Chefs Cortney Burns and Nick Balla, of San Francisco's Bar Tartine, madly experiment with ancient techniques in their Valencia Street restaurant, which also serves as a sort of ideas lab that focuses on pushing food to the most abstract territory. In November, the fermentation-obsessed duo of one of San Francisco's most celebrated restaurants will publish their book Bar Tartine — an homage to the experiments, ideas and recipes concocted by the imaginations of two chefs who consistently cook at their peek creative thresholds. We talked to Cortney Burns about the provocativeness of lacto-fermentation, her dream to open a restaurant in the woods, and the occasional exploding jar of over-active fruit paste.
Vegetables seem to be having a moment lately and your book embodies this spirit. Why do you think vegetables are taking center stage?
There's a multi-layered reason. In the San Francisco Bay area, there are so many talented farmers who are able to work their land all year round that we inherently end up with a plethora of vegetables to work with. This sort of abundance lends itself to products that take center stage on our plates. I also think that people in general are more aware of the impact that meat production takes on our environment and so we are eating less meat here as a result.
"Layering flavor" is a term you frequently use in conversations about food. What do you mean by it and how do you achieve it?
We build dishes with sauces as bases, and dashi as that base. We work with strong flavors and layer in ingredients in their dried state — a flavor concentration, and also in their fresh state. By using a single ingredient a few different ways we are able to show its many sides and highlight its range of aromas. We don’t aim to layer, we just end up layering as a way for us to build flavor. We want the right amount of fat, salt and acid in every bite so we just work to achieve it until it’s right.
Is there a classic example of this that home cooks have been unknowingly doing?
Home cooks who use bouillon are layering in flavor. It’s a short cut, but an efficient one. Any use of onion and garlic powder is a quick way to layer flavor.
In your lab you've almost got a mad scientist thing happening with all of your experiments and projects. Why the obsession with techniques such as fermentation, and what are some of the most exciting things you discovered while writing the book?
We love fermented flavors; they allow us to capture the aroma of lactic acid in a way that is otherwise unattainable. It’s sour, it’s deep and it’s delicious. Not to mention how good it is for you. We believe that fermented foods are meant to be eaten in everyday situations and that their flavors are a way to layer sour naturally into food.
Anything you're pickling lately that is atypical?
We have been fermenting a lot of fresh seeds and berries to act like capers — fresh fennel seeds, green elderberries, nasturtium pods, onion buds, fresh dill seeds, just to name a few.
Bar Tartine doesn’t seem to fit into any particular restaurant category. How would you define it?
We cook food we want to eat, to satisfy our bodies and our minds, and we make everything we can from scratch.
Any epic failures you care to divulge?
No epic failures as of late, just overactive ferments going everywhere — chili paste explosions all over the tables and exploding jars of fruit pastes that are alive and active.
You travel extensively. Which countries do you think have the most interesting fermentation and pickling traditions and what recipes have recent travels inspired?
Japan does amazing things with fermented foods. We are continually inspired by what goes on there. We haven’t been away much as of late, however we recently were introduced to an olive-mustard green condiment from China that we are exploring.
What is one of your favorite pickling or fermentation recipes included in the book?
I could eat the fermented mustard greens and beef tendon with chile oil at every meal.
How did you balance life at the restaurant while writing the book? And how did the writing process inform your cooking at Bar Tartine?
It’s been a bit crazy lately. We really just want to be cooking, so even though we are grateful to have been given the opportunity to write the book, we just want to be in the kitchen. Computers are not for us. It was more of an opposite reaction: cooking informed the book, we kept changing things as we played, and learned. We never stop learning new ways to do old things. We keep perfecting things and at some point you just had to stop writing.
How has the restaurant scene evolved in San Francisco in the past few years?
Diners are willing to order things a little bit out of their comfort zones. but the food still has to be delicious and somehow based on something understood.
What are some of the most noticeable changes?
There a lot of restaurants here right now. It’s a whole culture here, and people eat out like it’s a hobby.
Do you ever see yourself opening a restaurant anywhere but the Bay Area?
Perhaps somewhere far away in the woods where it’s quiet. That would be amazing.
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