When I go on vacation, I often get caught up in the feel of a place, and I look for ways to bring some of that magic back home. During a recent trip to northern California, I bought some linen napkins that are used at a landmark Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse, where we had lunch shortly after we arrived in San Francisco. I remember that splendid lunch every time we use them. Who needs another chintzy t-shirt, anyway?
The last stop on our trip was Big Sur, and I didn’t want to leave. While we drove away, I cried and clutched the single stone I’d nabbed while we strolled the beach earlier that morning. For weeks after we returned home, I dreamt about that beach and had wild fantasies of going back to stay. Besides being remote with unspoiled natural beauty in every direction, spotty cell phone service (yes, this is a plus as far as I’m concerned), and great hiking, I found superb food.
California, especially in the north and central coastal regions, has been doing the local farm-to-table thing for ages, long before the rest of the country caught on. The climate is favorable for growing so many varieties of food, and “California cuisine” is known for its fresh flavors and simple preparations that highlight, rather than mask, the top-quality ingredients. This philosophy is exemplified at the Big Sur Bakery, a little hidden gem with gas pumps right out front.
I fell in love with the bakery when, upon waking up on our first morning in Big Sur and seeing my husband still asleep, I snuck out to fetch breakfast. While admiring the delectable croissants, scones, and muffins in their bakery case, I noticed a stack of dinner menus and made a reservation for that very evening. Two days of breakfasts, lunches and dinners that all surpassed our expectations, and I was sold. I bought their cookbook, The Big Sur Bakery Cookbook: A Year in the Life of a Restaurant (2009) by Michelle and Philip Wojtowicz and Michael Gilson with Catherine Price, hoping to recreate a little of the Big Sur flavor in my suburban Philadelphia home.
Souvenir purchases, like special linen napkins or restaurant cookbooks, are often meaningless to those who have not visited the places associated with them. This cookbook, however, should appeal to anyone who considers themselves a bit of a wanderlust and also happens to love great food. It effectively takes the reader on a journey with stories, recipes, and photography to one of the most beautiful and unusual places on Earth.
More than just a cookbook, it chronicles the story of three gainfully employed restaurant business veterans who decided to chuck it all for nothing more than a skeleton of a failed restaurant. The only saving graces of the original building were a custom-built wood fired oven and a location along the famed California Highway 1 in the heart of Big Sur.
The subplot follows colorful Big Sur locals, many of whom are instrumental to the success of the business. There’s the old woman who, decades earlier, had planted a Persian lime tree near her front door so she could enjoy the heady scent of its fragrant blooms. Part of her yearly harvest of the Bearrs limes are used to make the bakery’s lime tarts. A local poke pole fisherman who’s the self-appointed daytime manager also supplies fresh rockfish. An organic farmer from Carmel provides the bakery with heirloom produce year-round. A philosophy of doing business responsibly by wisely sourcing all ingredients proves that success and sustainability aren’t mutually exclusive.
The book is arranged by season, with recipes that highlight each season’s characteristic flavors. They are indicative of what you’d enjoy on a visit to the restaurant, and some of them have ingredients that may not be particularly easy to find in all parts of the country. For example, in my local market, I will probably have a tough time finding the aforementioned Bearrs limes. I will try key limes as a substitute since I absolutely must try to make those lime tarts.
Favorite recipes so far have been the potato frittata, butternut squash soup, pearl barley with kale and butternut squash, and the scones. With the help of this book, I have finally discovered the secret to moist scones: stop touching the dough so much! I’m anxious to try the spring and summer recipes once the weather warms up here in the northeast.
If you enjoy fresh, seasonal foods and want to try some new ideas (preserved garlic, anyone?) this book can stand on its recipes alone. Aside from that, it’s an interesting story. It’s the story of three people successfully living a wild dream that had never occurred to them until they stepped inside the once-dilapidated old restaurant with breathtaking views out front. Even if you’ve never visited the restaurant, you’ll feel like you’ve discovered a gem of a place that you can recreate at home.
Category: Book Reviews
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