West Berkeley Food Festival Introduces Culture Through Cuisine

By Kristin McFarland
Thursday June 26, 2008 - 09:27:00 AM

At Casa Latina, owner Jose Ruiz tries to meld cultures by appealing to all the senses. Inside the brightly painted taqueria, cafe and bakery, reggae, Brazilian and hip-hop music provide ambient background to the brightly lit cases of Mexican pastries and the artwork-covered walls. Visitors are embraced by a multicultural tapestry of sights, smells and sounds. 

“I’m trying to make it a nice warm place for everybody,” Ruiz said. “As more people from other communities check us out, I hope that this becomes one little niche they enjoy a lot.” 

That’s just one of the goals of Sunday’s third annual West Berkeley International Food Festival, in which Ruiz and other West Berkeley merchants will participate. The festival was developed by the West Berkeley Neighborhood Development Corporation to attract Bay Area residents who might normally pass through the international marketplace without stopping.  

The festival will take place 1-5 p.m. at the corner of University and San Pablo avenues. 

“The festival is really an economic development idea disguised as a food festival,” said Bruce Williams, co-director of the West Berkeley Neighborhood Development Corporation. “Our purpose is to bring people into the neighborhood to shop and transfer skills.” 

The festival will feature the Kitchen on Fire Cooking Stage, where chefs Mike C. and Olivier Said will host international cooking demonstrations. Many West Berkeley merchants will offer free samples or small, inexpensive portions of their dishes, and provide entertainment such as folk dances, music and crafts. 

“We’re really trying to show not just Berkeley but anybody around the bay what a special area this is. People always think that North Berkeley is where everything is happening,” said Mike C. of Kitchen on Fire. “But this area has the greatest variety of shops and restaurants. You can find special ingredients, really hard-to-find things, at any of the shops in this area at a lot better quality and a lot better prices. If you want spices, within walking distance, you can get almost anything in the world.”  

According to Michael Caplan, Berkeley’s economic development manager, the festival attracted nearly 15,000 people last year, and this year aims for more. 

“We’re going to have lots of music, lots of excitement, lots of people coming into Berkeley that might not otherwise have come,” said Darryl Moore, District 2 City Councilmember at a press conference Tuesday. “Let’s let the whole East Bay know of the richness and diversity available on University Avenue.” 

For store owners like Ruiz, the festival offers a chance to introduce their foods, wares and culture to new customers. 

Nazir Fedary, owner of De Afghanan Kabob House, a new addition to Berkeley as of January, sees the festival as a chance not only to attract new customers but also to introduce residents to Afghan cuisine.  

“Most of my customers, they have never tried Afghan cuisine, let alone Afghan homecooking,” Fedary said. “When they try it, though, they like it.”  

On Sunday, Fedary will distribute small samples of his food to give customers a taste of his country. 

Pete Raxakoul, who bought the 30-year-old Country Cheese store as a 20-year-old architecture student, has participated in the festival since its inception. In his 18 years as store owner, Raxakoul has bought another shop and expanded the range of products he sells to include more organic, locally made cheeses and international coffees and teas. 

Raxakoul will use the festival not to sell his cheeses and coffees but instead to introduce East Bay residents to Laotian culture. 

“When you say ‘Laos,’ people don’t know what it is,” Raxakoul said. “You say ‘Thai,’ Thai food, Chinese food, everyone knows what it is. Laos, people can’t even find on the map. They’ve never heard of it. Laotian food has a lot of flavor, a lot of spices, a lot of ingredients. Hopefully I can introduce that to Berkeley.” 

Bruce Williams said that the festival has encouraged cooperation and cultural exchange among West Berkeley merchants by allowing them to experience their neighbors’ businesses and cultures and to integrate new ideas into their own work.  

“People are moving outside the box, mixing foods, combining Western fashions with Indian fashions,” Williams said. “You’re seeing synthesis of cultures coming together.”  

Ruiz, Casa Latina’s international integrator, said that the past decade has improved the neighborhood by encouraging street traffic and attracting regular customers who want to experience other cultures: “It’s getting a feeling more than ever of being a community instead of being a city.”  

The merchants all hope that the festival will continue to boost attention and funding given to West Berkeley. 

“We have every part of the world represented in this area, and this is very good and very interesting for the neighborhood,” Fedary of De Afghan Kabob House said. “Hopefully this festival will get some more attention to this area, to help the community, to get the city to improve the situation of the restaurants, the facilities. With the cooperation of the city, hopefully they will be improved, and hopefully all the restaurants will be better than before.” 

“We’re going to have fun—that’s what it’s all about, to let people know who we are as a community,” Raxakoul said. “It’s not about me, it’s not about Country Cheese, it’s about West Berkeley as a community.”