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Weekly Dish: Food Craft Institute Opening in Oakland

New craft food institute coming to Jack London Square; opening updates for Corners Tavern in Walnut Creek, BJ's in Dublin, and Comal in Berkeley; New Orleans-style restaurant planned for Pleasanton; Barrel Tasting Weekend tix contest; and more in this week's Dish!


Courtesy of Andrews McMeel Publishing/Sara Remington

So, if you're into food crafting, you know there's been a lot of energy in the Bay Area, and across the country really, devoted to reviving what had essentially been a lost art. And that's particularly true in the East Bay, where respected start-up jammers such as Inna, Blue Chair, and June Taylor are based, and in Jack London Square, home to several food manufacturers as well as the incredibly popular Eat Real Festival, which has devoted a lot of attention to the area of food craft in the last couple years.

So Jack London Square seemed like the natural home for the Food Craft Institute (FCI), the new school co-founded by Eat Real guru Anya Fernald which will offer intensive 12-week courses in such areas as jamming, pickling, and coffee-brewing geared to entrepreneurs who want to start up small- or medium-sized food craft businesses. And sure, it's a little goofy to hear people discuss "jam and pickle curriculums," but what the heck: providing honest, high-quality, often locally-sourced food seems like a pretty important thing. Plus, courses also offer a significant business component to help make these foodie start-ups more practical and less pie-in-the-sky (so to speak).

Anyway, I had a chance to speak with FCI director Marcy Coburn about the new institute (which starts its first course in jams, marmalades, and chutneys on April 21). CLICK HERE to read the Q&A, and go to foodcraftinstitute.org for even more information.

The Dowager would not be a fan of BJ's Brewhouse...A little aside here and I hope this doesn't make me seem too unmanly, but is anyone else watching Downton Abbey? I was dragged kicking and screaming into watching it by my wife, but after seeing the Season One finale, damned if I didn't go directly onto iTunes and shell out $20 to buy the second season...OK, I think that was a little unmanly, so here's some redemption: the very guy-friendly BJ's Brewhouse (with more than 15 beers brewed in-house, plus burgers, deep-dish pizza, and giant stuffed potatoes on the menu) is getting very close to opening their new Dublin location. According to corporate HQ, the targeted opening date is just a month away now, on April 23. 

A few opening updates. First of all, the big news in Walnut Creek is the much-anticipated Corners Tavern is officially opening its doors to the public next Wednesday. I've written a lot about Corners, and will undoubtedly write more in the future, so for now I'll just let the menu do the talking: CLICK HERE for a sneak peek at their opening night menu (duck fat roasted potatoes, daily oysters, house made lamb sausages, smoked rib eye...) And don't forget the bar menu!

Also, according to Scoop, Japanese-American delicatessen Delica will be opening a new location in Walnut Creek near the Century Theaters this summer focusing on ramen, donburi and sushi

In Danville, Chipotle will be rolling back into town: it's new location in the Danville Square Shopping Center near Trader Joe's is scheduled to open next Wednesday, March 28.

The Comal teamI touched base with John Paluska, who told me his intriguing new Mexican restaurant Comal is still on target to open in downtown Berkeley by late April/early May. As a little refresher, Comal will serve regional Mexican cuisine with an emphasis on the Oaxacan region by former Delfina chef Matt Gandin. Much of the food, centered on small- and medium-plates for sharing, will be prepared in either a large wood-fired hearth or the custom comal, the bar program is being put together by San Francisco-based cocktail gurus The Bon Vivants (Scott Baird and Josh Harris), and the very hip Abueg Morris architects (Nopalito, Roam, Prather Ranch) will oversee the design. So I think what I'm trying to say is that this won't be your typical taqueria. Go to comalberkeley.com for more info.

Anyone who has ever visited New Orleans seems to fall in love with the food there, and that's exactly what happened to David Lin, who has signed on to open Voodoo Kitchen, a Creole-centered restaurant in Pleasanton that will take over the shuttered Rage Super Burger in the Koll Center. A first-time restaurateur, Lin attended grad school in The Big Easy where he became enchanted by the cuisine. He's spent the last year or so working with local chefs to recreate some of those dishes for Voodoo, which he hopes to debut by early summer. "I just love the spice, the smell, the texture, the way they serve it. So that's what we’re trying to emulate."

Lin is planning an affordable menu packed with New Orleans classics like jambalaya, hush puppies, fried oyster and shrimp po' boys (a combo half po' boy with soup should run less than $10), as well as crab, lobster, and crawfish boils for dinner. He'll also try to recreate a dish called "Yakamein," a New Orleans version of beef noodle soup invented by Chinese immigrants to Louisiana in the 1800's.

Meanwhile, Clementine's, the new New Orleans-themed restaurant planned to take over Marie Callander's in San Ramon is also close to opening and has set mid-April (tenatively April 17) as the target date. Their website is up and running, CLICK HERE to check out the menus... 18070 San Ramon Valley Blvd., San Ramon.

There's been a little talk about The Pizza Place in downtown Walnut Creek making way for another restaurant, but if so, it's news to owner Tony Dudum, who told me that "it is not going anywhere." Dudum did, however, mention that his 1515 Restaurant was hosting a Hawaiian/Tikki Night on April 2 starting at 6 p.m., complete with Hawaiian food and tikki style drinks. Mahalo...
1515 North Main Street, Walnut Creek, (925) 939-1515, 1515wc.com.

I haven't been able to confirm this, but according to Grub Street, there's another new bar/restaurant headed for Uptown. CLICK HERE to read the original story, but the place will reportedly be called Hop Scotch, and is a joint project between Kyle Itani and Jenny Schwartz. Apparently, Itani previously worked at the very popular Meatball Shop in New York City and the new place will be located at 1915 San Pablo Avenue near Hibiscus. 

Big congrats to Walnut Creek Yacht Club bartender Greg Palomo, who won the recent Virgin America cocktail contest. Palomo's winning creation, The Virgin Rose, is now the new featured cocktail at Virgin's VIP Lounge in JFK airport, while Palomo himself was whisked off to New York to meet Virgin's Sir Richard Branson himself (pictured, a little blurrily at right)

And another big congratulations to Lark Creek Walnut Creek chef Scott Wall, who proposed to his girlfriend via a flash mob that was recorded on Youtube. Major props to Wall, who apparently spent months planning the details (I, on the other hand, managed to propose without even buying a ring first...). Thanks to the Chron's Inside Scoop for that.

Tickets just went on sale for the North American tour of Outstanding in the Field dinners. Happening all over the country, these open-air dinners take place in farms, ranches, barns, and are designed to celebrate the "people whose good work brings nourishment to the table." There are several Bay Area events, including a couple in the East Bay: CLICK HERE to check out the dates.

And don't forget to get tickets for Barrel Tasting Weekend, the celebration of all things wine happening in Livermore Valley next weekend, CLICK HERE for more info. And we've actually got a couple of free tickets to hand out: CLICK HERE for a chance to win 'em.

We wrote about Lafayette-resident Ying Compestine's quick n' easy Best One-Dish Meals cookbook in the January issue. Well, Compestine is hosting a cool dinner on Friday, March 30 at the Lafayette Library to raise money for Whole Foods' Whole Plane Foundation. $35 will get you a three-course meal based on dishes from the cookbook and benefit micro-lending programs around the world. CLICK HERE for all the info.

This sounds great: the Artisan Cheese Festival is happening this weekend March 23-25 at the Sheraton Sonoma County in Petaluma. CLICK HERE for all the cheesy details...

Shout-Out of the Week: Brasa

I got to know Chris and Veronica Laramie a little bit from their time at Eve, the "neo-artisinal American" restaurant that the husband-and-wife duo started on Berkeley's University Avenue. To the dismay of its many fans, the prix fixe restaurant proved to be a little too high-maintainance and ended up closing. The good news, however, is the Laramies opened up a wonderful little Peruvian rotisserie chicken joint in its place. And honestly, the more casual, take-out oriented concept probaby makes for a better fit in that neighborhood, and especially in that tiny location.

Veronica is from Peru, so she has an insider's knowledge of the country's rotisserie chicken tradition, which she says is as ubiquitous as pizza is up here. That familiarity is evident in the final product, which is really well executed. The chicken (Mary's organic) is the main attraction and it is as tender as you'd hope for while exhibiting a robustly-herbed, deliciously savory skin. It comes with a couple of side sauces: my favorite was the creamy, spicy aji amarillo sauce, a nice compliment to the salty chicken. We also tried the lomo saltado, an intereting dish (and also one of my all-time favorites since I first discovered it in a marketplace stand on a trip to Peru). The saltado is a sort of stir-fry that combines hangar steak, french fries, and sauteed onions, tomato, and lettuce over rice. It's a really great example of ethnic comfort food, and Brasa does it spot-on. Nice sides include caesar salad and tasty, baked sweet potato fries, while some other authentic Peruvian specialties were the anticuchos beef heart skewers and a delicious chicha morada drink made from purple corn.

Prices are reasonable too ($7.50 for a quarter chicken with side), and it's a cute place (nice touches like chickenwire lamp fixtures), which can accomodate a decent amount of seating even though the focus is on the take-out business (with delivery, via scooter, soon to come). 1960 University Ave., Berkeley, (510) 868-0735, brasajoint.com.

Q&A with Food Craft Institute director Marcy Coburn

Diablo: So what’s the goal of the new Food Craft Institute?

Marcy Coburn: We’re a new educational institution and our goal is to teach the art of artisan food-making in a small and medium scale size to entrepreneurs who are interested in either launching a small to medium sized food business or working as a highly educated buyer or participant in the food business. Our target audience for the courses is someone who obviously has a background in food and in potentially launching a food business, and has the time and energy to commit to a three-month course.

So, it’s not a cooking class situation, it’s more of an entrepreneur-building course. The one-off cooking classes—like how to make cheese or how to make bread or how to make jam—those are really covered already we feel like in the East Bay. And also, our instructors for FCI, many of them are already doing those sort of one-day classes, so it’s an area we definitely don’t want to impede upon. So, our focus is really about food businesses: either getting better at what they’re already doing or new entrepreneurs who are interested in getting into the food business space in a shelf-stable food business.

Prices are fairly expensive ($2,750 per course): is that because of the in-depth nature of the courses?

Exactly. It’s a 12-week course. For the jam class we’re working with five local practitioners. So students will spend several days in classrooms doing work, doing tastings, doing food science with (food author) Harold McGee, a tour of industrial facilities, and each week for five weeks in a row, they’ll spend five weeks practicing in a food crafter's facilities. So they’ll spend an entire day with Rachel Saunders form Blue Chair Fruit, or an entire day with June Taylor at June Taylor Jams, an entire day with Dafna Kory at Inna Jams. And then there’s a really vigorous business component to this at the end. It’s actually 12 weeks long so if you break that down—a lot of people teach courses that are four hours long and they charge up to $300—so if you break that down it’s actually very affordable. We also offer up to 75 percent discount with scholarships so we definitely want people to apply who can’t necessarily afford the full tuition. Because we’re a non-profit, we’re doing fundraising and the Eat Real Festival is now a fundraiser for the Food Craft Institute, so we’ll be able to subsidize the courses for people who can’t afford to pay, so the price shouldn’t deter people.

There’s been recent news about how culinary institutes students can graduate with a lot of debt and not necesarily well-prepared for a job in the kitchen: was there a lot of focus placed on making these courses practical?

Yeah, this isn’t like a culinary school in that we’re definitely focused on particular and historical food craft techniques. And we’re offering a huge business component, so it’s not you graduate from a culinary school with $60,000 debt and you get a job for $12 an hour in a restaurant: that’s definitely not the focus. It’s interesting with the culinary academies, I think the food network and other big media outlets have really made it seem like being a chef was extremely lucrative so people are a little misinformed about how easy it is to make money in food. And actually launching a small artisan food business is an area where [FCI founder Anya Fernald], and her consultancy business Live Culture, actually did a lot of research in the East Bay to see where the sectors were for growth in terms of food businesses, and this is an area where this is room in the market and there are opportunities for making successful businesses.

Do you think there was a need to formally gather in one place all this food production knowledge? It doesn't seem like there is anyone doing that right now?

There really isn’t and we do see a need for that, and that’s actually one of the mid-range goals for the Food Institute is after we hold some of these courses is to actually capture the information being taught in them and be able to create a jam curriculum and a pickle curriculum and create something that can be open sourced and free and available on the internet and we can have videos and images and we can have things that we can share, so that people can take the course and have the hands-on experience of taking the course and graduating and becoming certified by the Food Craft Institute, but they can also find that information somewhere else. At this time it’s very difficult to find that info, one of the only places is through a couple of UC extensions where you can sort of become a master canner. But those courses are very focused on food safety and traditional canning from sort of a 1950’s approach to canning. And there’s nothing wrong with that but it’s not about launching an actual artisan food business in today’s day and age.

Why Oakland?

Oakland is an amazing place for food production because there are so many affordable places for create production facilities. And this is where the Eat Real festival is, and through the years of doing Eat Real, we’ve met and accessed and connected with so many people in the food craft arena. And so this is an area where small businesses can be successful and we’re really interested in cultivating that. The overhead, the capital expense, especially for a business like jam making can be very approachable and very easy. And very low in the East Bay as opposed to somewhere like San Francisco. There’s also a community of food crafters here already.

I know the Jack London Market project is switching its emphasis towards accommodating food production businesses versus just vendors: are you partnering with them at all?

We’re not working directly with them on that project although we’re very supportive of it. Because we’re here and Eat Real is here, we’re very supportive of them bringing food crafters into the market place and helping support them get their businesses started here. And it’s a great potential place for our graduates to then go if they’re at the point where they’re ready to launch their business.

The Eat Real Fest has a connection with the Slow Food movement: will that be an emphasis with the Food Craft Institute as well?

Well, our emphasis will always be on flavor, and things taste better if they’re sourced locally. So for sure, we are interested in responsible sourcing, and one of the great things about this project is the potential for a stronger community of food crafters to develop and network with each other and then be able to go in together in buying larger amounts of produce from local farms or work together to buy packaging at a lower cost—things that are a discount if their in certain volumes, that will be nice to be able to help local food producers do that successfully.

But it’s not a prerequisite, obviously, the Eat Real festival is about good food and having a good time. We are very interested in clean meat and locally sourced produce and all those things, but it’s not something we want to cram down people’s throats. People come to it on their own when they’re in search for good flavor, they really do.

How many classes are you starting with?

The first class is in jams, marmalades, and chutneys and that will start April 21 and run through the middle of July. And that’s the only subject happening. And then we’ll do a course on pickling and fermentation, and that will happen mid-summer through early fall. And then coffee roasting and how to launch a coffee bar. So James Freeman (from Oakland’s Blue Bottle), Eileen Hassi from Ritual Coffee, those folks will be working with us to do a coffee bar course, and those folks will be working with us to do a coffee bar course and that will run through the winter.

So just one course at a time?

Yes, but there will also be a couple of smaller courses, one will be strictly business for existing food businesses, a five-day intensive and do an intensive slash audit of their business and help existing businesses become more profitable. And the a couple of “black belt” courses which will be shorter, intensive classes in specific rigorous food technique such as charcuterie or cheese making for an existing business.  We also hope to add a room and board option when we do a butchery course, something on-farm and experiential. And that will help us draw form a more rural community that might not be able to come to Oakland once a week. It’s very important that we reach into the rural, farming communities that are looking to do a value-add product with their farm offerings.

You must be pretty excited about capitalizing on all this energy within the food production community…

We are. And also, the more people know about food safety in terms of producing food, the better it is for everyone as far as there being good-quality products in the market. And just raising the integrity of the art of food craft to a prestigious place where it used to be.

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