¡Hella Hungry! is a column about Bay Area foodmakers, exploring the region’s culinary cultures through the mouth of a first-generation local.
A group of true San Franciscans is easy to spot in the Bay Area wild. Usually, they’re wearing some OG Frisco gear — like an all-gold satin 49ers jacket and Giants fitted brim — and have someone rolling a blunt in the passenger seat of a nearby Buick or Chevy, doors open and music blaring onto the street.
That was the vibe at Big Mafi Burger’s recent pop-up at Cookies in Hayward, where San Francisco rapper Cellski came out to supply his culinary goods. Never one to pass up a Bay Area collaboration, Berner, the S.F. rapper who co-owns Cookies, created his own recipe for the event: The Berner Burger featured jalapeños and barbecue sauce grilled and served on your choice of burger (turkey, beef, vegan) and bun (sesame, brioche, wheat) — all “mashed” into a stack of one, two or three flattened patties.
It’s not the first time local rap artists have ventured into the food game. Most recently, East Oakland’s ALLBLACK announced his “ALLBLACK Burger” — featuring black buns, imported black cheddar, Hennessy and Patron sauce and candied brown sugar bacon — which sold out to fans at the rapper’s latest show. Still available at I.B.’s in Berkeley, it goes to show how the rap game feeds the Bay in more ways than one.
Though I wasn’t able to catch ALLBLACK’s food debut, I came through to Cookies to show Big Mafi Burgers some love. The first bite was as saucy and flavorful as a ‘90s rap anthem. Here’s what the 415’s “Mr. Predicter” had to say about his love of music and food.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
ALAN CHAZARO: Tell us about Big Mafi Burger. When did you open and what’s on your menu?
CELLSKI: We opened in October, but it’s an idea I came up with years ago. The food industry is real big right now so I decided to put my burger to the test. I’m using my grandmother’s recipe and wanted the world to taste that. She used to make the best muthafuckin’ burgers, rest in peace.
We use up to six spices — our beef recipe uses five and the turkey burger has extra seasoning. Our style is the mash burger. Everyone is doing the smash burger now, but we don’t smash it, we mash it. That’s our signature. I went with the mash style because of the sear and crust on the meat. When you mash it like that, you gotta turn it so [that] it spreads out and it cooks all the way down and then you get that crispy outer layer. Once you flip it and add that cheese? It all just melts in your mouth (laughs).
Our most popular item is The Big Mafi Burger, which has chopped onions and green bell peppers mixed in with the meat patty to bring out more flavor. That’s a hood burger from the projects that we used to do — like a seasoned meatloaf. I also use my secret sauce for that. I learned how to make sauce from Beep’s, my favorite burger spot in the neighborhood. It’s in Lakeview, where I grew up. A friend taught me how to make [the sauce] when she worked there back in the day. I added my own little whoop to it, made it my own.
Lakeview seems to produce a lot of good cooks — that’s also where a founding member of The Vegan Hood Chefs is from.
They’re like little sisters to me. I spoke with them [about starting Big Mafi Burgers]. Anything I do, I study it before I jump in.
You have an album playfully titled Canadian Bacon & Hashbrowns. When did you get involved in food-making? What’s your connection to it?
That all comes from my grandmother’s kitchen. Her and my mom cooked the best food in my life, and I learned from them both. My grandma’s tacos didn’t taste like nobody else’s. Her burgers. Her soul food. It was just different. I would sit in the kitchen with her when I could and learn her recipes. I knew she wouldn’t always be around so I wrote it down. I tried it. I perfected it. I even used to cook for her later in life. If you know me know me, you know I can really get down in the kitchen.
You’ve had a long career in rap. How did you get started and what’s been your experience making music in the Bay Area?
I started rapping back in the 90s. I’ve been around rap music all my life. My uncle was a drummer — his band practiced in my grandma’s garage and I was always around it. He gave me a drum machine when I was a kid and I just got into music and producing. I’ve done lots of projects with hella artists in the Bay. I’ve been in this game for 30 years. I put my first record out in 1995 [Mr. Predicter]. I was about 18 years old.
I grew up under Cougnut, the greatest Frisco rapper ever. He was young but I watched him do it. He put me on my first tour. Whenever he performed he let me come out and do my songs. That’s my big bro. Rest his soul. His mom and my mom was real close, even before rapping. It made sense when he made it big that I would come up with him.
Frisco Kid was another dude from my neighborhood, too. They was both my influences. Also, shout out Too $hort. Huey MC. The Miller and Budweiser — it used to be them two dudes battling back in the day. That’s real Frisco history right there. That’s some 1987 shit (laughs).
Why is supporting other locally-owned businesses — like Mistah Fab’s Dope Era Clothing and Berner’s Cookies — important to you?
We got a small community of Bay Area artists and influencers; we all try to stick together and push each other. It’s very important, even when there’s separation behind the scenes — neighborhood politics, shit like that. But I don’t deal with that, I’m older now. As far as the community of us out here, it’s beautiful. I’m just trying to boost people’s spirits up. That’s what I’m here for. I’m the big bro. I’ve been around Bern and Fab since the beginning of they shit. Bern and I started our brands around the same time. That’s my people.
There has been a wave of Bay Area rappers going into the food and beverage industry. Why do you think that is?
As you get older, things change. Rap is cool, but I’ve been doing it 30 years. I got to build businesses outside of that. My fans can come to this now. As a whole rap community, we get fans from each other, and that brings more awareness to what we’re all doing. You get older, you know. I’m in my 40s. We got our core fanbases but those checks ain’t what they used to be for me. It’s just different. I started a streetwear clothing line 10 years ago, Chemical Baby. I also got an equity cannabis license with 2Took Farms and we distribute with Cookies. I’m juggling a few businesses, bro.
What’s next for Big Mafi Burgers?
We’re doing pop-ups right now but we’re working on getting a ghost kitchen in SoMa next year. We’ll be doing takeout from that location, and we’ll announce that at the start of 2023. Hopefully we can get us a brick-and-mortar one day. That’s our goal. But for now I’m also working on a deli, Celly’s Deli, and a soul food kitchen, Eassie Mae’s soul food, which are all my grandmother’s recipes. We’ll be running it all out of the same kitchen. People can come through and pick up, or get delivery.
We’re doing a pop-up with Vegan Mob in a few weeks with an all-vegan menu. We’re also doing First Fridays at Dope Era again. We sold out the first time. I’ll also be selling burgers in the 49ers parking lot. I’m performing at the game this Sunday [11/27], so they told me to pull up with the burgers. We do private parties and events, too. We’ll be off during the holidays but we’ll be back in January and then get into the new kitchen. Once we get in there we’ll be on a roll, baby.
Big Mafi Burgers is currently serving at pop-up events around the Bay. They will appear next at the Byxbee Park toy drive (2375 Embarcadero Rd, Palo Alto) on Dec. 16 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.