Cooking show fans recognize chef Jen Biesty from season four of Top Chef, which pitted her in competition against her then-girlfriend. Or they might have seen her on a 2019 episode of Chopped entitled “Weird, Wacky and Wild,” in which Biesty was tasked with cooking pork uterus and nutria, a large rodent. She won, becoming a Chopped champion.
Biesty is the chef-owner at Shakewell, the Mediterranean tapas restaurant and bar on Oakland’s Lakeshore Avenue. Originally from Brooklyn, Biesty attended culinary school in Hyde Park and worked at restaurants in New York City and London before putting down roots in the Bay Area.
Biesty lived and worked in San Francisco for 20 years. Then, she fell in love with the Lakeshore neighborhood in Oakland, full of same sex couples and families and people of varying ages, ethnicities and gender identities.
“San Francisco has the Castro, but Oakland doesn’t necessarily have a gay neighborhood,” Biesty points out. “It’s more integrated into the culture here. You see it more in any restaurant or bar that you go to. There’s a lot more openness.”
Biesty now lives in Oakland with her wife, Sara, and their two-year-old daughter, Cece. Between working at Shakewell, raising Cece and renovating their new home, Biesty enjoys all Oakland has to offer at her favorite restaurants, shops and parks.
For a sweet treat, Biesty heads to Cupcakin’. “Their flavors are spot-on,” Biesty says. A Cupcakin’ favorite is the key lime pie cupcake with graham cracker crust and lime curd filling. Jen’s daughter, Cece, is a fan of the carrot cake cupcake.
Biesty loves the historic Old Oakland district, with its brick sidewalks and Victorian buildings. At its heart, Swan’s Market is home to some of Oakland’s best restaurants. At Miss Ollie’s, fellow queer chef Sarah Kirnon serves Caribbean food and cocktails in a casual, sit-down environment. Biesty usually orders fried chicken and salt fish with ackee.
Biesty’s favorite kitchen store is Chanco Houseware & Restaurant Supplies in Chinatown. There, Biesty stocks up on the rectangular serving plates that she uses at Shakewell. She also purchases wares for her home kitchen. “My wife and I are big fans of ramen,” Biesty says. “If you need a big ramen bowl, that’s the place to go.
“Also vegetable peelers, or kitchen timers, or a scale or a knife. Or "slippers!" she adds. “They have everything there.”
Biesty’s parents live in New York, so Oakland offers an escape from the frigid winters. She takes them to one of Oakland’s many farmers markets for local produce and fresh bread, followed by a hike in Joaquin Miller Park among the redwoods. She also walks with her pup, Eloise, in the dog-friendly Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve. “You don’t even have to cross the bridge to get some nice, beautiful nature,” Biesty says.
Doña holds a special place in Biesty’s heart. Biesty and her wife had their wedding reception at owner Dona Savitsky’s previous restaurant, Doña Tomás, after their wedding ceremony at the Morcom Rose Garden. At their reception, guests chowed down on chiles rellenos and drank “a lot of margaritas,” Biesty recalls.
Savitsky’s new restaurant, Doña, is located on Piedmont Avenue. The counter service restaurant is ideal when Biesty doesn’t have time for a lengthy meal—especially when she has her daughter in tow. Cece loves rice, beans and carnitas, but she’s working on her ability to sit still.
“With a kid, you’ve gotta get in and out fast before they have a meltdown and start throwing food around,” Biesty laughs.
Mägo is another Piedmont Avenue newcomer. The space is refined, modern and minimalist—much like the Northern Californian cuisine that centers on thoughtfully presented local ingredients. Biesty particularly loves the spaghetti cacio e pepe. For her, it’s the perfect place for a date night without any stuffiness.
“You can come in wearing a T-shirt and shorts, or a nice pressed shirt or a dress and always feel welcome,” Biesty says. “That works for Oakland. It’s beautiful year-round, and you can go wherever you want however you want.”
Temescal’s Umami Mart specializes in Japanese sake, seasonings, bar supplies and housewares, with a tasting room for connoisseurs of sake, shochu and beer. Biesty purchases gifts for friends there, such as soap dishes, tea towels and sake in glass cups decorated with fawns and pandas.
Many products are made in Oakland, including small-batch sake brewed at Den Sake Brewery in West Oakland. Visitors can also pick up Japanese spice mixes, custom blended for Umami Mart by Oaktown Spice Shop.
Most days, you’ll find Biesty at Shakewell, where she’s built a community. The Oakland LGBTQ Community Center is just steps away, and Biesty and her business partner, Tim Nugent, have hosted several fundraisers for the center at Shakewell.
“People in the community know they can come to Shakewell and be themselves,” Biesty says. That’s partly because Biesty and Nugent are both out and proud. But for Biesty, that wasn’t always the case.
“My first job out of culinary school was at Aquavit in Manhattan, and I definitely said ‘my roommate’ and not ‘my girlfriend,’” Biesty says. “I’ve definitely had interviews where I went in trying to act straight.”
In the Bay Area, Biesty says, “It was pretty easy to be out, and then it got to a point where it was so obvious with the way I dress and cut my hair…I don’t think I could have fooled anyone.”
Now, she doesn’t need to fool anyone. “Living your true life and being yourself, and not being afraid to put yourself out there in that way—I think that makes the community stronger.”