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15 Minutes with Haven's Kim Alter

Executive Chef Kim Alter of Haven restaurant. Photo by Sara Davis.

How well can you get to know a chef in just fifteen minutes?  

Kim Alter, executive chef at Haven, in Oakland’s Jack London Square, has had a busy day—and dinner service hasn’t even started yet. Between foraging, marketing, prepping, and talking with Food & Wine Magazine about her nomination for its People’s Best New Chef Award, she admits, “I’m a bit cracked out!” Of the contest, she notes the awkwardness of being able to see how the tallies are racking up online, saying, “It’s very reminiscent of high school…like, ‘Vote for me for ASB.’ But I’m just excited I was nominated.” Ultimately, Matt Accarrino of SPQR took the prize, but Alter’s clearly graduated to One to Keep An Eye On.

Here, we talk inspiration, processed cheese, and sex at mealtime.

If your decision to become a chef could be traced to one food memory, what would it be?

In junior high I switched from private to public school, and that childhood need to be accepted came out, and every project I did somehow implemented cooking. Like designing a nucleus by making a cake with a jawbreaker inside and making mini ones to give to my classmates… Everything kind of grew from there.

You have guests at home you want to impress. What’s the go-to meal?

Whenever friends come visit, I’m generally working! But one go-to dish… it’s embarrassing—just green beans; so simple. I’m a snacker at home. So, appetizers, charcuterie boards... A plethora of random snacks.

If somebody could only eat here once, what should they order?

If they’re somewhat adventurous, it would have to be our market menu. It’s more – I wouldn’t say interesting, but a little more daring… I can play around more; like, I couldn’t put beef tongue on the regular menu every night! It’s cool to see people who normally wouldn’t touch something eat it once it’s put in front of them, and they’re like, wow, I really enjoyed this. Then they want to try other things.

What’s the best dining experience to be had in the Bay Area, other than here of course?

That’s so hard, but since I just went, Meadowood. It was my first time and the whole experience—riding up with friends, drinking champagne, going to a winery, the rooms, then at the restaurant having that kind of service and courses that were delicious and thoughtful, that make you think, Chris [Kostow] coming out and talking, just the whole experience.

What’s the most outrageous thing that’s ever gone down here?

What could I say and not get in trouble… Can we come back to that?

Sure... and we will! Moving on: You killed your sommelier and are on death row. What’s your last meal?

Holy crap. The first thing that’s coming to mind is In-N-Out, but I know that’s wrong. It should be something insane… but probably sushi. I could live on that.

What’s the one ingredient you can’t live without?

Onions. I’m one of those weird people who eat raw leeks and raw onions… Chives, scallions, green garlic, anything in the onion family I couldn’t imagine not cooking with.

What’s your favorite food city?

I’ve spent most of my life in San Francisco; I lived in Chicago for a minute and really enjoyed the food, and I’m going to France in a month so I’m sure then it’ll be Paris, but, San Francisco, you kinda have everything. The only thing I think we’re lacking is barbecue… So, San Francisco, for sure.

Fill in the blank. People might be surprised to see me eating ___.

Ha! White trash cooking. It’s what I grew up on. Like American Kraft singles. Is it bad that they’re always in my fridge?

Very shameful. Okay: Bacon. Awesome, or overrated?

Both… In moderate amounts, it’s awesome. But if it’s everyone’s answer to making something great, then you need to be more creative. Hopefully that’s not me.

I’m still trying to think of what’s outrageous that’s happened here. Are we boring? It’s Oakland! You would think something gnarly! I mean… people having sex on the grass right outside the window during dinner service would probably be the most outrageous thing.

Dinner and a show? I’d say that works.