Recipe for Success
The new Big Sur Bakery Cookbook - A Year in the Life of a Restaurant - journals how to survive down south.
Thursday, July 9, 2009
IT ALL BEGINS WITH THE BREAD. The morning shift slips through the predawn still and into the modest kitchen at 4am to start baking it. When diners come, the breads – asiago sourdough, nine-grain and Tibetan barley among them – arrive first, long before the wood-roasted California sea bass or house-aged rib-eye, delivered on cutting boards with exotic salts and fresh butter. And it was bread, after all, that helped settle the principals when they headed north in the first place.
Big Sur Bakery frontman and co-founder Mike Gilson had long visited lively local celebrity Terry “Hide” Prince, famed for hand-crafted sandals, spirited storytelling and hearty homemade bread. When Gilson coaxed two of his favorite cooks, fellow BSB founders Michelle and Philip Wotjovich, north from their cherry jobs at a top L.A. spot, Campanile, to scope the rickety purple, orange and blue roadhouse he and Prince had discovered, English import Prince whipped up some of his signature bread patties, chewy pucks crafted from things like quinoa, flax, poppy seeds, buttermilk, beer and oat bran.
“This was no Los Angeles,” Michelle remembers. “But Terry put the kettle on, offered us our first installment of his famous homemade Hide bread, and gave us a tour of the restaurant, which had a bunch of bakery equipment and, as promised, a giant hand-built Alan Scott wood-fired oven.”
“You bite it and you realize you’re not gonna be swallowing that bread any time soon,” Prince laughs. “I had no idea Michelle was one of the best bakers in L.A. But she said, ‘I like this.’”
A parade of locals soon popped inquisitive heads in, volunteering unsolicited advice and constant reminders that no restaurant had lasted on the gas station-adjacent spot.
But eight years later, the iffy proposition just might be the most popular meeting place between San Luis Obispo and Carmel. Two weeks ago, HarperCollins published the Big Sur Bakery Cookbook: A Year in the Life of a Restaurant, a magnetic and mouthwatering work that celebrates how much flavor the bakery has to offer and how woven into the local fabric their family has become in a relatively short amount of time. (“This is not just another restaurant cookbook,” says La Brea Bakery founder Nancy Silverton. “Every dish comes with a tale.”)
Prince and the bread offer a glimpse of the ingredients that made such a story possible. But he’s just one of many personalities to play a part in a place that has the New York Times bubbling, “The food has an elegance that only the best ingredients, simply prepared, can carry off.” The bread they bake daily – inspired by Prince’s Hide but carrying an identity all its own – is an accessible metaphor for the approach that has worked: good, simple, fresh, rustic fare.
“We’re a new generation of mom and pop,” the co-authors write, “cooking with fire, using fresh seasonal ingredients, and serving food that’s good not just for the people who eat it, but also for the community that provided it and the land from which it came.”
But the rare characters and the rustic bread are just two of the variables that have allowed this small restaurant to rise like Michelle’s sourdough. The others surface repeatedly across the 252 pages of the new book – work ethic, seasonality, sense of community. Gather them, and they read like the survival guide to Big Sur.A MASSIVE DASH OF SEASONALITY
Longtime locals eye a steaming pizza blessed with sweet dates, rich porcinis and sharp arugula with ravenous retinas. Travelers from Denmark fork through fresh mache salads layered with soft green avocado, slices of electric red citrus, toasted almonds and golden balsamic dressing. Gilson dips from trying a wine rep’s latest offers at the redwood bar/baked treat display case to refreshing glasses of a recent discovery (Rad Dog Reisling).
It’s summer in the Sur and the bakery is cooking. A larger-than-normal staff is moving quickly through small-as-ever spaces. Powerfully popular pizzas – “I didn’t go to culinary school to make pizzas,” Philip told the New York Times, but as Michelle says, they “literally” pay the rent – take almost an hour in a crowded oven. They’re worth the wait (and the $18).
A grin doesn’t seem to leave Gilson’s wide, warm grill. “The bakery is the best when food is flying out of the kitchen, people are pleased with it and so comfortable in our unique atmosphere,” he says. “It gets to a point where we get a mixture of people who are locals, some from L.A., New York, S.F., others and internationals, and at the right mixture everyone gets ecstatic.”
The opposite end of the calendar: not so delectable. “For much of America, December is a season of giving and receiving, a month of holidays and parties and ample opportunities to drop cash on those you love,” the authors write. “For businesses in Big Sur, though, December is about going broke.”
The year-in-the-life approach of the cookbook helps offer an antidote to an idealism identified in the intro: “Yes, Big Sur is one of the most beautiful places we’ve seen, but most articles and books about Big Sur give an overly glossy sense of what life here is like.”
Though they completed writing the book just before the Basin Complex Fire devoured historic acreage, the chronological format captures other Sur-centric events – a mountain lion munching up several pets, paralyzing power outtages – that suggest simply surviving here is a form of thriving.
The corresponding change in the season’s more edible incarnations, meanwhile, ably demonstrates why today’s best chefs swear by the seasons. March, where the book begins, stuffs potato frittata, the lauded breakfast pizza profiled by New York Times Magazine, nine-grain pancakes, brown butter rhubarb bars (see recipe, this page) and five others into the month’s mouth. Items like the lime tart – which looks absurdly appetizing through photographer Sara Remington’s lens – arrive in April, when the 50-year Big Sur resident Clovis Harrod’s miracle tree starts to bequeath citrus in abundance (record payload: 200 pounds). Spring risotto follows in May – buttressed by dishes like house-cured salmon, braised rabbit and a strawberry-and-rose-geranium shake – before the book flows through the rest of the year, eventually hitting on the stuffed turkey legs and garlic gravys that come with Thanksgiving and the celebration of chanterelles at the wet tail-end of winter.ONE DOZEN FLAVORFUL CHARACTERS
Wayne Hyland is a trip. More specifically, he’s a fishing trip that starts with a stationary-bike-powered pulley that lowers equipment and ice chests to his 12-foot skiff and ends with him motoring around the craggy coastline shirtless to hidden spots where rockfish thicken into colorful clumps. His job at BSB, according to his profile in the cookbook: “I supply half a cord of wood a week for the oven. And I bring in interesting types of meat.”
And while the protein (and his foraged mushrooms) are much appreciated, and the local oak is fundamental to the fire that burns in the bakery’s belly, readers of the cookbook will get the idea that the identity provided by the weathered grandson of a Miwok Californian Indian – who has been charged by blue whales more than once – is equally key. After all, they write, his and the other 11 profiles are included (one for each month of the journal) because these people “have shaped our experience here, not to mention our food.”
The choice cuts become a buffet of revelations. Local pasture farmer Jim Dunlop of Tastes Like Chicken Ranch (below), in addition to past lives as an after-hours nightclub bouncer, punk rocker and Marine with a machine gun, is also a former “Man Against Horse” race champion. Thickly bearded poke-pole fisherman and self-appointed daytime manager Forrest Millington last drove a car when Jimmy Carter was putting solar panels on the White House, and walks an estimated 2,000 miles a year as a result. Microgreen suppliers Eric Franks and Jasmine Richardson grow their goods on their porch – and their tiny delicacies, like the ingredients each purveyor draws from basket or sack, are treasures to discover themselves.
Even the principal players entertain by way of eccentricity. Tatted new dad Philip plays in a punk-metal band. Wine guy/host/handyman Gilson has a full-blown fetish for overalls. And Michelle is likely the weirdest simply because she’s the only one who outwardly appears normal.
As such they proffer a human parallel to the old bakery itself, whose unlikely filling station location, paired with the unassuming 1930s ranch house haunts and rustic-robust fare, make it, as Michelle accurately notes, a reason people “feel like it’s a special place that they’ve personally discovered.”
“Like so many of my favorite spots there,” Eric Schlosser observes in the foreword, “the Big Sur Bakery is hiding in plain sight.”A HEAPING TABLESPOON OF BEAUTY
Somehow the picture of blueberry pie on page 83 – jeweled with infinitesimal scintillas of sugar and dangling one idyllic drip of filling from the cliff of its crust – is as pretty as the closing portrait of a post-fire, poppy-replenished marine terrace. But in a way that makes sense: The Big Sur Bakery Cookbook has all the good looks that an offspring of the comely South Coast should have. Unsurprisingly, photog Remington is credited in the acknowledgements with helping clear away all the delicious portrait subjects post-shoot. The book could come with a drool guard.
Beauty helped pop the bakery in the oven. When Philip and Michelle Wojtowicz spotted their old coworker’s trademark overalls in L.A. back in 2001 and pulled over to say hi, he declared he was heading “to the most beautiful place on Earth” to launch a restaurant.
“Phil and I both had ’64 [Ford] Rancheros and this passion for food,” Gilson says. “We weren’t all that close, but we had an unspoken bond, and I think Phil was looking for an adventure.”
Once here, Michelle was ambivalent, but Philip was clear. Sure the rare oven beckoned, but the beauty boomed. “When you know, you know,” he says.
Michelle remembers recognizing his realization by way of his “crazy eyes.” Two days later they quit their jobs.
In the magnetic aesthetics they found an antidote to the industry’s inevitable downers. “Though it can be difficult to keep all [the good points] in mind when business is bad or the electricity is out or small-town life feels suffocating, we’re living our dream in one of the most beautiful places in the world.”
Early on, Philip pegged another advantage to being surrounded by so much nowhere-else nature. “We were in Big Sur,” he’d say. “If we failed, no one would ever know.”SEVERAL GALLONS OF UNFILTERED WORK ETHIC
One of the most alluring pictures in the book shows tatted arms cradling three thick, crusty, flour-dusted rounds of sourdough. The stencil lettering on the weathered gray T-shirt behind it – FRESHLY BAKED – speaks to a potent Big Sur tradition. It also rings relevant to BSB’s start.
“Besides the two of us, Mike and Terry,” reads the introduction, “we only had one other employee, our dishwasher… we worked our asses off – which was ironic, given that, as we quickly learned, Big Sur does not attract many people looking for 80-hour workweeks.”
The people Bur Sur truly keeps, though, aren’t afraid of grueling days. “It isn’t an easy place to live,” Schlosser writes. “There’s a toughness, a strength, and a slightly odd quality to the people who learn to ride out the storms and coexist with the tourists.”
The Wojtowiczs’ New Jersey blue-collar past – he and Michelle met as teenagers and later attended Culinary Institute of America – came in handy. “Hard work is all I know,” Philip says.
Just taming the oven sounds more like a coal-mine-condition expedition than an upscale kitchen session prepping venison osso bucco. Its performance dips and hiccups depending on the weather; other times the fan blinks out and smoke saturates the intimate kitchen. It gobbles oak and roars past 700 degrees.
“We love the pioneer vibe of having a wood-fired oven and cooking with fire,” they write, “but there are also some nights when we long for something a little less rugged.”A HEAVY DUSTING OF COMMUNITY
When the Basin Complex Fire flared over the ridge opposite Pfeiffer Valley from the bakery and tore through Big Sur’s collective nerves – and Gilson’s home and that of their microgreen providers – the BSB family did what came naturally. They fought fire with fire.
Thick wedges of fire-roasted quiche and pizza dented the daze on the faces of locals gathered just down Highway 1 at Big Sur Station for community briefings. Though tourist business burned with the blaze, BSB kept the kitchen going to put money in employee pockets. They even baked the morning the valley was evacuated.
“The natural thing was to want to help,” Michelle says. “All we had, it seemed, was our community. We didn’t know what was gonna get lost next, so we tried to keep things as normal as we could.”
On this Fourth of July, the community fills the restaurant, covers the pebbled courtyard and leaks onto the sunny lawn, sipping strawberry and geranium shakes and Pizoni wines from compostable cups. Almost all the profiled partners are there, including Gary Pizoni, organic produce purveyor Jamie Collins and interior designer Erik “the Eye” Senicka (“We’re like a family,” Senicka says, “a big, dysfunctional family”). There is no shortage of fresh pan-sizzled halibut, country-style side dishes or smiles. The complement of contributors lines a big redwood plank table inside and passes books around to be signed.
Though it’s a date dotted with big events across the county and Big Sur itself, the place is packed. Where it was once hard to picture a successful business, it’s now hard to imagine the Highway 1 corridor without it. The joy of cooking what they want and running their own meat-and-potatoes operation in a beautiful place is reflected in manifold faces. As the principals write in the intro: “What more, really, could we ask for?”
The contentment isn’t to be confused with complacency – wildfire and winter have a way of keeping things in perspective. “There’s a humility to the whole operation,” Schlosser writes, “that fits perfectly with the grandeur all around it.”