Eskender Aseged, and fava beans, in the garden where he hosted his first dinners.

MyMission is a series of interviews with a diverse group of people, each with their own experience of the Mission.
It’s part of a soon-to-be-published zine, Know Your Streets, which will contain resource, memory and cultural maps.

Once upon a time (and/or about six years ago), a waiter at a high-end, downtown restaurant started a restaurant in his Mission District backyard, with plates from IKEA and live African music. Eskender Aseged, now soon-to-be-official restaurateur, shares his perspective on cooking, gardening and socializing in the Mission.

Mission Local: How did you first come to live in the Mission?

Eskender Aseged: When Ethiopia ceased being a communist country, I left for the Sudan. My brother and I were first settled in New Jersey, because that’s where they were sending refugees. But that didn’t last long. We moved to New York. Then I visited San Francisco with a girlfriend. I realized I liked the place.

ML: Did you move straight to the Mission?

EA: No. First I lived in Bernal Heights. But then I realized I was hanging out at Café La Boheme most of the time, so I might as well live here.

ML: Why Café La Boheme?

EA: I love the energy here. It reminds me of the African-style cafe. There’s a lot more interaction here between people. I know half of the people here tonight. People here are not so isolated as they are in other cafes in the Mission. But I also go to Atlas, Coffee Bar, Four Barrel….

ML: And why the Mission?

EA: The most beautiful people are in the Hispanic culture. They are so extremely friendly, from the little bambino to the grandma.

ML: How did you begin working as a cook?

EA: In America, I always worked in restaurants. I would befriend the chefs and cooks, and learn from them. But I was always working as a waiter or a manager. Becoming a cook would have meant taking a pay cut of about two-thirds.

So I threw parties. Fifteen years ago I was throwing one a month. Ten years ago I was throwing one a week. Then, six years ago, I opened my own restaurant, in my apartment at 715 York. For about $80 in start-up costs, food included.

ML: What about plates?

EA: The plates were 85 cents each. They came from IKEA.

ML: Did you ever try to open a legal restaurant?

EA: I couldn’t afford it. Also, the style of restaurant here is very isolated. I wanted everyone to sit at one table, like a family eating. I wanted to have just one menu. And I did not have a price at first; people paid what they could. But as the restaurant got busier, I had to end that.

About five years ago we were so busy that one of the diners, who owns a café called the Velo Rouge, said, “I have a café that I don’t use at night. Why don’t you start hosting dinners there?” The same thing happened with Coffee Bar. While it was being built, he told me that he wanted me to start serving food there. And he kept on following up.

ML: So do you cook the food there?

EA: No. We make it in my apartment, then carry it over.

ML: Where do you go to buy your supplies?

EA: I buy fish from Sun Fat at 23rd and Mission. They sell the best fish in San Francisco. Rainbow has good grains. I get almost everything else from my garden, or from the Berkeley Bowl.

ML: Not from the Mexican markets?

EA: The problem with them is that they are all non-organic. Twelve years ago I dated a girl who was studying sustainable agriculture, and that’s when I became obsessed. Now she’s an organic farmer in Kansas. And I have a garden in my backyard, and a new one at this restaurant in the Bayview.

I used to work in the garden with my mother when I was growing up. She didn’t see the necessity of using pesticides. We were poor, but we had amazing produce. A garden has always been one of my requirements — I refuse to look at any apartment that doesn’t have a backyard.

ML: How does farming here compare to farming in Ethiopia?

EA: It is much easier. There’s so much more knowledge and information here about farming, and about things like composting. But you can’t grow corn here. Too foggy.

ML: Did you ever cook when you lived in Ethiopia?

EA: Never. But my mother was a very good cook, and we were very close.

ML: So are you cooking full-time now?

EA: For the last four years this has been my full-time job. Before that, I continued to work as a waiter at the Campton Place Hotel.

ML: How many hours a week do you work now?

EA: Maybe about 70? It’s hard to say. I enjoy this. It doesn’t feel like work.

ML: Do you ever go out and do non-restaurant things?

EA: I go to Afrolicious at the Elbo Room on Thursday night. And I just joined the library two weeks ago. I spent so much money on the New York Times! Like $20 a week. Now I go to the library when they open on Sunday, at 1 p.m., and read it there.

ML: Since you opened Radio Africa and Kitchen, have you noticed your own cooking changing?

EA: I started off doing more obscure food. It’s what I yearned to make. Now I usually make food that people are more comfortable with. You have to compromise in life. There’s nothing wrong with that.

ML: Did any health inspectors ever show up at Radio Africa?

EA: I am opening a restaurant in the Bayview, and so I just met my first one. They have their own rules. You have to obey.

ML: Now that you’re always cooking, do you still go out to eat?

EA: Not very often. I eat on the job. I will go out for sushi, or to Nopa with friends. But in the Mission, the place I eat at most often is El Metate.

ML: What do you get?

EA: The super chicken burrito with refried beans. I find the people there so beautiful in how they work. They are so efficient in the kitchen.

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Heather Smith covers a beat that spans health, food, and the environment, as well as shootings, stabbings, various small fires, and shouting matches at public meetings. She is a 2007 Middlebury Fellow in Environmental Journalism and a contributor to the book Infinite City.

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