How this popular SF chef started her own YouTube channel during the pandemic


As much as she hates the word, Brenda Buenviaje found herself pivoting.

The renowned chef is at the helm of a successful trio of Creole comfort food restaurants in San Francisco and Oakland: Brenda’s French Soul Food on Polk Street, Brenda’s Meat and Three on Divisadero, and her latest venture, Brenda’s Oakland, which opened to the public in October 2019.

Yet just a few months into the pandemic, she found herself in a place she never would have imagined: in front of her 19-year-old son Max’s camera.

A college student and aspiring filmmaker spending the summer at home in San Francisco, he agreed to help his mom launch and host her own cooking show on YouTube. They rented out the necessary equipment, shot a trailer, and came up with a name: Cook Like Brenda.

“This was at the beginning of the shelter-in-place order, when people were like, ‘I can’t leave my house. What do I do?’ It felt like an eternity to everyone,” Buenviaje told SFGATE over the phone with a wry chuckle. “I was getting so many requests for cooking advice and recipes, mostly via email. And I thought, well, I’m a really bad typist and I’m very impatient with this stuff.”

Luckily for her, the video format worked. The restaurateur has been releasing about two new episodes each month, divulging some of her most popular dishes.

(Fair warning: she’ll teach you how to properly dice an onion, prepare jambalaya like a pro, and even make “quarantine” barbecue ribs without a smoker. But a few of her most sought-after recipes — including the cream biscuits, beignets, and fried chicken — will have to remain a secret.)
 
“My culinary directors asked me not to share those. They said, ‘Your competitors will steal them!’” she said, laughing. “But collaborating creatively with my son has been the greatest part of this year.”

General Manager Hunter Alexander organizes inside Brenda’s Meat and Three on Divisadero Street in San Francisco on Nov. 19, 2020. Like many other restaurants, Brenda’s has been severely affected by the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

Buenviaje said the idea of running her own YouTube channel would have been “crazy” in 2019. But now, she’s tackling another idea she never would have seen herself pursuing. Rather than following her industry peers in selling pantry items at their brick-and-mortar locations, she began distributing some of her most popular dishes nationwide through Goldbelly.

Her inspiration? Shake Shack’s DIY burger kits.
 
“Hey, I thought they were interesting,” she said. “But if you told me a year ago that I would be figuring out how to package frozen shrimp and grits and ship them across the country, I would have said, again, ‘You’re crazy.’”


Still, her business is in better shape than it was in March, when she and her wife, Libby Truesdell, made the difficult decision to shut down Brenda’s French Soul Food for five months.

“It was this big machine that just came to a screeching halt,” she said.

It was also the first time the award-winning restaurant had faced such an extended closure. Buenviaje described the loss as “deeply traumatizing,” especially when she was forced to lay off all but 15 of 200 employees, most of whom had been employed at the restaurant since it opened more than a decade ago.

“We’ve been working together for so long, it seemed like the party was never going to end. A lot of people moved away because they couldn’t afford rent,” she said. “It was just so shocking… it was like watching the Titanic sink.”

Dishes served to customers at Brenda's Meat and Three on Divisadero Street in San Francisco on Nov. 19, 2020. Like many other restaurants, Brenda's has been severely affected by the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

Dishes served to customers at Brenda’s Meat and Three on Divisadero Street in San Francisco on Nov. 19, 2020. Like many other restaurants, Brenda’s has been severely affected by the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

Buenviaje immediately began to figure out how she was going to make it through the year. She negotiated her rents with her landlords, and with Brenda’s French Soul Food shuttered for the foreseeable future, she was able to put new flooring in the kitchen and deep clean the restaurant, which is located in a building nearly a century old. She acquired PPP loans to compensate her upper management staff who were still employed at both of her San Francisco restaurants, and had agreed to work at half-pay for the first month of the shelter-in-place order.
 
Buenviaje said she dreaded informing her employees of the pay cuts, but once she relayed the news, she was shocked by their response.
 
“No one batted an eye. They said, ‘Let’s put our heads down and push through this,’” said Buenviaje. “I got to see what these people were made of, and it was moving.”
 
Without her staff, she doesn’t think she would have been able to handle the constant restructuring of her business model necessitated by fluctuating shelter-in-place guidelines. Luckily, the fast-casual concept at Brenda’s Oakland was already well-suited for customers ordering to go, and business at the East Bay restaurant surged. Buenviaje says they were nearly matching their pre-COVID sales, even though half of the dinner menu at her restaurants is unavailable – mostly entrees with ingredients like oysters and beef, which would have been prohibitively expensive to keep on.
 
“If anything, the Oakland restaurant has saved us,” she said.
 
In the meantime, Buenviaje hosted biweekly staff meals and launched a GoFundMe campaign that raised nearly $10,000 to help provide immediate relief to her furloughed employees and their families.

She estimates she’s been able to hire back about 70 percent of the staff that were laid off in March. And today, her Polk Street restaurant is open once again for takeout and delivery, while Brenda’s Meat and Three now features a newly built parklet for outdoor dining (tables can be reserved through Resy.)

Customers eat at parklets in front of Brenda's Meat and Three on Divisadero Street in San Francisco on Nov. 19, 2020. Like many other restaurants, Brenda's has been severely affected by the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

Customers eat at parklets in front of Brenda’s Meat and Three on Divisadero Street in San Francisco on Nov. 19, 2020. Like many other restaurants, Brenda’s has been severely affected by the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

But as the rainy, winter season looms (and the future of indoor dining seems, well, nonexistent) she’s prepared to face a new set of obstacles.  
 
“The other day I woke up in the morning and started brainstorming: ‘Is it going to be servers with umbrellas?’ Is that even feasible? Are people going to want to sit in a wet, rainy parklet even if there’s a roof? Personally, I wouldn’t,” she said. “There’s only so much you can do outside in San Francisco in the winter months, and because of COVID rates, people are going to be sensible and not want to go out. I’m not banking on it, and I think we’ll continue to largely rely on takeout and delivery right now.”
 
San Francisco’s back-and-forth restrictions on how certain businesses can operate can admittedly feel like a warped game of musical chairs, but Buenviaje thinks the city is handling the reopening process to the best of its ability.
 
“We’ve never been in this situation before. And the surge we’re in right now – it’s scary,” she said. “What is the alternative? Let us stay open and have people take their chances? I don’t think that’s wise. I have to consider my staff too, and it’s just not fair or responsible to move forward with indoor dining right now.”

(Left) A sign outside Brenda's Meat and Three ask customers to scan a QR code for a menu. (Right) Brenda's branded face coverings are on sale at the restaurant on Divisadero Street in San Francisco on Nov. 19, 2020. Like many other restaurants, Brenda's has been severely affected by the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

(Left) A sign outside Brenda’s Meat and Three ask customers to scan a QR code for a menu. (Right) Brenda’s branded face coverings are on sale at the restaurant on Divisadero Street in San Francisco on Nov. 19, 2020. Like many other restaurants, Brenda’s has been severely affected by the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

For Buenviaje, the silver lining of this tumultuous year has been taking the time to reflect on her future career moves. A Brenda’s French Soul Food cookbook is in the works, but she also hopes to explore a new cuisine altogether. She’s mostly known for her Creole cooking through her popular restaurants, but lately, Buenviaje has been thinking of exploring another part of her heritage. She’d like to host a series of Filipino food pop-ups, possibly opening a new restaurant if all goes well. 
 
And she’s in the beginning stages of turning Brenda’s French Soul Food into a worker-owned cooperative.
 
“I’d like to step back from the day to day while making sure I take care of my work family, especially the ones who have been there with me since the beginning,” she said. “I want to see this grow with the people I love.“



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