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Regional Interests

California’s Only ‘Top Chef’ Contestant Taps His Afro-Latino Roots

“U.D.O.” or “Unidentified Dominican Object”: that was Oakland chef Nelson German’s sci-fi solution to a movie-themed challenge on this season of Bravo’s Top Chef.

The dish was a  variation on a pupusa, a flat disk made of corn, jerk pork and candied yams.

German, who is Dominican American, is the only California contestant on the show this season.

“The pressure was on,” German says, in the kitchen of his newest Oakland restaurant, SobreMesa. “The minute you see that big Top Chef sign for the first time, it’s like you’re a line cook all over again. I just kept thinking about why I’m here. It’s representing a movement, showing a person of color can run beautiful restaurants and bars and really be a fantastic chef and give back to the community.”

‘Everything’s Telling a Story’

German’s two restaurants, both in Oakland, showcase his Afro-Caribbean culinary roots and the dishes he grew up eating as the child of Dominican immigrants.

The interior of Sobre Mesa, with its lush paintings and glowing purple lights, is meant to tell a story about the diversity of the African diaspora. (Thomas Kuoh Photography)

“Sobre mesa” means over the table — the time after the meal when people can sit back and connect in conversation. The tables are elegant, carved natural wood with orange vinyl booths. Lush electric paintings of tropical leaves hang on dark green walls, all lit by glowing purple ceiling lamps.

“The music, the colors, the drinks. Everything’s telling a story,” German says. “It was time for me to really show exactly who I am, exactly where I come from and tell a broad story of the African diaspora. It’s not just about being Latino, it’s the African side. There’s more to us, Black people who are all over the world: the Caribbean islands, of course, Africa, the motherland, Europe, South America. We have influenced the world.”

Chef Nelson German adds mezcal to his gambas al ajillo, flavored with Ethiopian spiced butter. (Marisa Lagos/KQED)

The day KQED visited SobreMesa, German cooked up gambas al ajillo, a traditionally Spanish garlic shrimp dish.

“What’s cool about this version is it’s a Pan-African,” he explained, as he added in Ethiopian spiced butter, then lemon thyme and baby fennel for a California feel.

To complement the shrimp, he shook up a signature cocktail, a daiquiri with allspice dram and plantain syrup.

Chef Nelson German serves up a signature daiquiri, with plantain syrup. Many of the rare liquors at SobreMesa come from Afro-Carribean countries. (Marisa Lagos/KQED)

“The food enhances the cocktails, not the other way around” he says. “That’s what’s unique about it. It’s not your typical bar food. It’s so different, but still familiar in a way, especially for people of color.”

Growing up in New York City, German says cooking in his Dominican family was very gendered: his mom and Grandma ruled the kitchen. But when he and his friends went to New York’s Copacabana club one night, they started fantasizing about starting their own nightclub and restaurant.

“We had just turned twenty-one. We wanted to party, right?” laughed German. But he was serious about the dream, and signed up for culinary school the next day.

He worked his way up, cooking at upscale restaurants in New York, and studying Mediterranean cuisine in Spain, France and Italy. When he moved to his wife’s hometown of Oakland, he opened the Michelin-recommended seafood restaurant alaMar with the intent to infuse the food with all those experiences, and his Dominican roots.

Moving to Oakland, and connecting with the Black community there, helped him tap into what it means to have pride in the African parts of his Dominican culture. “I wanted to tell my story,” German says. “So I started adding the oxtail that I grew up eating, my mom’s braised chicken with the plantains and the rice and beans, and people started flocking more into the restaurant.”

New Challenges & New Opportunities

He opened his next restaurant, SobreMesa, in 2019, just nine days before the state shut down restaurants due to shelter-in-place. Trying to make sure his restaurants survived the pandemic was far more cutthroat than any episode of Top Chef.

“As a business owner, you have a sense of control,” he says. “To have no control over anything and not knowing what’s going to happen is the scariest thing in the world.”

German got lucky, though. He was tapped for the Restaurant Workers Relief Program started by Top Chef alum Ed Lee, to cook meals for laid-off restaurant workers throughout the Bay Area.

“People saw what we were doing and came back to support us,” he recalled. “Even the ones picking up free meals would come back on the weekend and buy a meal from us to support us back. That’s what’s special about this town. People kept us afloat, kept us alive.”

Chef Nelson German on the set of Top Chef. The other contestants say his quiet patience was a calming force on the show. (Stephanie Diani/Bravo)

One weird silver lining was that, because the restaurants were closed for dining, German had the time to go on Top Chef, a grueling two-month stint in Portland where he had to quarantine away from his wife and employees.

This season of the Bravo show includes a number of Black and Latinx chefs and judges,  and some episodes pay tribute to Pan-African and indigenous cuisines.

One cooking challenge that really inspired German began with a visit to West African restaurant Akadi in Portland.

Chef Nelson German cooking seafood at alaMar, his first restaurant. (Kathleen Sheffer)

“Early in my career, it was all about doing Spanish or French or Italian, not the food that I grew up eating. It was really special to dig into that finally. I did the braised roasted chicken with plantains. Had to throw the plantains in there. I was in heaven, cooking.”

But that feeling didn’t last. In the next episode, German and his competitors cooked outside in an orchard for a challenge focused on fruit they picked themselves. German ended up injuring his knees running through the orchard. He was distracted by the pain when he was cooking, and his dish bombed. The judges panned his seared scallops with apple béarnaise, an apple shallot relish and sautéed pears, saying that it was too heavy and cheesy.

Since he hadn’t won much praise from the judges for his Dominican-inspired dishes, he says he decided to draw from his experience with Mediterranean cooking instead, since so much of what’s considered ‘high cuisine’ in the U.S. is Eurocentric. “I just didn’t cook with my heart,” German recalled.

A while later, German had to pack up his knives — he was sent home in a double elimination challenge. His knees didn’t recover from his sprint through the orchard. He spent three weeks in a wheelchair and was unable to win back his spot through a stint on Last Chance Kitchen.

https://www.instagram.com/p/COzXFRXBGBK/

But, he says, Top Chef has upped his game.

“Being in the business so long, you can be complacent. But it lit a fire in me. I know what I need to do to make my food be better.”

This reporter’s 8-year-old, Joaquín, who wants to be a chef— and idolized seeing a fellow Oaklander on the show — is devastated. Would German give him some advice?

“Definitely learn about your culture and appreciate it. That’s going to go a long way for you as a chef,” he says. “Just cook with your heart all the time, always know that and always remember where you came from.”

Copyright 2021 KQED