Richmond chef takes fresh approach to farm-to-table

Richmond Chef Rebecca Orengo McFarlane (All photos courtesy of the chef)

By Kathy Chouteau

For Richmond Chef Rebecca Orengo McFarlane, the seeds from which her culinary career blossomed were planted by her parents during her childhood, via the garden they grew next to their family home in the city’s Richmond Annex neighborhood.

“I grew up on an urban farm in Richmond at my parents’ house,” said Orengo McFarlane, who said her parents harvested apples, plums, figs and a variety of other organic produce on their land, a double lot which they still own.

“I was exposed to really good quality produce from a young age and we always went to the farmers markets and talked to the farmers and got to know them…So I really got excited about fresh, local produce from a young age.”

Fast forward to today and Chef Rebecca, a moniker which doubles as her business name, works as a caterer and pop-up “foodpreneur” specializing in California farm-to-table cuisine “with an appreciation for Asian flavors,” as she puts it.

Chef Rebecca often operates out of Richmond’s Bridge Storage and Art Space’s Kitchen and Commissary; at its recent unveiling to the community, she created an impressive tasting menu featuring Crostini with Homemade Lemony Ricotta + Shaved Fennel and Red Onion in Vinaigrette; Cheddar Cheese Biscuits Topped with Pulled Chicken & Homemade BBQ Sauce; and Bittersweet Devil’s Food Cake with Dark Chocolate Ganache & Salted Caramel.

However, her path to becoming “Chef Rebecca” was not a straight route. Early on, a neighbor—who was a talented home cook—took note of her burgeoning interest in good food and began taking her to fine dining restaurants. “I already had an appreciation for fresh, local ingredients but I got to see how, with the proper technique and seasoning, you can raise things to the next level,” said Chef Rebecca of her impressionable experience visiting restaurants like Chez Panisse, Rivoli, Lalime’s and Oliveto with both her neighbor and her family.

After some work as a teenager as a personal chef, she went on to study the culinary arts at a local community college but felt as if she wasn’t stretching her potential there. She decided to try something different and attended Humboldt State University, where she earned a B.A. Degree in Psychology. Back in the Bay Area, She worked in a domestic violence crisis center, where part of her duties involved teaching life skills to people who were dealing with substance abuse and mental health issues. One such life lesson was making a family meal for lunch and dinner.

“I really gravitated toward it…showing other people how to make good food and working with good ingredients. I said to myself, ‘Why am I not just doing this?’ I missed cooking so much,” said Chef Rebecca.

She promptly went on to pursue a series of “stages” (industry term for a try-out) at local restaurants until she finally landed work with various establishments, including Rose Pistola in San Francisco.

About four years ago, Chef Rebecca started doing pop-ups at Kitchener, a shared kitchen working space in Oakland that can be rented by the hour. There, she would go in at certain times and serve a limited menu of food for a limited time at their kiosk.

Today, as she grows her catering and pop-up business, Chef Rebecca also holds down a job as a line cook and pastry chef at Town Hall Restaurant in San Francisco. In her own business, some of her menu specialties include Devil’s Food Cake; Pulled Pork with Homemade BBQ Sauce and Homemade Pickled Jalapeños; a Roast Beef Salad with Frisee Lettuce, Roasted Salad Dressing and Aged Parmesan Cheese; and Lemon Butter Cake with Lemon Glaze and Homemade Lemon Curd w/Meyer Lemons. She also makes a biscuit that lends itself well to both sweet and savory menu applications.

So, what’s her vision for the future? “I’m definitely interested in concentrating on Richmond because it’s my home turf, and we’re really ready for some more interesting food….Richmond is not generally known for having a lot of the California farm-to-table [cuisine] and that’s changing, and I want to be part of that movement,” said Chef Rebecca.

“I’d like to do it all eventually,” she added. “I’d like to grow to the point where I have people working with me and I can do bigger events, large parties and that sort of thing. I cherish the idea that I might at some point be able to have my own little spot—I dream of a kind of low-key spot, a place where people can come and get really good food, a small menu that would change weekly…a date night kind of spot where friends could gather and relax out of the hustle and bustle of the Bay Area.”

“Food is my life! It’s something that I’ve always wanted [to do],” Chef Rebecca added. “The older I’ve gotten the more interested I’ve gotten in exploring different flavors and really trying to make sure that the techniques that I’m using do justice to the food that I’m working with.”

Contact Chef Rebecca Orengo McFarlane at 415.336.2433 or [email protected]. Find her on Instagram at @orengomcfarlane.