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The Artisan's Dilemma

As the local obsession with all things handmade and home brewed reaches the mainstream (see Domino’s “artisanal” cheese pizza), more Bay Area picklers, bakers, and cheesemakers are faced with a conundrum: Can they cash in without selling out? 

IN STARTER BAKERY'S COMMERCIAL KITCHEN ON THE OAKLAND-EMERYVILLE BORDER, A BAKER'S ASSISTANT sends a 6-foot length of dough through the spinning rollers of a pastry sheeter. He’s making kouign amann (pronounced “queen amann”), the sugar-crusted Breton pastries that are the bakery’s signature product. The dough, which is made from flour, water, butter, yeast, sugar, and salt, is combined in a slow-moving “diving arm” mixer, with blades that eerily resemble prosthetic human hands and move in a circular motion that mimics a baker’s gentle kneading. After it passes through the sheeter, it’s folded and cut by hand and then tucked into molds that have been carefully brushed with butter. Even with the automated help of the mixer and the sheeter, making kouign amann is a labor-intensive process; the bakery makes only about 300 of the pastries a day.

     As a former consultant to large-scale bakeries and a longtime baking instructor, Starter’s cofounder Brian Wood knows he could unleash more powerful tools to make his life easier and the production of his kouign amann more efficient. Faster mixers and mechanical shapers would speed the process, while natural enzymes could prolong the pastries’ shelf life and help the dough withstand the assault of heavy machinery. But Wood is looking for the sweet spot between craft and commercialism, balancing his needs as an entrepreneur against his ideals as an artisan baker. “We decided to put out a premium product. For that, I’m going to spend more on ingredients, more on labor. That raises the price by maybe 15 to 20 cents, but that may not be proportional to the extra amount of work we put into it,” he says.

     Until recently, it was assumed that all artisans spent years learning their trade, limiting their output to ensure the highest quality and putting a value on craftsmanship above all else. But now that Domino’s sells “artisan” pizza and Kraft markets “artisan” crackers, the word has all but lost its meaning, and many small-scale producers have begun the chase for new, uncorrupted labels like process-driven or craft. But craft suggests an amateur pursuing a hobby. Artisan conveys something far more ambitious, essentially someone who spends a lifetime dedicated to an art.

     Right now, there’s an entire generation of genuine food artisans at work in the Bay Area; people like Wood, coffee roaster James Freeman, and jam maker Rachel Saunders. Now that the demand for their goods is exploding, corporations are hoping to ride that wave and play off the public’s desire for simplicity, authenticity, and the quality that the word artisanal promises. They know that in the current market, true artisanal foods can bring in some serious cash.

     Exhibit A: Freeman’s Blue Bottle Coffee, which in 2011 brought in between $15 million and $20 million. It was only eight years ago that Freeman worked alone in a converted potting shed roasting coffee beans, which he sold one day a week from a cart at the Berkeley Farmers Market.

     “‘Small-scale’ is a shifting line,” says Freeman. Recalling a long-ago conversation with a local food writer, he adds, “I remember quite seriously and sincerely saying I didn’t believe there was any way to roast more than seven pounds of beans at a time.” Today, Freeman operates two roasting facilities, one in the Bay Area and one in Brooklyn. His largest roaster is the size of a Smart Car and roasts 135 pounds of beans at a time.

     The trick for Freeman was finding a way to grow while holding on to the ideals that drew him to that potting shed in the first place. “When it was just me and my notebook, I could remember what I did the week before. Now we have to be much more premeditated about quality control,” he says. Today he employs a large team of roasters who perform evaluative tastings—known in the industry as cuppings—of every batch and take extensive notes. A six-person training department oversees new baristas, who study a curriculum prior to starting a 90-day training period. Before the hiring process is complete, they must perform for a jury.

     After a decade in the business, Freeman is the grand old man of coffee’s third wave, and the example others look to as a real artisan who also makes bank.

     Saunders, who started Blue Chair Fruit Company in 2008, is also an artisan, though she says she never intended to stay small. She proudly asserts that she’s set her sights on becoming the largest artisan jam producer in the country. Saunders spent a decade perfecting her recipes before founding her company. And though she has a small staff to prep the fruit, she cooks all the preserves herself in traditional copper jam pots, making just 12 to 25 six-ounce jars at a time.

     Last summer, Saunders sat down for a meeting with a buyer from Williams-Sonoma, who announced that the popular kitchen retailer wanted to offer Blue Chair Fruit preserves in 154 of its stores. That one order was equal to three times the largest amount of product that Saunders had ever produced.

     “I’m not going to change the way I make my jam,” says Saunders, “so I look for other ways to accommodate the growth in my business.” She’s planning to buy an automated jar filler, and she’s training one of her staffers to help with the cooking.

     Growth, Saunders insists, has been for the good. “Our product is better than when we started,” she says. “Four years ago, I might make 40 jars of one thing, 100 jars of another—now I’m 100 percent focused on this jam this week. I’m more in touch with the intricacies of the different flavors.”

     But when machines become the main method of production, can a food still wear the artisan label?  Paul Bertolli believes it can. The name of his company, Fra’ Mani Hand Crafted Foods, translates loosely from the Italian to “made by hand,” even though all of Fra’ Mani’s products—from its delicate mortadella to its new line of prepared foods for Costco and Whole Foods, which includes boxed, ready-to-heat wild-mushroom risotto—are made by machine.

     “When you start making things to scale, you need machines,” Bertolli explained from the floor of the Fancy Food Show at the Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco this past January. “The problem with machines is that they’re stupid. We make them intelligent. The norcini in Tuscany used cleavers and knives. So we altered a machine to mimic the action of people chopping. And we still do things by feel. All of our staff are trained to understand what the particle definition should feel like, if the meat is cold enough. And all our sausages are hand-stuffed and hand-tied.”

     Bertolli speaks with an artisan’s authority about the microprocessor that allows him to control the air where his salami cures. His charcuterie is delicious, with a nice bounce, a silky mouthfeel, and balanced acidity. It’s milder than other local artisan versions, but he argues that too much spice and acid are flaws.

     Bertolli’s CV could double as a working definition of artisan. He began his 30-year career with a butchering apprenticeship at Maison Gourmet, in San Francisco’s old Petrini markets, when he was still a teenager. Later, he spent 10 years cooking at Chez Panisse and another decade running the kitchen at Oliveto, where his hand-rolled pasta, homemade vinegar, and extraordinary cured meats earned him international acclaim. In 2003, he wrote a book entitled Cooking by Hand.

     Bertolli’s new line of prepared foods sound as if they could have been plucked straight from his menus at Oliveto. Only now, he prepares dishes such as beef braised in zinfandel, penne Fra Diavolo, and organic corn polenta with rosemary in 60- to 100-gallon kettles. And instead of being sent to the dining room on a plate, the food is vacuum-sealed (no preservatives!) and refrigerated. The samples at the Fancy Food Show tasted great: less salty than Trader Joe’s frozen meals and brighter than the offerings found at Whole Foods’ overwarmed steam table. And yet, people who know Bertolli from his restaurant days may raise their eyebrows.

     “Artisan doesn’t necessarily mean small,” argues Bertolli. “Artisan is a mentality, and a process. It has to do with understanding the prima materia, the primary ingredients, and exalting them. And using your hands—or a machine—to get there.”

     “I wanted to make a difference at the mass level,” he continues. “It’s one thing to work at Chez Panisse; then you go to Costco and see people struggling to get food on the table, and all they have is the option of buying commodity products made by people who want to exploit them. I thought I could make a difference there.”

     Never mind that people struggling to get food on the table might be better off buying a bag of cornmeal than purchasing an $8 box of precooked polenta; the fact is, companies like Fra’ Mani are making a difference. By easing access to better-quality food, artisan-minded food companies are making us a nation of more discerning eaters.

     Four years ago, faced with steadily dwindling sales, Domino’s rewrote its formula for pizza and persuaded its franchisees, Alice Waters–style, to buy better ingredients. Of course, simply making pizza with real cheese doesn’t make anyone an artisan (and to Domino’s credit, its boxes for these pizzas state, “We’re not artisans”). But the campaign proved astonishingly successful. At its lowest point, in 2008, the company’s stock was worth $3 a share. As of this writing, its share value has soared to almost $40.

     Whatever corporations make of the term, there are still producers who insist on the strictest definition of artisan. Soyoung Scanlan studied biochemistry, engineering, and dairy science for 13 years before making her first cheese. When she founded Andante Dairy in 2000, she made 120 pounds of cheese a week. Twelve years later, she has not yet doubled her production and makes just up to 200 pounds per week, all by hand, all by herself. She buys cow’s, sheep’s, and goat’s milk weekly from three dairies, none of them more than 15 miles from her facility. Her workdays run at least 10 hours, and she goes long stretches without a day off.

     “The better cheesemaker I become, the more cheese I can make,” Scanlan says. But she’s more apt to scale down than up. “My only criterion is quality. If I know that the quality’s not going to be that perfect, I shrink back.”

     Scanlan admits that staying small has its challenges. For many years, her chief financial goal was to earn minimum wage. But in the end, money doesn’t interest her much. “If somebody wanted to give me $5 million, I would just say, for what?” she says. It’s the process, she insists, that inspires her.

     “Whenever I make cheese, I realize how much I love the smell of really fresh milk,” Scanlan says. “It’s so enchanting, it’s almost intoxicating. It’s too intense to give up. I’m not a good teacher because I’m enjoying that moment so much; I don’t even want to disturb myself for talking and teaching. I guess in the end I’m a very selfish person.”

     Still, she says she would gladly take on an apprentice, on the condition that the person would commit to working for a year. Not just 10 hours a day, but seven days a week. Scanlan claims it’s the only way to learn the seasonal—and hourly—variations in the milks. And the only way, in her mind at least, to become a true artisan. So far, no one has accepted her offer.

Emily Kaiser Thelin is a frequent contributor to San Francisco. Her last feature was “Cornering the Market,” about Bi-Rite Market (October 2011).

 

There's more: 10 Artisans to watch