Roger Feely is creating a one-night-only meal at Fulton Market’s Dodo that’s an homage to the 9th-century Baghdad-born musician Ziryab. He’s the first to admit this might sound a little strange. “I get that it’s obscure, that some people will be like, ‘Who is this dude and who the hell is Ziryab?’ But it’s an outlet for me to tie together all of my interests and tell a story,” Feely says.
Feely’s story begins like that of nearly all minimum-wage cooks, sweating his way through 80-hour workweeks executing the same dish, someone else’s dish, over and over. He took the typical route: washed dishes at a suburban restaurant in high school, left his hometown (Chicago) for culinary school (Johnson & Wales), bounced around the country following girls and jobs, then headed to Europe to work in any kitchen that would have him. But after landing in San Francisco and working as the pastry chef and bread baker at the then-revolutionary Flying Saucer and later at the acclaimed Citizen Cake for three years, Feely felt he had to make a change.
He left for India, where he would stay for eight months. During that time, the owner of the hotel in Goa where he was working had the idea to launch a line of barbecue-like rubs based on traditional Goan masalas, so he arranged for Feely to learn the age-old spice mixtures in various mom-and-pops throughout the region. The American chef would hang in the kitchen for a couple days, jot down notes, pick up techniques and demonstrate some of his own, then move on. When that gig was over, he moved back to S.F., where he helped friends get restaurants up and running: a Cali-inflected dim-sum spot, a late-night spaghetti shack, a Latin-American tapas joint. While working for a company that hosted team-building cooking parties, a catering business in the same building started a pop-up sandwich shop out of its loading dock, calling it Kitchenette. The pop-up’s owner encouraged Feely to do the same with his Indian dishes, beloved by the cooks in their circle. “He said, ‘Just make it and sell it on the street,’ ” Feely says. “So I figured, why not?”
When Feely set up a makeshift station under the name Soul Cocina a week later, in spring 2009, he became a founding member of the underground S.F. food-cart scene. In a matter of months, the movement grew to include dozens of carts and tables, taking over warehouses, organizing under emerging leadership, and attracting the attention of local and national media. “It was crazy,” Feely says. “There were huge lines of people just devouring everything from super-spicy, super-funky authentic Indian street snacks to Mexican to Latin American. They’re all saying, ‘What’s your Twitter? Where can we find you next?’ And I’m so behind with that stuff. I’m just like, ‘Uh, here’s my phone number.’ ”
Just as Soul Cocina boarded the social media train and business was booming, he decided to follow his ex and his son to Chicago, a city that had no cart scene beyond elotes and floundering food trucks. He considered giving traditional restaurants another shot, but it was clear there was no going back. “I like to experiment without being tied down to one spot so I can do things like a Mexican pop-up in New Orleans during Jazz Fest or a random street fest in S.F.,” Feely says. “If I was a chef at someone else’s restaurant or my own, I couldn’t really do that.”
Instead he splits his time between hosting cooking parties in people’s homes, teaching bread classes under the San Francisco–based Sour Flour umbrella and holding pop-ups at Dodo with varying themes. For a recent “Bombay Streets” pop-up, Feely brought out his famed goat curry, piling it onto homemade pav, an Indian-style bread bun. Everything from the samosas to the paratha for the kati rolls was made by Feely, executed with the help of one dishwasher and a cook from Dodo.
“At Next, the chef can do anything he wants because he’s so talented and so famous,” Feely says. “I’m not as high profile by any means, so I couldn’t get millions of dollars from people to open up a restaurant to do whatever I want whenever I want. But, I can do it on my own in my own way.”
For info on parties, classes, events and tickets to the Kitchen of Ziyrab pop-up (Wednesday 18, 6–9pm), visit soulcocina.com.