Guest Chef provides a permanent space for pop-ups like Dixie

Chef Joseph Humphrey and his partners were hoping to have their Dixie restaurant open in the former Pres a Vi spot in San Francisco’s Presidio by Thanksgiving. Now it’s 2012 and he’s still waiting for the permitting to clear (it is on federal property).

So itching to get back into the kitchen, Humphrey is cooking at Guest Chef, a concept restaurant that opened in Oakland’s Rockridge neighborhood last fall. Guest Chef is a permanent space for temporary restaurants by giving chefs a place to pop-up and cook for a limited engagement.

Humphrey, formerly of Cavallo Point’s Murray Circle, brings the most pedigree to the Guest Chef kitchen since it opened. So after weeks of checking out the guest chef list, I decided to drop in for dinner last week.

One of the amuse from the chef included a deviled egg with duck cracklings

The Guest Chef space, formerly a women’s boutique, is quite small, resembling almost a sushi bar. I sat at the counter seat facing the tiny open kitchen.

During Humphrey’s two-week stint (he’s there till Jan. 15), the chef has created menus changing every few days, highlighting his emphasis on local, seasonal ingredients presented in a French-cooking style with hints of his Southern upbringing.

The Guest Chef menus offer a prix fixe two-course dinner for $35 or a tasting menu (basically the entire limited menu) for $55. Wanting to try everything, I opted for the tasting menu, naturally.

Since there’s a Southern twist (the chef grew up in Florida near the Georgia border), you can bet there would be a few deep-fried foods. I mention this because some of you know my aversion to deep-fried foods. But before you go crazy in the comments section, I note that 1) I have an aversion to deep-fried foods but that doesn’t mean I have a ban on deep-fried foods, I just limit how much of it I eat, and 2) since this is a tasting menu, the offerings were smaller.

Chicken fried quail served on top of a garlic waffle and spicy cabbage

Luckily, the deep-fried aspects only appear in an amuse bouche of hushpuppies and a true Southern soul offering of chicken fried quail. Oh, and a few duck cracklings that appeared in another amuse of deviled eggs.

Some of the dishes presented by Humphrey demonstrated what I’m guessing is the limitation of working in a kitchen that you’re not used to and a smaller one to boot. I’m referring to the sheen of oil under the fried hushpuppies and some thickness in some of the sauces, all adding to a rough-around-the-edges feel to an otherwise sophisticated approach.

But in general, the preview of Dixie promises an imaginative interpretation of what’s Californian and what’s Southern through Humphrey’s lens honed through years of working at fine-dining restaurants. Dishes are always presented beautifully and will likely introduce diners to some creative ingredients like the sassafras used to dust the halibut or sea urchin in the remoulade.

Chef Joseph Humphrey preps a fennel salad

The imagination also comes in the techniques used to create the dishes, such as a beet that was hollowed out and stuffed with its own greens and a deconstructed key lime pie served for dessert that concentrated all the best of pie in the three elements of a graham cracker crust, key lime flavored granita and cream sauce.

With Dixie, Humphrey will be the head of his own restaurant for the first time in his career, and his menu demonstrates that it’ll be a sophisticated but personal experience.

Guest Chef also holds a lot of promise, if it’s able to bring in preview dinners for such projects like Dixie. Or even if it brings in a totally unknown chef, who wants to, for once in the chef’s career, step into the limelight.

Dixie pop-up at Guest Chef serves dinner until Jan. 15, at 5337 College Ave., Oakland. View menus and make a reservation online. To check out future Guest Chef pop-ups, visit

Hushpuppies started the dinner, served with honey butter

Beets were lightly smoked and served with their greens, whipped ricotta, and sumac

Broccoli stem soup with toasted florets that were a bit dry, but sweetness came from the seasonal Dungeness crab meat and pear slices

A sous chef slices up the roast duck

Roast duck slices with turnips, mustard, and risotto served in Southern “dirty rice” style

Halibut with sassafras, fennel, orange, and sea urchin (uni) remoulade

Deconstructed key lime pie didn’t look appetizing but hit all the right taste profiles with its granita and cream

Humphrey’s sous chef worked a portable cotton candy machine to create a bit of pure cane sugar spun cotton candy


9 Responses to A Tasting of Southern-inspired California Cuisine

  1. Sandy says:

    Ben– love this post! I didn’t know about this Guest Chef place but I definitely have to check it out 🙂

  2. bethh says:

    I’m glad you linked to their site – I wonder if they have a feed? I love the idea of Guest Chef but I think they need to work on their marketing to get people in the door. Sure is a cool idea!

    • Ben Ben says:

      I’m sure they’re getting a lot of attention with Humphrey’s pop-up. Hopefully they can continue to attract interesting chefs.

  3. Carolyn Jung says:

    Times like this I wish I lived closer to Oakland! That halibut with uni totally caught my eye. 😉

  4. foodhoe says:

    ooh, looks awesome! Good for you busting out and eating fried foods. I love the little cotton candy machine too! I’ve got to take Bart to work more, cuz then Rockridge is on my way home…

  5. Row says:

    Guest Chef… what an awesome concept! I wish my city did cool stuff like this.

  6. hungry dog says:

    I like the sound of this food! I’ll look forward to it opening in the presidio…