Prominent Activist, Chef and La Peña Founder, Hugo Brenni, Passes Away

By Fernando Andres Torres. LatinOPen
Wednesday August 21, 2013 - 01:14:00 PM
Hugo Brenni
Monin Mendez
Hugo Brenni

Noted Bay Area Chef and one of the original funders of La Peña Cultural Center in Berkeley, Hugo Brenni del Canto passed away in arms of his wife Wanda in the remote Chilean island of Chiloe on August 18, 2013. 

Hugo was a friend, a grandfather, a father, a husband, and most of all a compañero who struggled for peace and social justice. 

Brenni arrived from Chile in 1956. In 1975, he was one of a handful of a group of activists who founded the cultural center on Berkeley’s Shattuck Ave. on the south border with Oakland. He became the Chef of the center founded to promote the national solidarity movement against the military who, with the support of the U.S. government, overthrew the popular government of Chile’s President Salvadore Allende. 

Dozens of Chilotes and residents of the Island, where he was buried today, attended his funeral in a community gathering building he helped build with locals. In Oakland, friends and family gathered on August 19 to remember his legacy and pay tribute to his memory. His son Nicolas said his father was a compassionate man who opened his heart to the cause of the Chilean people. Nicolas who fathered a boy two weeks ago said “I became a dad one day and lost my dad the other.” 

La Peña member Eric Leeson said Brenni participated in many activities to denounce the atrocities against Human Rights being committed by the Chilean military. One of these activities, said Leeson, was the boycott of the 1975 San Francisco visit of the Chilean navy four-masted barquentine tall ship Esmeralda, which was used as a prison and floating torture center. 

Leeson also recalled a meeting that Brenni and other activists held with founder of COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), Margo St. James, a celebrated advocate for the decriminalization of prostitution who described her self as a sex-positive feminist. Out of that meeting came the first sex-workers boycott against Pinochet’s sailors while in San Francisco,” said Leeson. 

Recalling details of the founding of La Peña, Brenni said in a 2003 interview for Berkeley’s Daily Planet (BDP): “We had looked at three or four places that we couldn’t afford… We were holding a benefit at the Starry Plough, and when we came out that night I saw the ‘For Rent’ sign on the space next door. The rent was cheap, so we began renting it and then bought it later.” 

Brenni was also a drummer who in many occasions accompanied the late singer Rafael Manriquez, and a accomplished cueca (traditional chilean dance) dancer. Frequently he was called to the La Peña stage to dance it. Running from the kitchen and firmly weaving his apron as a handkerchief, Brenni would delight audiences with his toe tapping and gracious movements. 

In a recent communique, La Peña wrote in its web page: “We deeply mourn the loss of Hugo Brenni, La Peña’s co founder and great friend for nearly 40 years… Hugo will always be remembered for his good humor, unceasing friendship, and culinary delights. Without Hugo’s restaurant experience and community dedication, La Peña would not have been born nor have survived. In July, 2003 he was honored with La Peña’s highest award. Hugo was inducted to La Peña’s Community Hall of Fame.” 

I Love to Cook 

Brenni was a passionate cook who worked in various well-established restaurants in the area including Oakland’s Crogan’s and Max’s,Montclair’s The Egg Shop, and Lafayette’s Rossmore. Following the tradition of peñas in Latin America; gathering cultural huts that combines food with art and culture, Brenni believed that a good and productive political discussion worked better around a table with a fine dish prepared with fresh and local produces. Brenni’s favorite motto was “food for the body, food for the spirit.” 

“I love to cook,” he said to BDP. “I love to serve people the food that they eat when they are listening to music or poetry… What I think is that you can’t run a business without politics… Everything – the performances, the management, the restaurant must be tied in to politics. You can’t isolate a business from the world outside… It is not about the rewards… I have learned so much from the people I have been around… all the people that have taught me what I know,” (idem). 

Brenni was known for his mastering of Latin American culinary traditions. San Francisco Chronicle‘s food critic Kim Severson described his menu as “a homey trip though the peasant-style dishes of countries like Chile, Mexico, Guatemala and Peru. The portions are large, the prices a bargain and the approach in the kitchen consistent and honest.You could make a complete, satisfying meal just ordering from the menu’s first section, which offers a dozen tapas-styled picks such as humitas, a close cousin to a tamale, which is crafted from sweet, coarse-ground corn spiked with onions and basil and wrapped and steamed in a corn husk. Or, try a little calorie bomb of a dish that combines thin slices of sauteed linguica and onions with the best french fries I’ve eaten in months. A standout entree is lechon asado, a classic Cuban recipe based on marinated, slow-roasted leg of pork. Friendly service makes eating a pleasure at Cafe de La Peña,” 

Miracle Chiloe, the Most Memorable Meal 

Seduced by the culture of the Chilote people, the geography, and lured by friends living in the island, the Brenni’s sold their Albany house and move to Chiloe where they bought a piece of land and built a house in 2003. Hugo was already acquainted with Chiloe’s cookery. Consistently, every end-of-the-year in Berkeley, he prepared the acclaimed curanto, the well known and intricate Chiloe dish. Most times these events were set as benefit for diverse causes. 

Located in the Region de Los Lagos, Chiloe is the second largest Island in southern Chile. With an area of 3,241square miles, Chiloe first inhabitants Chono, Huilliche and Cunco peoples dated from more than 7,000 years ago. The island is separated from the mainland by the Canal Chacao, Chacao Strait. 

Traveler Laurel Miller wrote on a trip she took to Chiloe in 2010: “My most memorable meal on Chiloe, (was at) Hugo and Wanda’s. Hugo prepared our lunch from ingredients grown and foraged on the property or purchased from neighboring farms. While he cooked, Wanda, who is from the States, told me, “What’s amazing about Chiloe is you can just walk down to the beach and collect as many shellfish as you can carry, get king crab from the kids on the corner, harvest wild berries. The local people are so traditional, the soil is so rich…there is always food. That’s the miracle of this place.” We sat down to a lunch of roast duck with a piquant salsa de murta, freshly-dug fingerling potatoes, a beet salad, and Wanda’s sourdough bread, cultured from wild yeast. Miraculous, indeed,” ( 

I Don’t Know if I Will See you Again 

The following is a letter sent to LatinOPen by former La Peña Executive Director Paul Chin: 

I sadly learned of the death of our beloved compañero Hugo Brenni. It was quite an emotional shock to learn of his death. I had Hugo over for lunch when he was last here a couple of weeks ago. As he departed our house he said to me, “I don’t know if I will see you again.” Unfortunately those words were very prophetic. The human mind does not want to accept the prognosis. I was hoping that the doctors would be wrong and that Hugo would survive this cancer. Alas, it was not to be. 

I cannot remember the exact moment I met Hugo. Definitely I met him at La Peña. I believe it was sometime in 1976. It was through the politics and the cultural activities of La Peña that attracted me to the place and gave me the privilege of meeting people such as Hugo. 

At that time I was a volunteer along with my then Argentine compañera Monica. We encouraged our friend Wanda, who we had met in Potosi, Bolivia in 1973, to volunteer. Little did we know that Hugo and Wanda would later become a couple. Over time we have maintained our friendship. 

I remember Hugo for his generosity and his good nature. I remember the many curantos (traditional Chiloe native dish) that Hugo initiated and the love he expressed for good food and good company. Hugo was a friend, a grandfather, a father, a husband, and most of all a compañero who struggled for peace and social justice. I will always treasure the many warm memories he has left with us. My heartfelt condolences go out to his immediate family and to the larger family who shared his food and good nature for many years. Hugo Brenni, PRESENTE!