Meet the ‘Brokeass Cooks’ who started a pop-up in their Oakland backyard

Like many cooks in the Bay Area, Bilal Ali, Hoang Le and Keone Koki lost their jobs when the pandemic hit. But instead of flipping a middle finger to the restaurant industry and leaving forever, they strapped on their aprons and started grilling jerk chicken in the West Oakland backyard they shared. The name for the three chef-roommates’ new pop-up restaurant came naturally: “Brokeass Cooks.”

“There’s no jobs for the foreseeable future, so we were like, yeah we’re broke and we don’t really have a choice right now,” said Ali. “We have to make something for ourselves.”

While Ali and Koki first met while working at a restaurant in San Diego, the trio was formed when they started working as chefs at Oakland’s two-Michelin-starred Commis, where they met Le. They all eventually moved on from Commis, with Ali and Le most recently working at Oakland bar and music venue Starline Social Club, while Koki consulted for swanky San Francisco cocktail spot Bar Agricole — at least until they all were laid off.

“In the beginning, we did this because we wanted to keep cooking,” explained Le. “That’s what we’ve been doing our entire lives, and it’s what we still want to do with our lives … As long as we can pay rent and pay our bills and keep cooking, that’s all we need at this point.”

All three came to the table with different possible directions to take the pop-up, from barbecue to Peruvian, but to start off, they settled on jerk chicken. Koki and Ali were inspired by their former mentor, San Diego chef Jason Knibb, who taught them everything they know about jerk.

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New pop-up Brokeass Cooks started less than a month ago and is already selling out of its family-style meals every week.

New pop-up Brokeass Cooks started less than a month ago and is already selling out of its family-style meals every week.

Photo by Namchi Van

Each week, customers can pre-order family-style meals and pick them up at the chefs’ house in West Oakland on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The roommates wake up at what they call their “chef house” at 9 a.m. on Fridays to get produce from the farmers’ market, and start grilling in the backyard by 11:30 a.m. They crank out chickens until 7 p.m., then clean up and repeat everything the next day. At this point, it’s a full-time job for all three of them.

“I think we’ve been working for the past three months straight, every day,” said Le. “The grind never really stops for us.”

Currently, they offer a half jerk chicken ($25) which serves two people, or a whole ($50) that serves three to four. The meal comes with an assortment of sides, including grilled scallions, scotch bonnet marmalade, coconut rice with peas, a summer tomato and sour plum salad (using plums they forage from their neighbor’s tree), chicken broth to sip on the side, and even fried plantains to snack on while you wait for your order. And if you’re thirsty, you can add on their fresh organic soy milk for another $4.

It’s been less than a month, but Brokeass Cooks is already catching on. Their Instagram following is growing, and each week, they’ve had to add another case of chickens to keep up with all the orders. The jerk chicken is already attracting repeat customers, but the chefs plan on switching up the menu soon.

“We won’t know how popular we really are until we change the menu and see if people want the next dish,” said Ali. “We don’t know if we’re just the jerk boys right now.”

“Maybe we’re only this month’s flavor, and maybe there might be three new boys that take over,” joked Le.

It’s impossible to predict the whims of hungry, quarantined Oaklanders, but if the Brokeass Cooks keep up the playful vibe they portray on Instagram, they might have a good shot at keeping their audience, jerk chicken or not. Le is the TikTok mastermind behind their account, shooting videos of the three taste-testing super spicy habanero peppers or thanking their customers while taking shots of whiskey and giggling. In another video, the three buddies hit up the Oakland Chinatown farmers’ market to the tune of Bay Area rapper P-Lo’s “same squad” (“If the squad ain’t with me then it ain’t right”).

“One of the things we were looking at was transparency and showing people the process, because with a normal restaurant, you don’t see much,” said Ali. “The whole Brokeass Cooks thing is that chefs might make really pretty food, but they’re poor. And also it’s showing what goes into your food, and that we’re having fun and enjoying ourselves.”

They don’t shy away from the devastating reality of the restaurant industry right now, either: They’re quick to acknowledge that the industry is “going to have to change forever” and that Brokeass Cooks is their personal attempt to revive it, according to Le. They even have a tongue-in-cheek slogan: “Make Hospitality Great Again.”

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Brokeass Cooks is a new pop-up in Oakland selling family-style meals, such as jerk chicken with coconut rice and tomato plum salad.

Brokeass Cooks is a new pop-up in Oakland selling family-style meals, such as jerk chicken with coconut rice and tomato plum salad.

Photo by Namchi Van

Currently, the pop-up is at maximum capacity for the production equipment they have, but if their popularity keeps growing (“we’re broke, we don’t want to buy things we don’t need,” said Koki) the chefs would love to expand.

“The goal is to make this our full-time job,” explained Ali. “I think it’s a milestone for chefs to open up something, and for us that would be amazing to have an actual brick-and-mortar. Although we kind of do right now, just in the four walls of our home.”

Even if they do expand, the chefs want to keep their food accessible and affordable for their Oakland neighbors.

“We want to do family-style dinners at a low price, because we know a lot of people who are struggling,” said Le, who grew up in Oakland. “It’s always been the community we wanted to cook for. Growing up here myself, it’s easy to get a hamburger for a dollar, but if you can get a nice home-cooked meal for a low rate … I think sometimes it might seem unapproachable, but maybe our background and our image is helping get that food across.”

Brokeass Cooks can be found on Instagram, where they post an order form for their food each week. 

[Editor’s note, 10:30 a.m., August 7, 2020: The original story contained a misspelling of Keone Koki’s last name and also incorrectly named Brokeass Cooks’ former mentor. The story has been updated throughout.]

Madeline Wells is an SFGATE reporter. Email: [email protected] | Twitter: @madwells22

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