has such interesting flavor combos. Another favorite of mine is David Chang. I love his restaurant Momofuku.