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.


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!