Shakirah Simley is a familiar presence in the Bay Area food world. She is the Community Coordinator and Canner-in-Residence for Bi-Rite, the growing local grocery emporium that is also somewhat of a food institution nationally. At Bi-Rite, Simley wears a number of hats: a canner developing jams and preserves; an instructor teaching cooking classes at 18 Reasons, the educational arm for Bi-Rite; and the community coordinator in charge of giving and community outreach, supporting programs focused on youth empowerment and increasing access to healthy food.
Simley is a San Francisco resident and attended the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Italy on a Fulbright scholarship, where she received her master’s degree in Food Culture and Communications and studied under Italian canners. She previously has worked on nutrition and recreational equity policy issues, youth organizing campaigns, and owned her own small-artisanal jam business, Slow Jams. She was recently named one of Zagat’s “30 under 30: SF Bay Area Up and Comers” and is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and hails from Harlem, NYC. Shakirah loves putting her food systems, community engagement and jammy talents to work every day, and if you catch her on 18th Street, she loves to talk about food justice and policy, jamming, school food and the perfect cappuccino. Bay Area Bites caught up with Simley recently. Her comments have been edited for content and clarity.
Simley: I’m a self-taught professional canner; and have worked consistently (and commercially) on my craft for the past several years to great success. First with my own artisanal jam company, Slow Jams and now I currently develop artisanal preserve recipes for Bi-Rite Market’s private label, PUBLIC Label.
Bay Area Bites: How did the class go? What sort of prep do you do?
Simley: My peach class went extremely well! We focused on identifying the best fruit for canning, tasted several peach varietals, talked about genus Prunus and learned about the history of peaches in California. Then we jumped right in and made a fantastically floral peach lavender preserve and delicious ginger peach soda two ways — with carbonated water and with champagne yeast. The best part of the class was my students — I had a wonderful group of inquisitive and industrious canners. They made it easy to completely nerd out on stone fruit.
Bay Area Bites: What are your career successes & goals?
Simley: Being able to receive a Fulbright scholarship to study in Italy was an incredible experience, and I’m excited to continue learning and working in the endlessly inspiring San Francisco food community. Having opportunities to talk about canning, knowing what it takes to run a small food business, but also knowing myself and when to take a step back to just focus on my craft. Beyond my career as a canner, my goal is to continue to empower youth through food as a food justice advocate and through mentorship, teaching, serving on advisory boards and fostering opportunities with good food businesses. Ultimately, I would like to have my own jammy brick and mortar in Oakland that can serve as café/retail space and be a training ground for local youth…and take over the world through tiny jars of awesome.
Bay Area Bites: Regarding food and technique, what are you passionate about this season?
Simley: This season, I’m in love with Tara Duggan’s new book Root to Stalk Cooking: The Art of Using the Whole Vegetable. I’m passionate about whole fruit preserving — yielding multiple recipes from one batch to waste no part of the fruit and get more bang for your fruit buck. For instance, this summer, I preserved blackberries in balsamic vinegar; after several weeks I removed the fruit — saved the vinegared berries for summery salads and used the berry balsamic as a base for homemade salad dressing and a boozy berry shrub. After zesting Meyer lemons for a massive batch of limoncello, I turned the leftover fruit into lemon granita, lemon curd and concentrate for cocktails. I’m obsessed. I try to bring this ethos to my classes. If you’ve spent your hard-earned money for that beautiful, organic and local fruit — why waste it? A good cook and canner is a resourceful, creative and thrifty one.
Bay Area Bites: You were recently named to Zagat’s “30 Under 30” list. What was that process like? What would you like to be known for?
Simley: I was nominated by Samin Nosrat and I was incredibly overwhelmed with gratitude for the honor. Not to mention — I was in very good company; it’s so great to see passionate young people making it happen in the food world. It’s pretty cool to be recognized by your industry, but I just want to continue to focus, keep my head down and do good, meaningful work. My legacy would be 1) to feed people well and 2) give kids who grew up in environments like I did, the chance to fulfill their food dreams and 3) help pave the way for more woman leaders and people of color leaders in the food industry.
The Zagat folks even stopped by Bi-Rite; we made a batch of jam together and I provided some helpful canning tips.
Bay Area Bites: Who are your mentors?
Simley: First and foremost, my mom. She’s raised five kids on her own with limited resources, has her master’s degree and is a licensed social worker. She wonders aloud why I’m such a feminist and hard worker — it’s hilarious. My fave food female businesses owners are really inspiring — the ladies at La Cocina, Michelle at Nana Joes Granola, Jordan at Happy Girl Kitchen, Donna Sky from Love and Hummus. I receive lots of guidance from Sam Mogannam (owner of Bi-Rite) and Anne Walker (co-owner of Bi-Rite Creamery) and Bryant Terry (author, food activist, author). Also, the kids I mentor — they keep me honest.
Bay Area Bites: What are your favorite local joints?
Simley: I love Bodie and friendly folks at 20 Spot in the Mission — it’s so well-executed, the wine list is legit and the food is phenomenal. I love curling up on one of their rocking chairs with a glass of an Italian white on Friday night with deviled duck eggs. I also have major 18th Street love for Namu lunch and their cold noodles. If I could marry the Grand Lake Farmers’ Market in Oakland, I would. I’m a girl who loves to eat, so staying fit and strong is also a priority — I’m a big fan of Hipline Dance studio in Oakland and ODC Dance in SF.
Bay Area Bites: Any news on projects we should know about?
Simley: I’ll be co-hosting a fundraiser for CommunityGrows at State Bird Provisions on September 29 and teaching some fall and winter canning classes with Pollinate Farm and Garden in Oakland this holiday season. Be on the lookout for several, small-batch preserves at Bi-Rite (think bourbon pumpkin butter and Bartlett pear butter).
Full disclosure: I have worked professionally with Shakirah Simley event planning for last year’s 18th Street Block party & my son’s school received a donation for Bi-Rite gift cards for a separate fundraiser.