Chef Sam Mogannam exudes pure joy when he talks about food and feeding his community. It’s in his DNA. Sam grew up knowing the joy and responsibility that comes with feeding others from his first taste of fire roasted sesame bread with his Grandma in Bethlehem to his work as a young chef in San Francisco. As the owner of Bi-Bite Market and their Family of Businesses, Sam has changed the way the community views their relationship with their local supermarket, farmers and suppliers. Through his nonprofit, 18 Reasons, he has taught the community how to feed themselves, from tiny kids in impoverished communities taking Cooking Matters Classes to grandparents looking to improve their knife skills in a weekly 18 Reasons cooking class. Sam’s book, Bi-Rite Market’s Eat Good Food, is both a cookbook and an aisle-by-aisle guide through the grocery store, aimed at helping the reader make better shopping decisions.
JoyFoodly sat down with our friend and food hero at his flagship store on 18th and Valencia in San Francisco, to learn how Sam’s first food memories inspired him to become the chef and food pioneer he is today.
JoyFoodly: Tell us about your first food memory. What do you remember about it?
Sam: My first distinct food memory was in Bethlehem visiting my grandma. I was nine years old. Every day, there was this dude that walked the streets selling wood fired baked rings of sesame bread. My grandma would give me a few coins and I would buy a few rings of this sesame bread that we would eat with her homemade yogurt, labneh, with some za’atar, olive oil, always a cucumber and tomato salad and some more olive oil! We would have them with simple fried eggs over easy or with eggs scrambled with this white cheese she cured and would sauté lightly in butter until crisp and nutty. We always had her home cured olives with it and falafel. There couldn’t have been a better breakfast in the world.
My other food memory I talk about in my Ted Talk. It was on the same visit with my grandma in Bethlehem. She had me help her harvest a rabbit for dinner one night. It was an experience that changed me forever. She had me hold its hind legs and she held the front legs. She slit the rabbit’s throat, drained it, and proceeded to skin it, and it became the most beautiful stew we ate together. I connected with food that night in a way that changed me forever. I realized that food was life.
JoyFoodly: What about food inspired you to make it your career?
Sam: I love the way food makes people happy and brings them together. I love the way it builds relationships and connects people. And I love the way it tastes.
Early on in my career, I realized that as a cook I had this ability to assemble ingredients, prepare them, cook them, and present them on a plate and go through this primal experience of sharing it with this person I was feeding and watching their transformation as they ate. Their disposition changes and you can see and feel the pleasure. I still love this. Whether it’s a jar of tomato sauce I put on the shelf in my store or a platter of roasted meats or grilled vegetables I make for someone, I take the same approach and consideration of the power of feeding people. What I’m making can either make that person feel really good or really sick. It’s an incredible responsibility.
My mom taught me this. One of Bi-Rite’s Mission Statements is: by feeding people, we are fed. There’s an energy and happiness that comes from this. I grew up in a home where my mom really got off on this! It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized how many hours my mom would joyfully roll those grape leaves for the dolmas only to have her kids devour them in a matter of minutes. She had so much contentment and joy watching us enjoy our food. That’s the ultimate reward for a cook.
JoyFoodly: Imagine your best friend is coming to dinner tomorrow night. They are bringing their nine-year-old child with them. What would you cook with them?
Sam: I would want to cook the same meal my wife made with our six and ten year old children the other night, homemade ricotta cavatelli. It was so much fun. We made this simple dough together, rolled it out into long thin logs, cut off manageable pieces and the kids fed it through the cavatelli maker, cranking the handle slowly to reveal these perfect gnocchi shaped little pastas with ridges. We added some of my mom’s homemade tomato sauce, and it was the perfect meal. My daughter noticed, “I love the way the ridges in the pasta suck up the sauce.” How cool that she made that observation.
How you can help support 18 Reasons and join in some Barn Dance Fun on September 7th, 2013 in Sonoma, California:
18 Reasons is turning 5! On Saturday, September 7th, they are hosting a barn dance for all their friends & supporters at Bi-Rite’s farm in Sonoma! Enjoy dinner, drinks, and live music from Evie Ladin and the Sutro Tower Broadcasters. Tickets: $50 for members, $75 for the general public, $25 for kids. Learn more and get your tickets today.
Don’t miss Sam’s TED Talk on how shopping for food is a community building act:
Read more about Hollie