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Dabba Chef Turns to Food's Healing Powers

Move over Chipotle; there’s a new bowl in town.

Early in the morning on December 31, 2017, Chef Eric Ehler from Mister Jiu’s in Chinatown suffered cardiac arrest, and was temporarily declared dead. He was only 29. Fortunately for Ehler, he was resuscitated and survived – but the toll of his 80 hour workweeks in the kitchen had caused so much stress in his life that he nearly lost his own.

While Ehler’s story is quite extraordinary, another local chef, Walter Abrams, can sympathize with his predicament and the tough road so many chefs take to make it in the restaurant business.  Several years ago, Abrams was a rising star in the upscale restaurant world, but it was wearing on him due to excessively long work days, consuming too much unhealthy food on the go and being unable to spend enough time with his family. Abrams, who trained at the famed French Laundry for more than seven years before joining Michelin starred Spruce restaurant in San Francisco as the chef de cuisine, decided to proactively take matters into his own hands. He left his fine dining job to begin consulting with restaurants on creating healthier menus not only for his patrons, but also for the kitchen teams behind the dishes. He met entrepreneur and Mill Valley resident Andy Mercy, who became his healthy living mentor and eventually, business partner. Today, Abrams has found his calling as the chef behind Dabba, a fast-casual concept in the Financial District with a soon-to-open second location on Chestnut Street in the Marina.

With a newfound purpose, Abrams and Mercy together have created an environment in Dabba that is healthy on the customer floor as well as in the kitchen. The duo encourages their kitchen staff to “practice what they preach” about embracing a salubrious lifestyle — offering workers free meals at work, paid medical benefits for full time employees and pre-tax credits towards gym memberships.

Abrams has painstakingly developed recipes that incorporate the super food qualities of ingredients such as turmeric (an anti-inflammatory), cardamom (cancer-fighting properties) and ginger (digestive help) into his recipes. And because he’s poured hours and hours into studying the nutritional secrets of food, often during his daily commute on the Napa ferry, he’s able to boost the nutritional benefits of his recipes with some added twists. He’ll add black pepper to a dish, knowing that it will turbo charge the body’s absorption of curcumin (the natural substance found in turmeric that does all the anti-inflammatory work). He’ll toss in a slice of fresh lemon to a cup of matcha tea, to enable better absorption of the tea’s antioxidants. He’ll sneak in some Fenugreek to a recipe, which has properties found to increase libido and lessen the effects of hot flashes and mood fluctuations.

In keeping with an earth friendly attitude, Abrams and Mercy are committed to knowing the provenance of all ingredients and source locally whenever possible, working closely with Woodside’s SMIP Ranch and Strauss Family Creamery in Petaluma. They require all purveyors to be aligned with their core beliefs of no pesticides or GMOs. Trash output is minimal, with almost everything in the establishment compostable or recyclable. Nothing is frozen; everything is served directly from the kitchen to guarantee the nutrients are preserved as best as possible.

The name Dabba is reference to the “dabbawalas” of India -- delivery men who transport thousands of homemade lunches each day to the working people of Mumbai. Given that Dabba mostly caters to a lunch crowd, it feels appropriate. Dabba’s simple lunch menu consists of bowls, burritos, tacos, wraps and salads, each one customizable with grains, beans, seasonal vegetables and toppings. When the new location opens in May, Dabba will offer dinner.

Upon a visit to Dabba, you may be greeted by a fresh-faced youth who was hired by Mercy as a result of his board affiliation with Summer Search – an organization that mentors high school and college students from low-income backgrounds and opens the door for summer employment opportunities. It’s all part of the plan to keep Dabba as a destination you will not only want to visit often for an uber-healthy meal, but also one that gives back to our community.

If You Go:

71 Stevenson Street
San Francisco, CA 94105

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