Flavors of Colombia and the Bay mingle at Oakland's Snail Bar
It’s a beautiful mid-summer afternoon in Richmond’s Wildcat Canyon. The sun is shining, flowers are blooming, and heavy spring rains have turned the valley green. But Andres Giraldo Florez isn’t looking up at the trees, or out at the view. He’s looking at the ground, scanning for herbs and flowers to forage. These garnishes will ultimately decorate his dishes at Oakland’s Snail Bar, where Andres is the chef/owner.
“We know where to get everything,” Andres says. “Elderflower, geranium, borage.”
First we pass a few bay laurel plants, then some blackberries, and I can see the gears begin to turn in Andres’s mind.
“You get to see, what are the things that are growing, you know, like blackberries, right now.” He looks intently at a bush. “You can be like, bay laurel is really good right now. You can infuse some cream, make a custard and then you can just have a bay laurel custard with fresh blackberries and elderflower.”
“And that’s all available right here?” I ask.
“Right here, right now,” he says.
We move on, but Andres is keeping his eyes peeled for perfect specimens. I ask if he ever stops thinking about food.
“Never,” Andres says. “It’s a sickness… especially because my partner is really into food and a very opinionated diner.”
His partner, Jul Butt, is my friend from college. They help run Snail, but they and Andres are romantic partners, too. They’ve both got high standards for their foraged ingredients.
“Would you ever use the bay laurel we found out here?” I ask.
“Hell yeah,” Andres answers. “Ten thousand percent. Yeah, I mean, we don’t even have any at home, so Jul, we should probably take a branch… You’ve got to look at them to make sure they’re not all dirty.”
“I don’t really like that one,” Jul says. “It’s too thick.”
The couple decides together to find another tree. Soon, they’ll go on vacation, but Andres already has the menu planned out for when they return.
“We’ll have cachapas,” Andres says, “which is a Colombian-slash-Venezuelan corn pancake that’s kind of seared on a griddle, and then stuffed with burrata cheese and creme fraiche, and then… it gets brushed with this, like, salsa macha, honey, cultured butter situation… and then we just put some flaky salt on top and then onion flowers.”
“Are you going to forage any of those?” I ask.
“Yeah, the onion flowers, for sure, will get foraged,” he says. “There’s no way to buy those, honestly. Nobody got that.”
For Andres, the connection between nature and cuisine was always clear. He was born in Colombia, and lived at the base of a mountain on the outskirts of Medellín.
“A lot of fruit trees, banana trees, and coffee plants,” Andres recalls. “Everything was super rural, organic, we’re eating all of these great products.”
He continues: “There were mangoes growing… These things called mamoncillos, which taste like soursop but are, like, the size of a quarter. You peel the outside and you suck on it, and it’s like soursop flavor but lychee texture.”
When I ask if he’s ever used mamoncillos in a dish, he says he’s never seen one since he left Medellín.
In Colombia, food and cooking were integrated into Andres’s family life.
“We grew up in a farm town, so farmers markets and all that stuff was always part of the routine,” Andres tells me. “So I would say I learned how to cook by intuition… Seeing my grandma and my mom — my dad, even — cook in the kitchen… I feel like that was definitely the fuel for me even trying to touch any food.”
In the car, on the way back to Oakland, Andres explains that his family didn’t leave their Colombian mountainside farmhouse by choice. His father had been laid off from his accounting job and was running a corner store when armed robbers held the store up. They said they were with the cartels, and wanted Andres’ dad to come be an accountant for them.
“He didn’t want to work with gang members so he split town and went to the U.S. and then worked as a valet parking guy to, like, make enough money to bring us over,” Andres says.
When Andres was 12, he, his brother, and his mom were able to join his father in Miami. It was a far cry from his childhood on the farm — the fresh bananas and mamoncillos were replaced with: “Dominos, KFC, Popeyes, McDonalds, Burger King,” Andres says. “Whatever quick meal.”
It was a culinary culture shock, but it wasn’t all bad. Miami also exposed Andres to cuisines he hadn’t tried before — Japanese, Thai, Cuban. And he got plenty of practice in the kitchen, cooking for his eight-year-old brother.
“I kind of was always like the caretaker for him,” Andres says.
Watching Food Network shows inspired Andres to get creative with the family’s leftovers.
“I'd give myself a challenge to make a new dish and then he'd be my taste tester,” he recounts.
Around the same time, he tasted his first glory as a chef through his experiments with a Miami classic: the Cuban sandwich. After going skateboarding and getting stoned…
“Some of my homies would come over hella hungry, and then [I’d make] these ham and cheese sandwiches and use the panini press that makes them into triangles,” he says. “And like, the secret was just that I put mayo on both sides of the bread. And then everyone knew me as the guy that made the best ham-and-cheeses.”
As high school graduation drew near, Andres began thinking about what he wanted to do. He knew college wasn’t for him, and he’d already been working at a local fast food restaurant through a work-release program at school. The two things he really liked to do were skate and cook, and he wasn’t going to become a professional skateboarder — cooking was the answer.
“So then the question was like, how do I go about it?”
He enrolled in culinary school, but found the pace too slow and dropped out after a couple weeks.
I love kung fu movies, all martial arts movies,” Andres says. “People always have a master and they go into the depths of, like, could be a mountain. And they're learning from a monk for like, five years. So in my head, that was the way.”
Andres was inspired by Anthony Bourdain to just go to a fancy restaurant and knock on the back door. He showed up outside Yardbird, which he describes as a “French/Southern” restaurant, and asked if they needed help. Did he have relevant experience? Not really. But the chef found him charming and gave him a chance.
“I told him, like, I think at the time my plan was to open up a three Michelin star restaurant,” Andres says. “And I told him that I need experience fast because I was young and I was hungry.”
Now he had a foot in the door, so he went to the best restaurants he could find, first in New York at WD-50 and then in Spain. He was so dedicated to building his skills that he went into debt working for next to nothing at Mugaritz, ranked as one of the best restaurants in the world.
But after a few years, the financial toll was too great, and he had to move back in with his parents in Miami. After six months of working odd restaurant jobs and trying to get out of debt, he got a job offer from Saison. That’s why he moved to San Francisco in 2017.
Before long, he’d been indoctrinated into the cult of Bay Area chefs who shop at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco.
“When I started, I was just, like, buying for other people,” Andres explains. “So now I kind of know, like, everybody that has all the best s—.”
Now he’s buying for Snail Bar. Andres and Jul are filling a big red push-cart with produce, visiting vendors they see on a weekly basis. Andres unclips what looks like a branch of a tree from the pole of one of the farmer’s market stands — at last, some bay that meets his standards. But that’s not nearly as exciting as the market’s miniature vegetables.
“Baby squash, dude,” Andres says. “Look at the size of these babies.”
“Look at how cute they are,” Jul coos. “We’re gonna cut them up for crudité.”
The couple has also bought out the market’s supply of gooseberries, which will decorate an oyster set.
By 10am, they’re done shopping and have begun loading up Jul’s car. Included in their haul are “a s—load of cilantro blossoms” and a jasmine tea and apple juice box.
A few days later, a cook is thinly slicing those gooseberries, and finely chopping chives to garnish steamed mussels. Andres, meanwhile, is examining a pungent bouquet of purple flowers — society garlic.
“Where’d you get this?” I ask.
“Undisclosed location.” He laughs. “We’ve got like three spots around town that we urban forage… it’s one of our favorite ingredients and nobody really grows it. People grow it in front of their apartment as something that looks nice, but I don’t really get it because it smells like garlic.”
In addition to the cachapas Andres mentioned on our hike, the society garlic will also top the restaurant’s pan con tomate.
There may be foraged society garlic and the farmers market’s finest squash, but there are also hot dogs on the grill. Snail Bar’s Colombian hot dog is topped with melted cheese, creamy special sauce, quail eggs, and crumbled potato chips. Sterling Novell is working the grill tonight.
I think we just did 20 dogs,” Novell says, “and we got 62 to sell. People will be squeezing in here like pigs on a nipple trying to get some of these dogs, you know what I mean?”
In a brief moment of downtime, Andres pulls the staff together for a quick gulp of wine in the middle of the open kitchen.
“I just, like, want to run out,” he says. “I want to run out of food as soon as possible, so then we clean up, and then we’re done. TBH.”
But Andres is never really done. Before long, he’ll be back hiking in the East Bay hills, planning out the next week’s menu.