Plucky Perspectives: Chef Kelsie Kerr

Kelsie Kerr is a well-known chef. She founded Standard Fare in West Berkeley in 2014 and has been involved with a number of well-known restaurants and projects, including Chez Panisse, cookbooks and designing curriculum for cooking schools. I’m a sucker for the scones, muffins and coffee at Standard Fare, which is one of my favorite stopover points for lunch or coffee meetings.

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Jen: Okay. Kelsie, tell me in your own words, what is your job?

Kelsie: My job …

Jen: It’s gonna be a long answer.

Kelsie: I run Standard Fare, that’s the short answer.

Jen: What’s the slightly longer answer?

Kelsie: That I’m the chef and the administrator and the shopper …

Jen: And the shopper?!

Kelsie: I do everything. I do all the marketing, I do all the social media, help wash the dishes. I manage everybody.

Jen: How long have you been in … What should we say, the food service industry?

Kelsie: Over 40 years. I started when I was 15.

Jen: Ha! I won’t give any real digits. What are you still curious about in your work?

Kelsie: I love ingredients, I love food, I love the way it all works. There are a few farmers that are growing really super cool things. Last week I had somebody dropping off roselle leaves and amaranth leaves and sweet potato leaves and long beans and little hibiscus buds. So then we’re fermenting the hibiscus buds. It gets fun because everything tastes different. These farmers, they come in with dirty hands, they’re not making loads money. It’s the pure fascination and satisfaction of taking care of the earth and growing these amazing things that are establishing biodiversity, but also creating wonderful flavor and supporting different ethnic traditions. To get to be in that circle is really exciting for me. That’s my favorite thing.

Jen: Are there any ingredients that you’ve ever encountered where you kind of just couldn’t figure out what to do with it?

Kelsie: I’m sure. There’s always something to figure out. The internet and Wikipedia, are really fantastic tools because you can learn so much about an ingredient.

Jen: Interesting.

Kelsie: I’ve been cooking for a long, long time so it’s fun to have this kind of community. I work really, really hard. I opened a very small business. It was not really not an intelligent entrepreneurial move but even though I work hard and it’s really challenging, the rewards are enormous.

Food is such a weird thing right now because there’s so much celebrity and stardom and all that kind of stuff, so sometimes I feel like, “Oh, I really should be engaging in that.” And I feel overlooked when I am not, but then at the same time this is really what I want to be doing.

Jen: I think this is fascinating … Have you heard this acronym FOMO? (Fear of missing out) So I see this comes up when small businesses have that additional pressure of social media and seeing how everyone else is faring. The internet is awesome because of Wikipedia and all the things you’re saying, but also can create such a sense of, “Why did I not get asked for that?”

Kelsie: I’m sure every business has that a little bit. There are all the superstars and then there’s chefs that you know… But the funny thing is, as a person on the inside of this sphere, I know all those restaurants and I know all the superstars, but other people around don’t have the slightest idea. It’s a tiny little world that is very easy to get caught up in.

Working for a big, highly validated company and then opening up your own teeny-tiny thing… they’re very different things, but it’s really rewarding to have it be yours. You do also own all the hardship, too.

Jen: Good, I wanted to get here. What are the challenges?

Kelsie: The challenges are huge! When I was a young cook, I paid $200 to live with 3 people in a 3 bedroom flat with a giant back yard. That was $600 a month, in San Francisco, in SOMA. So, multiply that by 10 now maybe? And I was probably making $10 an hour? And today a beginning cook makes $12 an hour. Okay, so how the heck do you deal with that? How do you pay your staff more? How much do people want to pay for a sandwich? In the end, this is a sandwich shop.

Jen: Yep.

Kelsie: So, that part just makes me want to cry because I can only pay people so much and it would be okay except for the fact that there’s are all these other twenty-somethings making $150,000 at their very first job and don’t have a clue of what it means to run these food places. So the disconnect there is just so crazy, crazy.

I could have opened something in San Francisco, but then I’d have that horrible commute. I have a kid, I’d like to see her occasionally. I’ve gotta be a mom and a business owner and food is hard. It is hard to understand until you are actually in it, but just imagine that you’re having 15 people are coming to your home every day and you need to create a dinner party for them, all by yourself.

Jen: That’s my worst nightmare. I am not a good cook at all.

Kelsie: And you have to clean it up at the end too and do it again tomorrow.

Jen: It’s a lot of weight on your shoulders. I wonder, what gets you out of bed on a Monday morning?

Kelsie: You know you’re going to have a really cool fermented roselle to put on the plate. You get to touch the bread when it’s rising, it’s a luxury. I pay for it, but it’s a luxury.

Not to mention, the community of folks that come to eat at Standard Fare. All the regulars have established a Standard Fare community that is quite lovely.

Jen: Is there any boring part of the job?

Kelsie: Yeah, I hate doing estimates. Oh my God, I hate doing estimates. Somebody calls you up and says they want a caterer… I don’t know if it’s really just being a woman or what, but I just absolutely hate putting a price-tag on myself.

Jen: Is entrepreneurship at all like parenting?

Kelsie: Oh extremely. Except, I don’t know who’s the child and who’s the parent. It’s humbled me in so many different ways and then it’s strengthened me in so many other ways. I was a huge perfectionist and I still am somewhat, but you learn… I don’t cry as much anymore. I just don’t.

I still don’t have the slightest idea about how it’s all going to get done, but somehow it always does. I have learned to trust that. And hopefully, along the way, people enjoy their food!

I did like my food! And I also liked hearing so many parallels between Kelsie’s words and the challenges in other jobs, including the founder who wears infinite hats and the love of the fundamental work remaining the motivator at the end of the day. Kelsie’s comments on the financial complexities running a food-related shop in a tech-laden area are also spot-on.

It’s been so fun publishing three Plucky Perspectives to celebrate Plucky’s 3rd birthday that I think I’ll continue to release another every so often. A huge thanks to Ellie, AAron and Kelsie for sharing their time and words for this mini-project!

Plucky Perspectives: Defense Paralegal AAron Jones

AAron Jones is the paralegal/office manager/accounting guru for a private defense attorney in West Berkeley. For a long time I thought he was our neighbor because we saw him so often, but then one day I realized that his office is on our block and he’s there so often because he works really, really hard.

AAron

Jen: Ok, so how long have you been doing this?

AAron: I started cleaning that office with my dad when I was nine years old.

Jen: No.

AAron: When I turned sixteen, the head lawyer said, “You’ve got something special. I can tell how hard you work. Do you want to come in and do a little legal assistant stuff?” So I started doing legal work, then paralegal work. When I turned nineteen, I became a paralegal. When I turned twenty-one, I became office manager and at twenty-two, I became accountant, doing all of the billing and everything in the office. Now I’m thirty, and still doing it all.

Jen: Oh my God. You grew up there.

AAron: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jen: Do you see where you’re headed now? And what is that, if you want to share?

AAron: I love the legal aspect of my job. Everybody thinks I should go be a lawyer, but that’s not where my passion is. I like the behind the scenes, hard work, all that. I want to write. I want to sit behind the desk and do the behind the scene stuff.

Originally, it was funny because my dad owned a construction business. Janitorial, maintenance and security, and I figured that was my path. That’s all I saw because I started working with him when I was nine. I was always told that the business was the family. When I got in high school, I met some amazing teachers, and they were like, “You are too smart and too hard working to settle.” So I got my Business Administration AA at Heald’s College while also working at the Oakland Zoo, the law firm, Hometown Buffet and running my own janitorial, maintenance and painting company where I was going around fixing stuff at Burger Kings and homes.

That’s when it hit me: I’m very organized. I’m very hardworking. I realized I could be a paralegal. I knew it was hard work but if I could balance everything I had going on, I knew I could be an amazing paralegal.

Jen: What is your favorite thing about work?

AAron: Since I’ve been involved with the law firm we’ve gotten about five people off of death row. That’s my favorite thing in the world. All of these people were guilty of the crimes, but I feel that society let them down because they have mental illnesses, or grew up in some of the worst situations ever. Some weren’t the shooter but was simply someone that was there and ended up getting the death penalty because they had prior felonies. That’s the most rewarding part. Unfortunately, those come few and far between because there’s a lot of work to get to that point.

The number two thing would be talking to some of these guys on the phone who are on death row or have really long sentences. You read their cases, and you read the information, and they seem like some of the worst people in the world. Then you talk to them, they’ve been in jail for twenty-five, thirty years, and you can tell how they’re more mature, how they understand their wrongdoings. They’ve just grown up. I think that’s part of what keeps me in defense because it’s called the California Department of Corrections Rehabilitation, but then you don’t give these guys a chance to show you that they rehabilitated with some of these long and life terms.

Jen: With all this, basically the work of nineteen humans, what gets you out of bed?

AAron: Growing up really poor, we moved every couple years, we were homeless and we stayed in a hotel or our church. My dad couldn’t sleep at grandma’s house because grandma didn’t get along with my dad, but the kids slept there because we didn’t have anywhere else to go. The thrive to be better, I think, is my big motivation. I want my daughter to have an image of a hardworking man. I have a wife that depends on me, who takes care of my daughter like no one else. I can’t just say, oh I don’t want to go to work today.

Work-wise, I think it has to be the responsibility factor. The knowing that for those victories that I love, it requires a lot of groundwork. Everyday is a day full of groundwork. You have to say today I’m going to do this, and this is so small, but at the end product, it’s all of those little small tasks that got you to the end.

Jen: Dude, it’s someone’s life. You’re like the midwife who I just talked to. Wouldn’t it be so weird if all these people I talk to, the mechanic, the midwife, you, if at the end of the day, it’s all someone’s life?

AAron: If you put it in this perspective, it is! The mechanic, if he’s off his game and he doesn’t put someone’s brakes together, it could be someone’s life.

Jen: Fair enough!

AAron: If I’m off my game and I forget a deadline or file late the court could say, “Appeal over because you’re late,” that’s affecting someone’s life. The freedom that I have that our clients don’t have drives me to work hard for them. The least I can do is go give back and get up and go to work. It’s not like I’m doing it for free.

Jen: What’s your least favorite part?

AAron: The list is long some days. Here’s an example, the case that we just recently got a off of death row. The man will be moved to another prison where he has more freedom. However, he is on death row with a bunch of people who he looks as his friends and family. He calls us, and he’s mad. “Why’d you do this? Oh, now I’m going to go to some prison where I don’t know anyone.” As rewarding as our victory is, it’s also extremely hard to get clients to understand what is best.

A lot of people on death row want to go from death row to freedom, and because it’s happened once or twice in our society, they have hope for themselves. It becomes difficult to explain to the clients how the law works. Also, the “jailhouse lawyers” tell clients their opinions and it sometimes counters ours.

They say, “Oh, well this guy said you can do this.” Well, this guy’s wrong. It can be very difficult, but if you put it in perspective, they’re with these people for twenty years. These people are their friends and their family. Then you wonder how many times you have listened to my friends and family over something that I know is logical.

Jen: Oof. Is that it?

AAron: Another annoying thing is billing.

Jen: Because it’s awkward to deal with money?

AAron: It’s not awkward to deal with money. It’s extremely time consuming for little pay. We have cases with the state of California, Tennessee, Montana, with the Mexican National Consulate. Each one of those courts within California have their own type of billing.

Because we have to bill to the court, there’s a lot more work to them. You say, look your honor. I think that this is going to take a hundred hours. They might come back and say, we’re only going to approve eighty hours. Then you’re put in a situation of do I just do twenty hours for free?

Jen: I don’t know if this is going to make sense to you, but most of my clients are in the tech world and they see the same thing. The tech team might make a very different choice about how they would build out your software platform, except for your specific boundaries. You know that you’re going to have to rewrite three years down the line and go through the process of getting funding to rewrite and justify why that is if you could’ve done it right the first time. It’s a similar picture.

AAron: It’s frustrating because we’re doing good work. We’re saving lives. We’re not sitting around the table talking about sports and then billing for it.

Jen: You have to reach for your inner diplomat.

AAron: Right. I’ve always just said I’m going to treat people the way that I think it’s best to treat them. I’m not going to judge anyone. Everyone’s going to have a clean sheet of paper when I meet them for the first time, and we’re going to go from there. I just think that you’re going to get so much further in life if you are social, compared to “I can know every fact in the world but I’m not social.”

I take the mindset that we’re going to know as many people as possible for every reason as possible because you never know when you’re going to need them.

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Wow. I loved hearing about AAron’s work, the complexities and perspectives about law that I rarely have access to in my day-to-day life. Much admiration for the work AAron does but also the way he believes in it. Getting through billing and logistics is much easier when you can connect to a greater mission, don’t you think?

Next week, we’ll hear from a local chef… stay tuned!

Plucky Perspectives: Midwife Ellie Griffinger

Plucky turned 3 years old this month! To celebrate, I’ll be publishing 3 interviews with workers in very different industries. I like thinking about overlap across jobs, the way we approach our work, our challenges and our high points. Crossing the border to talk about other industries is a great way to reflect on our own paths.

First up, midwifery! Ellie Griffinger has been a Certified Nurse Midwife for four years and runs a private practice in Berkeley, CA. All cards on the table, she was our midwife when my son Aaron was born in 2015 and she remains a positive influence in our lives. She’s delivered over 200 babies and is a proud mama of two sons.

Ellie, left, celebrates with a new mama
Ellie, left, celebrates with a new mama

Jen: Ok Ellie, what’s your favorite part of the job? Or the hardest parts of the job, whichever you want to talk about first…

Ellie: Well, they’re kind of similar. I think my favorite part is watching people become parents but I think that’s also the hardest part because it’s hard to become a parent. Right?

Jen: Yes.

Ellie: Your heart goes out to them. So much of your own issues go into being parents, so it goes so much deeper than just the act of having a baby and becoming a parent. It’s sort of evaluating yourself and what it means to be a parent, how were your parents, etc. I think that’s my favorite part.

Jen: If you had to name the most common difficulty that people have in becoming parents, what is it?

Ellie: I think it’s getting out of their routine. People are having babies later and we’ve all worked really hard to figure out who we are as individuals. That’s really valued in our culture and so suddenly, you have this other little person and it’s not all about you but it’s been about you for twenty plus years.

Jen: Everything you’re saying is so right. It’s perfect. Maybe I’ll just make it Plucky Perspectives with Ellie all month long.

Ellie: That’s a lot of pressure!

I’ll add that there is a light switch that goes on with every single one of my couples. Some of it happens when they first come in for their consult and they’re acknowledging, wow, this is really happening. Some of it’s when you hand them the baby and some of it is at six-week postpartum where you see the dad is super different, or the partner, I should say. He might not have come to all the visits and at the end of six weeks, he’s just completely in tune. That moment is different for everybody, which is cool.

Jen: Does it feel like work?

Ellie: No. It feels like what I was meant to do. Just like raising my own kids, it feels really natural.

Jen: What then are the opposite moments, either the most grating or frustrating or exhausting or boring?

Ellie: It’s something to the effect of messing with Mother Nature. I really believe that [birth] is something that just happens and I believe in giving women that space to believe in themselves, but often we have to intervene and that’s out of my comfort zone. I’m competent to do it. It’s just not my favorite part of the job.

That’s when I really love having a backup of OBs and nurses who see high intervention all the time, just to validate. That’s where the team, I think, is so important to what we do. We are in a really unique place where we get to see women naturally birth all the time, but it doesn’t always happen.

Jen: I’m going totally off script with this one. Because of what your job is, do you see other situations in life that are metaphorically the same job as yours? Know what I mean? Do you see other scenarios where you feel like another human is helping someone birth something even though it’s not birth?

Ellie: Yeah. Oh, yeah. I do that with my boys. Instead of constantly intervening and throwing them off their path, let them see what they’re going to do with that construction paper or with that stick. Instead of assuming they’re going to hit their brother with it, well, maybe they’re not.

Jen: Anything else you don’t like about the work?

Ellie: I don’t like suturing.

Jen: Ack!

Ellie: It’s just a necessary evil. I totally get that. I do like it because I know I can do a good job and it’s important but I don’t like to be between someone’s legs hurting them after a beautiful birth.

And talking about money, ugh! I mean, we all need to get paid for what we do, but again, it just doesn’t feel good.

Jen: I’m going to observe that probably you’re really tired sometimes. Right? Is that a least favorite?

Ellie: Yeah, but there’s a peace that comes with it. There’s nothing better than coming home from a birth so tired because you feel like you’ve really worked hard. It’s almost like a good workout. Like today, I had this birth. I’ve been up since 1am, but I’m on such a high because it was just awesome. It carries you. It’s exhausting but there’s nothing else I’d rather do and there is nothing else more satisfying than putting your head on the pillow after you know someone is holding their baby. I also have a super supportive partner. Tonight, for instance, I’ll be able to go home. He’ll do dinner. He’ll do the boys and I’ll go to bed. You can’t do a career like this without that.

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And there you have it! I loved hearing about Ellie’s role (plus the importance of having access to an expert team), her conviction about the work and the admission that midwives, too, need supportive personal lives to help them through work.

Next week we’ll switch gears into law and hear the perspective of a defense paralegal. I can hardly wait!