I’m perched on one of five bar seats with a ringside view of the open kitchen at The Guest Chef in Oakland, where Selome Haileleoule and sous chef Showit Woldu adorn injera draped platters with mounds of fragrant spiced stews and salads, creating edible palettes of brightly hued Ethiopian classic dishes. Selome looks completely at home in the kitchen and as she warmly greets guests, but this is the first time the assistant financial controller with San Francisco’s Clift Hotel has taken on the role of restaurant chef and that’s the charm behind The Guest Chef.
The intimate space on Oakland’s College Avenue seats no more than 25 diners and features a rotating roster of chefs who serve everything from California cuisine, Classic French or Italian to the exotic food of the Azores. The usual run is a two-week stint for the caterers, recent culinary school graduates, aspiring chefs and grandmothers who dream of cooking at their own restaurant. Chef-hopefuls must complete an online application with their concept and menu and then do a tasting try-out for Guest Chef owner Scott Cameron. If accepted, the chefs supply all their own ingredients and labor and Guest Chef provides everything else (including a fully stocked kitchen, a cashier and a dishwasher), for a split of the profits.
For the past four years, Selome's passion to share her native Ethiopian cuisine has led her to teach Ethiopian cooking classes, first at Paulding and Company and currently through West Oakland’s Brundo.
Six months ago, she was a diner at Guest Chef when David Hung, the CEO of her sister’s workplace, played co-chef with his daughter Maddy, as a bonding experience before she went to Harvard. The evening proved to be inspirational for Selome. Her run at Guest Chef began November 25, and thanks to an overwhelming response, has been extended for a third week, until December 16.
Selome named her restaurant Tayitu in honor of the powerful 19th century Ethiopian Queen. Her signature dish is doro wat (chicken in an aromatic, mahogany sauce) that requires slowly sautéing onions for two days (using no oil) until they achieve caramelized perfection. Then she adds berbere, the famous, fiery Ethiopian spice blend.