Interview: Underground Restaurateur Kai Schoenhals Wants You Aboard His Bus

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Photo: Impakd.com

Free Range Dining proprietor Kai Schoenhals moved to San Francisco from Poland last year with Swedish chef/partner Daniel Isberg, having chosen the Bay over Brooklyn as the place to open a restaurant in 2010. Kai and Daniel began hosting underground dinners in a kitchen at the back of a bar in North Beach, and lately they've been doing two or three dinners a week out of a catering kitchen in Dogpatch used by former Top Chef-testant Laurine Wickett. They've now closed a deal on a restaurant in Hayes Valley, but before and after the place opens they plan to serve mobile dinners aboard a tricked out '57 Greyhound bus nicknamed Diamond Lil.

We recently spoke to Kai and tasted some of Daniel's excellent food at a Free Range Dining event. (They've got few seats left for an 8-course dinner on March 6th, so contact them if you're interested.)

Grub Street: How did you and Daniel first meet?
We met at Prowein in Dusseldorf five years ago — it's the biggest wine and spirits event in Central Europe. Then two and a half years ago he came to work at two of my restaurants in Poland, KOM Restaurant and Wine Bar, and KOMPassPort. We're actually going back to Prowein in two weeks to run the kitchen for the California Wine Institute's booth there.

How did you land in San Francisco?
We decided last year that we wanted to come to the States and bring our food to a new audience here. We looked at a few places in Brooklyn and were ready to seal a deal there when a friend in San Francisco called and said, 'Before you make any decisions just come out here and check it out.' We came here and we haven't left. Where else in the world can you get incredible, fresh ingredients, 365 days a year? Also there's just this concentration of dynamic minds here that isn't like anywhere else.

Tell us about the bus. When is it going to be operational?
I'm a huge fan of public transportation. In 1993 I hosted a black-tie party on a tram in Warsaw. It was the first time a public vehicle was hired for a private function. Since then I became a public transit junkie. In 2007, I was invited to San Francisco to design a winery and saw the Napa Wine Train. I loved the concept, but the tracks are so limiting. Our bus can roam. It also will have an electric motorcycle mounted on the back for truly remote access.

It's a 1957 GMC Coach that was born into life as a Greyhound, then converted into a mobile home and escaped a miserable existence when we rescued her in Hatch, Utah. We are building a kitchen inside, along with dining in and around. The bus will be very environmentally friendly — it'll run on bio-fuel and used cooking oil from our own restaurant and catering businesses. The interior will be made of recycled materials, such as rubber & paper.

She's named Diamond Lil, after my grandmother who lived to be 110 and died in 1995. She was the first to open a club in Coconut Grove, Florida, and she owned a country club in Pittsburgh during Prohibition, and she saw over a century of change in this country. Diamond Lil is parked in Oakland right now awaiting her next phase of renovations. She should be operational by summer.

What else are you working on?
We're developing a TV show called Mind Your Tongue which involves conscientious producers and purveyors of food & drink. We travel in the bus to exciting locations, cult vineyards, ranches, and we film the place and cook a meal there using products from the place.

And you're working on a restaurant as well?
Yes. We've closed a deal to take over an existing restaurant in Hayes Valley by the middle of this year, but it wouldn't be fair to the restaurant's current staff to say which one.

Can you tell us about the concept?

Well, we've called our underground operation Free Range Dining because that sums up our vision. Affordable gourmet with inspiration from around the world, with products from conscientious purveyors and growers. We'll be bringing my Central European heritage and Daniel's Scandinavian background into the mix with New American cuisine, and the wine list will reflect all three as well. And occasionally Diamond Lil will pull up in front of the restaurant to whisk a group of people off for a dinner on the road.

Speaking of opening restaurants, what do you think of Mission Street Food's co-op concept?
It's a brilliant idea, and so San Francisco, the whole proletariat thing. But 100 investors? That sounds problematic.

Free Range Dining
[Official Site]
EARLIER: Soon You May Be Eating Foie Aboard a '57 Greyhound Bus [Grub Street]