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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Soul Cocina's Roger Feely: The SFoodie Interview

Posted By on Thu, Sep 24, 2009 at 12:44 PM

click to enlarge Feely at a recent street-food event in Ritch Street. - DJRAJAH/FLICKR
  • djrajah/Flickr
  • Feely at a recent street-food event in Ritch Street.
Go to any street-food party in the Mission, and it's likely Roger Feely's there, turning out some of the most polished and straight-up delicious food -- typically South Indian, occasionally Yucatecan -- on the city's streets. No wonder: The 34-year-old Soul Cocina vendor has a long and diverse career as a working chef, starting as a teenager growing up in a western suburb of Chicago. These days Feely juggles commitments -- besides Soul Cocina, he's behind the stoves at Kitchenette, caters for Living Room Events (Kitchenette's sib), and teaches seriously from-scratch cooking classes for kids at John Muir Elementary and Wallenberg High for the Beacon Center (Feely's appearance at Mission Street Food earlier this month was a benefit for the nonprofit Beacon Culinary Project).

"It's about just bringing in real food," Feely explained. "Just getting the students to put their hands on real food, not packaged, not processed. Food that comes directly form farmers."

Feely cites S.F.'s mix of food and Latino cultures that first lured him here in 1999. He landed a gig as pastry chef under quirky local icon Albert Tordjman at now-defunct Flying Saucer. Feely left town for a stint in Santa Fe. Back in S.F., he cheffed at underground dinners, and worked as a cooking instructor for Sur La Table and Hands on Gourmet. He was pastry chef at Citizen Cake. At a five-star hotel in Goa, India, Feely worked two semesters as a culinary instructor and kitchen consultant. His relationship with the hotel's Indian cooks was mutually enlightening. "I would teach them how to make croissants, and in return I'd get to learn how to use a tandoor," he said.

Despite a schedule that keeps him running, Feely's happy. Sure, he'd like a bigger kitchen (so he can host cooking classes at home). But his son, Anthony Django, turns two this week. And Feely has the satisfaction of giving back -- the Call to Flavor street-food event he's organized for Sunday is a benefit for the St. Anthony Foundation.

SFoodie: How'd you find your way to the kitchen?

Feely: I started as a dishwasher in a pizzeria when I was in high school and worked up to kitchen manager before graduation. During summer break one year I worked at the gas/service station next door to the pizzeria. The owner of the gas station was amazed that I ran such a tight ship at the restaurant and that I could make the best pizza in the neighborhood, remembering all the regular customers' orders. When it came to changing oil and cleaning engines he said, "Stay in the kitchen, kid."

Flavors, ingredients, or techniques you have an irrational attachment to?

The South Indian trinity -- mustard seed, curry leaf, and coconut oil. My more rational flavor attachment is my San Francisco trinity -- olive oil, fennel, and garlic.

Most overrated ingredient in S.F?

I have a love affair with all ingredients unless they are over-processed or out of season. Luckily, the city of San Francisco seems to be with me on this.

Favorite off-night restaurant?

Poc Chuc, Pizza Hacker, Burma Superstar, Blue Plate.

Biggest screw-up in the kitchen?

While teaching an Italian cooking class, I added hot fry oil for arancini to boiling pasta water for tortellini, mistaking the oil for my back up hot water to replenish the pasta water. A giant fireball exploded over the stove and flew by the students across the kitchen. Luckily no one was hurt and I received a free mustache trim from the flames.

Chef from another genre or cooking style who inspires you?

Yoko from Minako Organic Japanese Restaurant on Mission Street. She makes her own tofu and mochi and she has some home-pickled vegetables that are a few decades in the works. A lot of the vegetables served at Minako are from Yoko's own garden.

Guiltiest food pleasure?

1. Shalimar

2. Chicago hot dog

3. Chicago beef sandwich with giardiniera -- I am working on a home-made version for the Soul Cocina cart

Favorite music to cook by?

I make my own mixes with music ranging from Brazilian Dancehall, Cumbia, Vintage Soul, and Rai to Turkish Beats. Or I listen to mixes from local DJs like Chief Boima, Juan Data, or Santero.

What show would you pitch to Food Network?

Seed to Table: Each show would feature one dish, and follow each ingredient in the dish from the seed to the table via fishing boats, cargo trains, factories, farm baskets, bakeries, etc.

Favorite food city?

Mumbai

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