Quick Takes: Michelle Polzine, 20th Century Cafe
Meet your surrogate pastry grandma.
May 16, 2016
Chef Michelle Polzine sometimes drops her articles like an Eastern European immigrant, speaking in a broken “I make bagel” grammar that, despite sharing little resonance with her Southern Californian upbringing or her charming vocal squeak — more Minnie Mouse than Old Country grandmother — somehow feels entirely natural.
My own Ukrainian-Jewish baba baked professionally in Kiev. Decades of devouring her home-baked bagels, piroshki, and Napoleon have made my dad a tough audience for American-made Eastern European pastry, but I’ll be damned if 20th Century Cafe’s spread of mohnkuchen, bagel and lox, reuben, pierogies, and strudel didn’t make him put his fork down, look up at me, and say: “Wow.” Which is a pretty strong reaction for an Eastern European.
Polzine admits he's not alone. “People have said, 'My grandmother made this cake,'” she says. “And I'm like, that's crazy, 'cause I fucking made this up! Cool! I am your new grandma!”
Her wiretap on the babushka hive mind may be due to the tremendous attention she’s paid to making 20th Century a portal to another place and time. It’s perched on a corner in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley, though it may as well be 1910s Vienna, Budapest, or Prague. Polzine frets over the authenticity of everything from the sconces to the silverware, and everything is made the "Old-World way" from scratch, no matter how painstaking it is to shave kraut cabbage by hand. She and most of her staff dress in vintage clothing, hair, and makeup — though that’s due more to personal taste than any uniform policy. “These are just the clothes I happen to have,” she says, noting that the name '20th Century' offers plenty of room to fudge the decades. “We just wear our regular clothes to work.”
Some of it is subconscious, an accumulation of favored cultural remnants she’s picked up over the years; tchotchkes of the soul, if you will. She reminisces about a part in Dracula where the English solicitor Jonathan writes in his journal about the chicken paprikash he’d eaten in Transylvania, noting that eating so much paprika gives him “all sorts of queer dreams.” The many culinary references in Anna Karenina play a role, too, she says: the mushroom foraging, the nettle dishes, the cabbage soup.
“It's like a stockpile, and my brain just sorts it however it wants,” she says. “I don't really know exactly how it gets in there, or how it comes out. It's just a magic thing that happens.”