Tag Archives: Bay Area

Forget the Louvre. We really go to Paris for the croissants (because we can’t get them here)

Tartine at Cafe Tourelle in the Marais

Cafe Tourelle in the Marais

Until recently I had unlimited access to a couch in Paris and used it as much as courtesy and time permitted. The apartment was in an intoxicatingly romantic, creaky floored ancient building across from the police station in the Marais, the old Jewish quarter, which had not been raised to build the grand allees of Paris and thus retained its charms. Among these were a bakery on the corner and another half a block down. In addition the café Tourelle with solid day to day food and a terrific Café au lait with either tartine or croissants was three minutes away, as was the quirky café muse.

I spent my mornings there sipping on my fat cup of chicory redolent coffee and licking the jam off my fingers, envying the chatting French couples around me who take this for granted.

The croissants were always perfect – flaky and buttery, soft with a just a enough tooth, crying to be undressed one flaky layer at a time and devoured. So were the macarons at the corner shop, which my hosts pronounced far superior and less expensive than those from LaDuree (where I gladly spent $40 on what was essentially 2 glasses of bubbly and four cookies).

LaDuree macarons

Macarons at La Duree

Now and then I picked up a box of diverse pastries, breakfast suited tartlets and assorted treats to take back to the apartment to share – an excuse, as my hostess keeps her admirable figure by not eating pastries, leaving them mostly for me.

I value good pastries. When I bought a couch of my own in Berlin,  my first requirement was a bakery within walking distance. There are three, but they are not French, While the Germans are no slouch at baking, they can’t hold a candle to the Parisian croissants, but they are generally far better than what  we can find at home.

Most European bakery goods, in fact,  blow our American selection out of the water . They are made by better and differently trained artisans using different wheat and fatter butter . European bakeries play to a more demanding audience. Parisians  would rise up in arms at our low American standards.  The French complain loudly and immediately that the baguettes are endangered.  The average American wouldn’t k now a good baguette from a sandwich roll.

The majority of American pastry is produced in commissaries from mixes of a sort or par baked and finished off where it is sold. Hotels which used to vie for the top European and American pastry chefs now buy their goods pre-baked from wholesalers. A recent promising breakfast at San Francisco’s once exquisite Campton Place served a selection of breakfast breads which would have been equally in place at an IHOP.  The Maitre d’ gliding by with the inquiry, “Isn’t everything absolutely fabulous? “ It was not.

The main reason American pastries and “small” breads, known as Vienoiserie, are third rate is because that’s what Americans expect and want – hockey puck scones, cardboard Danish, huge cookies tasting of baking soda and an assortment of  sticky things kept in a cool case, which alters the proteins making the pastries them tough, stale and stickier.

Most bakery items are over sized – The French appreciate the the tiny, flavor packed macaron. We tend to prefer the sweet only six inch cookie or the half pound muffin, an overly sugared giant cupcake in reality.  A nice coffee shop I frequent tried selling a few higher quality small pastries and ended up throwing them out, because nobody would buy them. We are used to big and sweet as opposed to flavorful with mouth feel, and that’s what we buy.

There are some very acceptable, even good volume small item pastry/bakery producers/wholesalers, but their good work is foiled by the ignorance of retailers unaware of how to store and sell them, so cool cased palmiers end up tasting like glue covered shoe box covers.

La Boulange Palm Leaves

La Boulange Palm Leaves Correctly Stored

Of course we are not to blame, because most of us have no way of knowing any better. We get our sense of what is possible from the market, and coffee shops like Starbucks set the bar very low. We have scant basis for comparison.

Every once in a while a great bakery shop opens, then disappears.  A wonderful artisan Italian bakery in West Portal sold as a turnkey business to an operator who quickly switched to Costco before closing his doors last week. Creighton’s, another neighborhood store offering excellent, rustic pastry switched hands and products to the standard mass market trash.

The most recent sad story of short lived great bakeries, at least for its many fans,  is that of  La Boulange, the small business triumph of Pastry Chef/ entrepreneur Pasqual Rigo, which opened it’s first unit in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights, then began to expand with a a cafe in that neighborhood and another grand little cafe in the Metreon building, where lines formed out the door within a month.

Latte and pastries at La Boulange

Rigo, a smart, skilled artisan, with a little help from his friends created a line of French style pastries and lunch snacks which would surely pass French muster. He manages to sell small items – macarons, madeleins, financiers – at profitable prices and offers home made tasting jam and butter for breakfast items, and a selection of savory sides – cornichons, sauces, etc –  and the coffee, served in warm bowls like a French farmhouse kitchen, is delicious (for the moment). It is a growing corporation with a single unit feel. Or at least it was.

La Boulange has just been purchased by Starbuck’s for $100 million with the explanation that they need the group to improve their quality. I don’t buy it. As a matter of fact I predict that this will be the short of long death of La Boulange.

Rigo’s skill and vision have about as much chance of uplifting Starbuck’s quality as the Titanic did of raising the iceberg.  “They needed a place to produce their pastry,” said a local LB manager. With more than 25,000 total units (including the Starbuck’s owned Seattle’s Best outlets) Starbucks would need a “Place to produce their pastry” half the size of Texas.  At this point La Boulange’s production is artisan, which means among other things that it is produced in proximity to the outlets. It also means that it is not too large to be overseen and quality controlled by people who both know and care. Those people are hard to find and probably won’t flock to Starbucks. Starbucks will not be able to do that, even with dispersed commissaries, which means cooled product transport. (Again, cold is the enemy of great baked goods.)

So why did they buy the company at that price? Starbuck’s management team must have known that La Boulange’s products could not inspire their national audience. I think Starbucks acted out of a different motivation:Corporate intervention.

If a growing, vibrant company threatens to outshine an existing larger corporation, then that corporation has two options: 1)They can expend the money and effort to meet the higher standard, or 2) they can kill or consume the upstart  it before it grows and becomes a threat.  Hostess Brands failed to see the threat when California’s Acme Bread and La Brea Bakery started America’s bread revolution. Now they have filed for Bankruptcy.   La Boulange CanellesStarbucks could not afford to lose business to a group which could attract a substantial portion of their business. If Starbucks had not subsumed La Boulange, It’s probable that an investment firm wold have taken it national.

This kind of competition intervention is legal and from the shareholder standpoint, justified.  Google bought Skype and Microsoft purchased Yammer for $1 billion for that reason. But this is different.  There is a vast difference between smart aps and social networking and food. As the grandfather in Johanna Spyri’s novel tells Heidi, “you can’t bite into a coin.”  When corporate interests reduce the quality choices of the greater public, questions of integrity apply.

Why do I think that Starbucks’ motivation was not a sincere desire to serve their customers better treats? Because the company could have addressed their quality issues more easily and economically.

I used to walk the Fancy Food Show with the culinary director of one of a local airline catering company – he may have been working for one of the large San Francisco production bakery café groups at the time – who was charged with sourcing most of the Starbucks’ pastries. His criteria were clear: nothing over $0.40 per piece. “I’d love to get this, he’d say, but they won’t pay for it.”   If Chef J. was squaring with me (I am not sure he always did this), then the goodies now sold by Starbucks  have 200% to 400% markup as opposed to an industry standard of about 75% to 100%.

If Starbucks had wanted to address the quality of their food and snacks, they could have started there. They could also have hired a great baker / pastry chef for as little as $300K a year – a lot of money, but far less than what they paid for La Boulange. American Pastry chef and baker come Paris expat David Lebovitz comes to mind – he surely would have saved them a few million.   Finding these people is my livelihood, and I can attest to the availability of highly qualified individuals who could have worked with the company to create attractive and financially  effective product .

La Boulange's Condiments

La Boulange Condiments

They could simply have hired a completely independent consultant to assist them with the selection and storage and showcasing of the product they already sell.

It is in fact possible, if Rigo and his team stay on, that Starbucks’ products will be a little better, but it is an absolutely sure thing that La Boulange’s selection will be dragged down.  The staff  at La Boulange stated they will start serving Starbucks’ coffee on Monday. (A new face there stated today that they would continue to serve the LaBoulange selection).  It will be interesting to see if it comes in the big, frothy cups. That is not improvement.

Macarons at La Boulange

Macarons at La Boulange

San Franciscans are murmuring that Rigo sold out. He did not.  He cashed in, and deservedly so. He achieved the American dream by hard work and smart business, and he and his partners deserve everything they have earned.  The fault, if it is one, lies with Starbuck’s. Quashing the quality competition before your own brand is subjected to negative comparison shows a regrettable lack of integrity along the Michael Douglas “Greed is Good” line of corporate thought.

Unlike many of my friends, I have nothing against Starbucks. I never thought that being large or successful is evil, although it clearly may corrupt ethical decision making. In the past Starbucks found “a need and filled it.” For all the condemnation of their pushing out mom and pop coffee shops with sour, stale brew, they introduced America to a wider and better range of coffees than most of us knew and provided common spaces with WiFi, setting a standard others picked up. Kudos for all that, but  scant respect for this caper.

Miss Maudie’s explanation of  Atticus’s admonition to Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird comes to mind: ““Your father’s right,” she said. “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy . . . but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” Can you say the same thing about a nascent corporation based on tradition and quality?

It is unfortunately too late for Starbuck’s to put down their BB gun. Their contrivance will be a loss to hoards of Americans who will never know what they missed.  Pity.

Perhaps Starbucks will prove me wrong. Let’s hope so, but even supposing that their intentions were not to keep the product quality bar low, the size of their operations poses a surely insurmountable impediment to maintaining La Boulange’s promise. I’d love to eat my words and good if not great croissants at any of their 17000 locations, but that’s pretty improbable.

Then again, there are more than one smart, talented and skilled bakers in the world, and with the possible incentive of $100 million (or a percentage of that sum – Rigo unfortunately  needs to share with investors and deal makers), who knows which young Turk will bless us with financiers? Look what Nancy Silverton kicked off with La Brea in the bread world.  Let the games begin.

 

 

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Street Junk Food

The Iowa State Fair comes to Downtown San Francisco

In May of 2010, a handful of visionary food entrepreneurs were running a Kafkaesque bureaucratic gauntlet in exasperating attempts to get permits for the kind of food trucks that were making the front pages of the New York Times and the LA Times, stumbling into walls and redirects as they wandered City Hall. In theory, the police department assigned mobile food permist, but the cops were having nothing to do with a new set of vehicles with open kitchens. (“They could sell drugs from those,”  said one.) The Health Department had its doubts, and the Board of Supervisors, whose previous president and current bar owner Chris Daly had pronounced that “There are already too many restaurants in San Francisco” was absorbed with their usual social experiments and international political declarations.

“I’d be happy to give the City $10,000 for a permit, groaned Gail Lillian, who was trying to set up a falafel truck, but they won’t take it. I thought the City needed money, but they won’t let me pay it to them.”  .Gail wasn’t the only one. La Cocina, a non profit food business incubator which initially enabled Latina women (and now everyone)  to turn their ethnic specialties into business models, had been trying to get permits for street food in carts and trucks for about two years, but had only been able to secure off street spots at the Farmers’ Market.  More daring young business-chefs hadn’t waited, choosing instead to run outlaw operations, using Twitter to inform their locations to an avid fan base, who thrilled to the idea of eating illegal food on the sly.

The economy was thus effectively routing around the broken system of food permits (or lack of them) when Supervisor Bevan Dufty  took up the cause and pushed It through the Board in a just a few months. By November of last year a streamlined permitting process had been transferred to the Department of Public Works with a substantially reduced price tag of about $3000 per vehicle, and a street usage fee of $125 per year. (This has since been reduced to about $1,000 for permits and street usage.) Opposed brick and mortar restaurant owners had been placated by an agreement not to locate trucks serving similar fare in front of local eateries.

Dufty, it seemed,  done good: In addition to securing the appreciation of San Francisco’s infinite resource of street hungry foodie hipster voters, he and the other City Hall occupants gained not only Gail Lillians now celebrated “Liba”  falafel, but a daily shifting street food selection including the already permitted La Cocina trucks at the Wednesday farmers’ market and the collection of trucks serving everything from Kobe beef sandwiches (sells out fast) to Asian noodles and Samosas at “Off the Grid” a random herd of wheeled eateries at United Nations Plaza, a block away.

The development was not without protest –  previous Mayoral Candidate “Chicken John” Rinaldi announced a “puke iin” in response to one of La Cocina’s trucks in Dolores Park – but most San Francisco residents and office population fortunate enough to live or work where trucks could be parked started to hope that they, too, would soon be carrying All Star Tacos or foie sandwiches back to their homes, desks or break rooms for lunch. Silly them.

The downtown, Union  Square business community is not, it seems, going to be treated to a daily changing menu of kobe beef sandwiches and Vietnamese noodles. But that’s all right. It’s getting the Iowa State Fair. Three  (3) trucks of it, Monday to Sunday, all day. Kettle Corn, funnel cakes, waffles and crème brulee (they probably serve crème brulee at some state fair.). The center of one of the two top food cities in the US has been handed a kettle corn monopoly. So much for the office girl’s dream of culinary diversity.

It makes sense in a way: That’s where the tourists settle into block long, fog bound lines waiting for the Cable car, and that’ what a lot of them are  used to. We certainly wouldn’t want to overwhelm them with Pho and quesadillas. Now they will all go back to Lubbock or Detroit swooning over our upscale junk food – “Margaret, you wouldn’t believe it. We ate Funnelcakes in the cable car line!  Those people in Frisco really know how to eat.” And then, of course, there are Herb Caen’s flying rats as well as the earth bound kind. They’ve been looking pretty emaciated recently, but wait until they’re put on a steady diet of fallen kettle corn. Our patron saint would approve. Making Market Street look more like Fisherman’s Wharf will bring a comforting lowest common denomenator consistency to the City. 

In case you were wondering how this was planned, it wasn’t. Some junk food lord just swooped down on the cheap, available spots. It could have been worse – fast food companies have reportedly realized that there’s a cheap version of the Oklahoma land rush going on and are vying in Los Angeles with the “legitimate” chef vendors, creating what the LA Times has dubbed a “food truck bubble”.

Downtown business associations have their own objections and have stopped everything to confront the trucks. “It’s turned my life upside down,” said one of the directors. They object to the lack of any kind of plan or guidelines, the result of speedy cobbling of the bill. At the moment the “Planning” process consists of submission of a permit request with first come, first serve selection.

Cartier on Union Square is understandably apoplectic at the proposed taco truck blocking their high rent luxury windows. Aside from an obvious stylistic disconnect between the truck and brand, they cite long lines and litter. Remembering the 10% tax on Bottega Veneta’s $10,000 purses buys a lot of pot hole fill, San Francisco might want to listen to their concerns.  A mostly middling collection of eateries in the food court in Bloomingdale’s basement is opposed to anything that vies with their selection being stationed in the neighborhood. Real estate owners and property management companies fear liability issues: If the kettle corn propane tank blows and injures someone in Bloomie’s entrance, who is liable. (Hint: Who has the deeper pockets?) Our food truck arrangements are still a little rough around the edges.

Maybe Bevan and the stupes didn’t do all that well after all. Perhaps there’s still time to step back, take a breather and refine the concept with a distribution plan that actually serves the communities whose limited food vendor slots are being practically given away, before they all go to businesses who sell deep fried Twinkies and Hooters or McD’s.

And then, just maybe, it would be a really, really good idea to circulate the trucks – after all, the suckers are on wheels  – to put different trucks in different places on different days. Put those vehicles in gear and let them roll.  Give us at our desks access to a diverse menu – the kind of food so many of us left Iowa and Texas and Alabama for.. I want the Kobe sandwich. Crème brulee once a week or once a month doesn’t sound like all that bad. Daily kettle corn is a plague.

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Fire vs Raw

Culinary Hysteria: Anatomy of a food fad

The inspiration for Culinary Promiscuity came through a book tour presentation by  Richard Wrangham,  primatologist and author of “Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human“.  Wrangham theorizes that fire was the pivotal event for human evolution, catapulting our  species from tree dwelling, leaf chewing primates to doctors, lawyers and casino magnates.

With more calories available through cooking, says Wrangham, our treed ancestors no longer needed to spend the entire day chewing to fuel their oversized bellies, could climb down from their branches, develop a brain in place of their enormous chewing apparatus, walk upright and begin hunter gathering. All that in turn permitted the development of a voice box followed language, society, tools, the wheel, the written word, the printing press, hors d’oeuvres and eventually Julia Child and Jacques Pepin teaching us how to make puff pastry and employ a Cuisinart the right way. Cooking made us human.

Once published Wrangham’s initially contested theory gained instant popularity among the food crowd. Endorsed by sustainable food guru Michael Pollan, the idea took hold in at least some of the food fixated community.  Others, however, didn’t get the memo.

During Wrangham’s book tour presentation a member of the audience mentioned the burgeoning Raw movement, whose adherents eat nothing cooked, maintaining that food in its “natural state”, i.e. raw, was healthier to the point of possessing nearly magical powers. Wrangham gave it short shrift, stating that he had “heard of them” and that they were “always very thin, and very hungry,”  suggesting the question : If you’ve come a long way baby, why ever would you want to go back?

The raw food movement, with little regard for Wrangham’s insights or for that matter, any empirical scientific data  was gaining momentum and soon topped the foodie topic chart, it’s disciples eschewing their Wolf ranges and promoting the value of all things not only raw but vegan with a truly missionary ignorance.

The first time I heard about the Raw Movement was perhaps ten years earlier, when a restaurant asked me to find him a “special chef. As it happened,  Nick Petti , a pretty special guy, dropped by that afternoon. “Have I got a job for you,”   I probably said to Nick who undoubtedly raised one eyebrow under his signature jester cap, mumbled the likes of “We’ll see about that,”  and took off to have a look. In a couple of hours he was back. I’m pretty sure he slammed his fist on my desk. “Don’t you ever…” he sputtered, then gave me a review of his interview. “He puts pizzas out to dry on the roof in the sun. Do you have any idea how dangerous that is? There are flies!”

I backed off the deal and dismissed the idea as one more visionary loony’s fantasy,  but the idea was out of the barn and about to explode. It’s odd how easy it is for outrageous ideas to find followers. Sometime later the raw restaurateur’s  book appeared, spawning an initial rush of highly vocal disciples, then suddenly “raw food” was the trend, gathering foodies as it rolled on like a cartoon snowball.  Charlie Trotter adopted the philosophy, offering all raw prix fixe menues at this Chicago restaurant, and published a blockbuster book with beautiful pictures in collaboration with  Roxanne Klein, who opened a raw cuisine, or “living food” as she put it, restaurant in Marin, claiming credentials from Stars, Square One and Chez Panisse – enough heavy ammunition to awaken the herding instincts of  the food mad restaurant followers of the Bay Area. She apparently actually did work at Chez Panisse.

Chefs, on the other hand, scoffed: “The whole thing about being a chef, said one,”  is cooking. “That’s what I have been working to learn for ten years, that’s what I went to culinary school for. You gotta  have fire.”  Wrangham’s point, entirely. The cooking community concurred: the reason you cook things was that a) it made food safer and b) food tastes better. Klein had asked me to find a “chef” for the restaurant, although she, herself, was generally accredited with the food. My searches led nowhere. “You don’t need a chef. That’s a pantry cook,”  said potential candidate.  The others noted things like, “Hey, man. I gotta do meat.”

The trio of arguments against raw food  –  safety, flavor and nutritional value – are convincing. The whole raw food philosophy rejects temperatures above 118F, keeping the procuts in the sweet spot for microbe growth for extended periods of time. (The Microbial danger zone is between 40F and 140F).  The PH of the vegetable proteins used, for instance to make “dough” of sprouts, is perfect for dangerous critters.  As for flavor, the combination of vegan dictates rejecting eggs, milk products and honey plus the processing limitations exclude hot baked biscuits. Eggs Benedict, grilled ham and cheese sandwiches, oven baked asparagus, chevre and Waygu sliders. Why would otherwise seemingly intelligent people turn their back on Toast in favor of a Neolithic diet of nuts, soy and berries, skillfully combined in an expensive, high visibility restaurant? Why the lemming rush to the past?

Titillation certainly counts for some of the fad’s and the restaurant’s popularity. The food was reportedly tasty.  The usual promotional tricks surely worked;  Roxanne’s claimed connections to prestigious kitchens in  her press releases, and that kind of provenance – fact based or not – brings in the public.   The Klein’s social connections – they included some of the most glamorous figures in San Francisco and Marin, surely did no damage to the project.

One restaurant, however, does not a movement make, and a movement raw became. The press went wild. The SF Chronicle Food section all but pronounced Roxanne’s the second coming and writers around the  country followed suit in the usual food press elephant walk, passing the  new and outrageously edgy story about in the usual self-fulfilling  prophecy mode. Other restaurants, gurus and books were created. Bloggers went bloggy. Raw web sites and “living food” communities were established.

The language was an extra plus. For the same reason “prunes” were re names “dried plums”, using the term “living food” suggests mythical powers, at least if your food is vegan. It would not work as well for omnivorous menus.

Once the herd was in motion, logic was doomed.  At the height of the “living food” revolution,  any protest against it became advertisement for it. In the food world, printers ink and pixels turn isolated incidents into widespread phenomena. Wealthy women began looking for private chefs who could juice.

Some of us scratched our heads.

The raw public’s unquestioning acceptance of the trend  is further  puzzling in light of the amount of raw food from orange juice and salad to sushi and carpaccio we were already consuming in our more or less balanced conventional diets.  Nobody, at least in California, was deprived of raw food. Reason (and science) would suggest that they were getting enough fiber or vitamins already, but the diehard believers rejected all cooked foods. Why?

Like other food fads,  the raw philosophy promotes the “natural” character of the foods, uncompromised by fire. We were intended, they reason, to eat raw and did so exclusively until about 10,000 years ago. (they’re off by only a little more than three million, but precision was never a prerequisite of nutritional fashion.) Raw Foods, proclaim the advocates, are healthy, insinuating that cooked foods are not. It addressed our obsession with unadulterated and real foods as opposed to the poisons we somehow feel we are subjected to. By some twist of logic, “raw” came to equal “pure”, while cooked foods took on the suggestion of toxicity.  We Americans are all fools for healthy; our health grounded gullibility enjoys a fine history in this country beginning with travelling snake oil salesmen. It’s good for what ails ya’.

A claim was that cooked foods fostered  allergies and food sensitivities, which various raw advocates stated were due to the destruction of natural elements in food. One chef I asked recently noted he had heard that eating foods raw kept the enzymes intact. It’s quite surprising, in fact, how many food professionals don’t discount the vital enzyme theory and it’s dual fallacy: they are not human enzymes but effective for chlorophyll producing organisms – not us – and second your own digestive enzymes destroy them.

As for the fuzzy concept that raw food is more nutritional, Wrangham and a number of nutritional scientists in the fact based side of the debate avow that cooking foods actually makes many vitamins and enzymes available.

The trend has settled as the foodists rush on to the next thing, be it cupcakes or food trucks. There are plenty to choose from.  As trends will, raw food occasionally still stubbornly bubbles up in some food section article now and then, but they are fortunately no longer ubiquitous.  It turned out that at least in San Francisco and Marin there were not enough raw devotees to support a large, expensive “live food” raw and vegan restaurant. Their money ran out.  The principal investor, Michael Klein, withdrew his support. Perhaps those who tried the regime were disappointed when the wellness they expected from natural and uncompromised product did not materialize. My guess is that, as Wrangham said, they all just got “really, really hungry”, chucked it all in and went out for a pork chop with mashed potatoes.

The Kleins divorced it was rumored that Michael Klein was planning to invest in an Argentine steakhouse with George Morrone. For every action……..

So, how did something as silly as “live food” get so much press and how does misinformation linger on so long? A professor of mine once said that “People attach great importance to what ever comes into and exits their body.” He didn’t add that reason did not apply. When it comes to nutrition, health and food, we are frequently irrational. Give us enough semi scientific evidence and tell us that something is natural and healthy and not contaminated, regardless of the facts, and we’ll all our logical garments and follow the nearest buck naked emperor down any road he decides to lead us.

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