Ask the Chef

Amanda Benway of Mama’s Royal Cafe on Breakfast Joints


     It’s a special type of personality that becomes a chef, but it’s arguable that an even more special type becomes a chef of a breakfast and brunch place. Think about it: Diners are just waking up. They haven’t had their coffee. They aren’t necessarily “morning people.”
     And don’t forget those hours, which are not for the faint of heart.
     But Amanda Benway, the kitchen manager and head chef of Mama’s Royal Cafe in Oakland for the past 4½ years, knew exactly what she was getting into. After all, her first culinary job at age 18 was at Mama’s, baking biscuits and scones and progressing on to become a line cook.
     While Benway eventually moved on and gained more experience, most notably as executive chef for a fine-dining tapas establishment called Graze in Albuquerque, N.M., she found herself back in Oakland when the economy shuttered that last restaurant. Now 30 and living in the Bay Area with her husband and cat, Benway took a moment before the lunch rush to reflect on what it’s like to wake up early, sling eggs and try to work local and sustainable ingredients into the menu of a restaurant that hasn’t brooked much change since opening its doors in February 1974.

Q: Your first job was at Mama’s when you were just 18. What drew you to the place?
A: I grew up in Vermont and moved to Oakland as soon as I turned 18. The sunshine brought me here. This was one of my first jobs. I was a baker and moved up to being a cook in my first year.

Q: What’s the biggest challenge being a cook at a breakfast joint?
A:The early morning hours! I like the early morning hours; I do. But I guess the pace of a breakfast place, trying to get the food to customers as quick as possible, is a challenge. They come in, they haven’t eaten, they’re hungry, they’re on their way to work. They just want to get going. It’s a challenge.

Q: How early do you get up? Do you have to get to bed early?
A: I get up at 6 and I’m here by 7. Since I’ve been doing it the last 4½ years, I’m pretty used to it by now. But I do get tired by 10 every night, even if I don’t have to go to work the next day.

Q: The restaurant has been here since 1974. Has the menu changed much?
A: Not drastically. We’ve kept the same menu a long time, and it’s a huge menu. I added a few things when I came back, but it’s overall the same idea. We added a breakfast biscuit sandwich, we changed the French toast, which was on plain wheat and switched it to challah bread. We added a croque monsieur and croque madame. And then we do weekly specials.

Q: There’s definitely a push by the restaurant to feature local ingredients like Acme bread and Petaluma eggs. Was it always like this or is it more so now?
A:Everything’s always been made from scratch, but Berkeley Bowl was not always an option, and we didn’t always shop at farmers markets. But now we shop at Berkeley Bowl a lot, and we look around and see what’s going on, what’s seasonal. We have a Niman Ranch tri-tip, oh, about every six weeks. If we see ramps or fiddlehead ferns, we’ll plan that into a special for the weekend. So that’s changed a little, but everything’s fresh and local and made from scratch, just like always.

Mama’s Royal Café, 4012 Broadway, Oakland, (510) 547-7600, Serves breakfast 7 a.m.–2:30 p.m. and lunch 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m. Mon.–Fri. and breakfast 8 a.m.–3 p.m. Sat.–Sun.

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