From Set Dresser to Table Setter
Mona Personius got a lot more than she bargained for when she went to Los Angeles at the age of 21 with stars in her eyes. The Alameda chef-owner, who conjures up delicious feasts at Mona’s Table (3215 A Encinal Ave., 814-6179), started off in film school. From there, she graduated into the movie business. “I was a set dresser. Lead man, it was called. That always cracked me up because it was an easier job for women than for men. Women are very organized. Woman can multitask.”
Personius called what she did “trucking and bitching.”
“I was always fighting for money and for more crew and running this fleet of trucks across town organizing stuff for the movie sets. The film business taught me incredible organizational skills that helped me when I got into catering.”
The movie business in fact launched Personius as a chef. Her friends knew she loved to cook, and when actress Annie Potts, a star in the TV sitcom Designing Women, had a baby and needed a private chef, someone recommended Personius. “I was kind of intimidated at first. I mean, what would I cook? What did stars eat? I asked her, and she was pretty vague and said she didn’t really know, but maybe something like meatloaf.”
The job, says Personius, was awesome. She cooked for the likes of Tim Curry and had a lot of fun. She also realized that cooking was a lot more creative than trucking and bitching so, after completing work on what would be her final Hollywood movie set, Get Shorty, and after eight years in L.A., she decided to go to cooking school. She enrolled 13 years ago at a San Francisco culinary academy that she credits with little more than teaching her about wine and giving her a diploma with her name spelled incorrectly. Then she got jobs in restaurants and set about learning how to cook.
After 10 years running a catering business, Personius opened Mona’s Table in Alameda midway through 2006.
The interior reflects her set-dressing skills. Soon as she moved in, she transformed the “drab and depressing” dining space. “I had to purge the bad vibes with color,” she says, adding that somehow, everything morphed together. The pictures of cats, the collection of tins, the posters she picked up when the San Mateo Library closed and the tchotchkes. “That’s my mom,” she says. “She’s brought in a lot of things.” Her mom, recently retired, loves to be involved—waiting tables, cooking desserts and helping with Personius’ afternoon tea specials.
When Personius is done designing life in the kitchen at her café each day, she heads home. Awaiting her are a guinea pig, three cats and a bearded dragon lizard that made it into the family as a birthday present for her son, who is 9. When he’s between movie gigs and in town from Los Angeles, there’s her set-dresser husband, Mike Vojvoda. Not surprisingly, she met him when they were both in the movie business. It means she can maintain her connection with Hollywood—and supplement it with variety and spice.
—By Wanda Hennig
—Photography by Lisa Levine
TAKEFIVE With Rebecca Corral
If she’s not listening to the radio, or talking on the radio, Alameda resident Rebecca Corral, award-winning news anchor for KCBS-AM, 780, and KCBS-FM, 106.9, dials into local spots that she visits with wholehearted frequency.
1 My Parents’ Home on High Street
This is where I go for comfort and where I revert to being the youngest in my family. It’s a place where I can relax, whine—totally be myself. I use my own key and enter through the back door on a regular basis. Besides being the ultimate place for comfort, my parents’ house is where the best homemade tortillas in the world are made.
2 116 Gainsborough Court
This address is where I go to vote. I am passionate about the importance of every citizen voting and taking the process seriously. I’ve gone to the same place for years and used to take my kids with me when they were young to show them how essential it is. It’s what my grandmother used to do with me. Our family has lively conversations about politics and strong opinions that fly in every direction—so come voting time, none of us ever miss.
3 My Vegetable Garden
The day before I broke my leg last May, I had just completed building a flower box for my vegetable garden in my backyard. Little did I know that for the next three months I would be out there (albeit immobile), directing my 7-year-old nephew on how to maintain my little patch of heaven. We’re all quite proud of the squash, seven kinds of peppers, six types of tomatoes and huge herb assortment that we’ve grown. The carrots are another story.
4 The Parlor
Getting there isn’t easy, but once I arrive at my hair salon of over two decades, I’m happy to settle in. I welcome the respite that The Parlor offers me. I love chatting with the other women about our children, bonding with my hairstylist, Karen, and gloriously getting my hair washed by someone else. It is a place where I can—in more ways than one—let my hair down.
5 Aisle One
This Nob Hill gas station is by far my favorite place to get gas. It is well lighted, clean, has a great quick mart, a terrific car wash and offers discounts from receipts of purchases from the grocery store. But possibly the best part of all is that they offer plastic gloves for when you pump gas and a sink with paper towels for hand washing. All that’s missing is the hand lotion!
—By Gina Jaber
—Photography by Philip Kaake
NK Chocolates Tasty Truffles
Two Alameda sisters, Kathi Honegger and Nancy Ryan, are cooking up sweet treats in their kitchen, packaging the delicious truffles under the name NK Chocolates.
Ryan, 42, a stay-at-home mom with three young kids, is the real chocolate maker, having learned the messy trade in her college years as a dipper at truffle queen Alice Medrich’s onetime Berkeley kitchen, Cocolat. Ryan has conveyed what she knows to Honegger, 50, a project manager for Bank of America with three grown children. Thanks to word of mouth, the entrepreneurs are gaining steam with their sideline business, offering nine or so varieties—from dark on dark and caramel to amaretto and crème de menthe—that change a little with their whims and the seasons.
“She likes to make new flavors; she likes to play,” Ryan, the primary dipper, says of her sister. “I eat.”
Longtime chocoholics, the women ponied up for a business license in 2002. Encouraging comments by friends—who adored the truffles the sisters made gratis for such special occasions as birthdays, weddings and holiday parties—convinced them a truffle business could prove an interesting and profitable pursuit. Since then, their truffles have periodically made their way into a few local cafes and boutiques, but the surest way to get them is by ordering directly from NK Chocolates.
About the volume of their business, Honegger, whose specialty is adding decorative touches to the truffles says, “We haven’t really pushed it. We sell as much as we push.”
What’s extremely satisfying, the women concur, is the pleasure their truffles bring to those who eat them. “We still enjoy the reaction every time,” Honegger says.
Hand-making the goodies is a three-day process, and these fresh-made gems have a shelf life of two weeks, so the high-end sweets ($3 a piece or $30 a dozen) are meant to be eaten soon after purchase. One thing’s certain: They are delicious.
Honegger says the duo plans to open a small Alameda shop one day, but when is another question. “We’re doing it for fun. We’re taking it slow,” Ryan says. “We don’t know where it’s going to go.”
—By Judith M. Gallman
—Photography by Al Wright
To order NK Chocolates, contact Nancy Ryan, (510) 522-3834, or Kathi Honegger, (510) 522-8449. NK Chocolates is at 1616 Lafayette St.
Where Consumers Go to Decipher Product Ingredients
Diane Manning awoke with a start at 3 a.m. The name “labelwatch.com” popped into her head. “I got up, turned on my computer, did a search and bought it, and then I went back to bed,” says the ad agency veteran-turned-Internet health-information maven. With a domain name safely in her possession, all she had to do was figure out what she was going to do with her new Web site.
It didn’t take too long. An Alameda resident for the past decade, Manning had been contemplating ways to help consumers decipher the information crammed onto food product labels and make sensible judgments about what they eat. In her ad agency, Manning had worked with food producers and packagers and restaurants, including purveyors of natural and organic products. “I realized that if people could compare the ingredients in products, and if we could connect those ingredients up with a glossary, we could help people understand what is beneficial and what isn’t.” Launched in mid-August 2008, LABELWATCH (www.labelwatch.com) has assembled a database of more than 25,000 name-brand products, a glossary that color-codes ingredients in green (“beneficial”—“appear to promote health”), orange (“OK”—“appear to be safe”) or red (“cautionary”—“appear to be problematic”) according to scientific information culled from multiple sources.
Manning’s mission began when she identified enriched wheat flour and modified food starch as the dietary culprits in her long-standing battle with irritable bowel syndrome. She became “an avid reader of labels” and carried that over to LABELWATCH, which, she explains, “is about ingredients first, nutritional facts second. It used to be that the nutrition facts label was everything, but the health community is now saying we’ve got to look at the ingredients first and then find the nutritional profile that meets your needs.”
LABELWATCH, headquartered in downtown Oakland, allows users to research food products and create personalized shopping lists, but the business plan developed by Manning and fellow officers Andrew Nantkes and Guy Needham calls for the creation of sites for pet care products and services, baby care products, over-the-counter supplements and nonprescription drugs, beauty and skin care products, and home care and cleaning products. With revenue anticipated from advertising (by manufacturers of sanctioned “smart ingredient” products) and licensing of the database (to healthcare institutions), Manning sees LABELWATCH achieving a global reach and growing to “capture most of the grocery story experience.”
—By Derk Richardson
—Photography by Philip Kaake
About An Illustrator
Owen Smith’s Dark Star Is Rising
When singer-songwriter Aimee Mann’s CD The Forgotten Arm won the 2006 Grammy for Best Recording Package, the award went to the art directors, not to the Alameda artist who provided the actual cover painting and 12 interior illustrations for the CD package.
“I should get a keychain version of the Grammy or something,” says Owen Smith, adding, “I want to give the tearful speech or say something political and have them drag me off the stage.”
Not that the 44-year-old Smith—who grew up in Fremont and studied at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena (as did his twin brother)—is short on impressive credits and honors. He painted portraits of musicians Howlin’ Wolf and Frank Zappa for Rolling Stone; illustrated the children’s books Magnus at the Fire and The Jack Tales; designed five mosaic mural panels for a Brooklyn subway station, commissioned by the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority; did the cover painting for Thomas Sanchez’ book The Zoot-Suit Murders; designed posters inspired by Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon for the San Francisco Art Commission’s 2008 Art on Market Street program; and is working on murals, mosaics and concrete sculptures for the new Laguna Honda Hospital buildings in San Francisco.
Regular readers of The New Yorker have beheld as many as 18 of Smith’s covers for the magazine, including the 2006 commemorative 9/11 cover that won the Cover of the Year award from the American Society of Magazine Editors.
Working primarily in oil, Smith paints in a vivid, plastic style reminiscent of the heroic and noir imagery that seeped into American commercial and public art in the 1920s,’30s and ’40s. “I kind of go from pulp to Americana and Diego Rivera,” says the father of 10- and 8-year-old boys who moved with his wife from New York City to Alameda’s Fernside district 11 years ago because “we didn’t want schlep strollers up and down subway steps.”
“Sometimes I feel like I just do new versions of old things,” Smith says of his affinity for boxers, gangsters, floozies, petty criminals and celebrities, “so I’m trying to break out of that a little and move into fine art.” To that end, he’s preparing for a major show in January 2010 at the hip Billy Shire Fine Arts gallery in Los Angeles.
To see more of Owen Smith’s drawings and images, visit illoz.com/owen and www.billyshirefinearts.com.
—By Derk Richardson
—Courtesy of Owen Smith “The Forgotten Arm” by Aimee Mann, Super Ego Records, Gail Marowitz Art Director
New Releases from Alameda Authors and Videographers
Saarinen’s Quest: A Memoir by Richard Knight (William Stout Publishers, 2008, 168 pp., $40)
Local author Richard Knight, also a photographer and sculptor, produces an impressive retrospective of the famous Michigan-based architect Eero Saarinen, designer of the St. Louis Arch and Dulles International Airport. The book opens with a 48-page narrative of Knight’s tenure at Eero Saarinen & Associates, where he hired on as a junior architectural designer in 1957 and quickly became staff photographer, working until Saarinen’s death in 1961. The remainder is devoted to behind-the-scenes black-and-white photos of project models and sometimes spectacular works-in-progress, as well as images of the men and women who assisted the visionary architect. Another Alamedan, Pierluigi Serraino, writes
the book’s endnote.
Lullaby Exercises from chicks-n-chickens, $29.95, www.chicks-n-chickens.com
Alameda mom Darcy Novo Albrecht, a former gymnast, cheerleader, choreographer and ad exec, has created a DVD and CD, Lullaby Exercises, that will keep new mothers fit and help newborns sleep. Born from her own experience of dancing around her house to comfort a cranky baby, Albrecht’s 35-minute instructional video program presents simple dancing, swaying and stretching movements (squats, leg lifts, etc.) for moms (or dads) while they hold the baby in a sling or handle a baby carrier containing the infant. With songs and music by Lisa Phenix, the workout offers a high-intensity “Groove” set and a low-key “Sleep” set, practically guaranteed to put baby to sleep. Albrecht and Jennifer Ashdown, chicks-n-chickens vice president of business development, also do their part to spread girl power.