Iso Rabins and His Incubating Kitchen
by: Julia Cheung
June 13, 2012
Previous shutdowns from the SF Department of Public Health, as well as his current challenge to raise $150,000 don’t seem to be doing much to deter Iso Rabins, the force behind several food movements revolutionizing San Francisco’s dining experience, including Forage SF, the Wild Kitchen, the Underground Market, and his current work in-progress: the Forage Kitchen.
Geroge Bernard Shaw once quipped, “There is no love sincerer than the love of food.” Such a love may be the reason why Rabins hasn’t yet lost momentum. Formerly a film student in Boston, Rabins moved to San Francisco post-graduation, where he was first introduced to foraging. He discovered he had a knack for it, and soon began selling foraged black trumpets and chanterelles in the back doors of restaurants such as the acclaimed locavorian Chez Panisse. Inspired, Rabins founded his own business, Forage SF, a “not just for profit business” aimed at making foraging a viable profession.
“I’ve never been happier than since I’ve started to run my own business,” says Rabins in an exchange via email. “It has developed as my own interests have developed. Since the beginning I’ve tried to follow my interests/passions, to keep it fresh and interesting.”
Wanting to cook and serve his foraged ingredients, yet knowing well it would be nearly impossible in a traditional restaurant setting, Rabins began the Wild Kitchen, an underground dinner club which hosts eight course meals featuring sustainably foraged ingredients in an ever changing venue, past ones including roof decks and houseboats.
Yet Rabins simultaneously acknowledges that, “Challenges to starting a small food business are very intense. It seems like every law is made to hold them back.” After being turned away from the farmer’s market for selling his wild mushrooms, Rabins started the notorious Underground Market. “I saw the need in other folks I knew that were in the same situation,” he says. Under the pretext of a private club, Rabins was able to start a venue for home cooks to sell their wares – cooks who were passionately making food but couldn’t afford the traditional licenses or financial risks involved in starting up a food business.
The Underground Market quickly outgrew the Victorian house where the first food auditions and market were held, and gradually into a warehouse. For the first time, there was a local community for home cooks and diners. The SF Department of Public Health, however, became increasingly wary with its growing popularity and two years later shut it down, but not before it inspired underground markets in other cities.
These days, Rabins is raising money via Kickstarter and other unconventional means for his current project, the Forage Kitchen (past fundraisers include potlucks and a city wide wild board scavenger hunt). The Forage Kitchen arose as a response to the reaction he received from starting the Underground Market. “What I saw during the underground market was a real need both on the eater and maker sides of food,” he says. “There are an amazing amount of people who want to try their hands at making food professionally, but need the support of a community to do it. There is also a huge need on the eater side, people who want to meet the people making their food.”
Unlike traditional rental kitchens, Rabins envisions the Forage Kitchen as being a communal commercial kitchen geared towards home cooks hoping to start a small food business – “the place I wish I’d had when I was starting out,” says Rabins. The Forage Kitchen will give members (anyone from first timers to latent small food business owners) an opportunity to prepare food in a kitchen legally accorded by the public health authorities. Apart from rental equipment, the Forage Kitchen will also feature a rooftop garden cultivating produce, and a shared office space providing business consultation. Members will also have access to cooking classes ranging from beer brewing to meat curing.
Ultimately, Rabins believes it will provide a much needed food community, a place for dialogue between cooks and diners. “I think that we’ve come to a point where finding community is an unfortunately scarce resource.” says Rabin. “It can be a lonely road starting a business. It’s confusing, scary, and overwhelming. I want to create a space for people that can help alleviate at least a bit of that struggle.”