It has been a tumultuous year for Selasie Dotse. As one of just a handful of prominent Black fine dining chefs in the Bay Area, they’d been stoked to start a job at Hi Felicia, the new darling of Oakland’s upscale restaurant scene. It was the first time Dotse had worked under a Black chef-owner, and the first time they were part of a team whose explicit goal was to shake up the exceedingly white, exclusionary world of longform tasting menus. And for a while, at least, the plaudits came pouring in — until the restaurant imploded amid charges of sexual harassment, a toxic work environment and wage theft.
“I once again realized that I was working for someone who didn’t share the same values and ideas about wanting to change the industry,” Dotse says. “On top of that, I wasn’t being paid properly.”
The whole experience left such a bad taste in Dotse’s mouth that they’ve sworn off full-time restaurant gigs for the time being. Instead, they’re taking time to focus on their own pop-up business, e le aɖe Test Kitchen, through which they collaborate with like-minded chefs who share an interest in using “elevated,” Michelin-level techniques to showcase Black and African foods, flavors and stories.
Dotse’s next event is a reprise of one of their most successful pop-ups so far: a collaboration with Cafe Colucci, which was a stalwart of Telegraph Avenue’s bustling stretch of Ethiopian and Eritrean restaurants before it moved to its new North Oakland location last year. Dotse, who is of Ghanaian heritage, says they never really ate Ethiopian food before moving to the Bay Area, but that they’d been tinkering with dishes that incorporated berbere from Colucci’s affiliated spice business, Brundo Spice Company. So, when the restaurant offered the chef free use of their kitchen and back patio, with the only caveat being that the pop-up had to showcase Brundo’s spices, it was a no-brainer. “It’s hard finding a space that isn’t going to take most of my profit,” Dotse says.
According to Dotse, the first edition of the Cafe Colucci pop-up, in September, was such a rousing success that they hope to continue them on a regular basis. Because the dinners are small and intimate — everyone seated around one long table — they expect the next one, on Dec. 17, to sell out in the next few days.