Playing in the Kitchen DIY Style with Bar Tartine's Chefs

Playing in the Kitchen DIY Style with Bar Tartine's Chefs

Since taking over the kitchen in 2011, Nicolaus Balla and Cortney Burns have transformed the menu at San Francisco's Bar Tartine into something wildly eclectic yet simultaneously familiar.It's seasonal, with a focus on local and high quality ingredients. And it's fusion without overthinking it. They claim nearly a dozen influences in their cooking—Hungarian, Eastern European Jewish, Japanese, Irish, Polish, German, Filipino, Slovakian, Laotian, Mexican and Mayan—to which they bring a decidedly California influence.

December 3, 2014
Since taking over the kitchen in 2011, Nicolaus Balla and Cortney Burns have transformed the menu at San Francisco's Bar Tartine into something wildly eclectic yet simultaneously familiar. It's seasonal, with a focus on local and high quality ingredients. And it's fusion without overthinking it. They claim nearly a dozen influences in their cooking—Hungarian, Eastern European Jewish, Japanese, Irish, Polish, German, Filipino, Slovakian, Laotian, Mexican and Mayan—to which they bring a decidedly California influence.

We sat down with Nick and Cortney to talk about their new cookbook, aptly named "Bar Tartine: Techniques & Recipes." 
Read on to learn about their thoughts on lard and why they say their cooking style isn't "refined"—plus get some DIY holiday food gift suggestions and a recipe from the book to get you started!

Chefs Feed: You open the cookbook with a poem called, “Cleveland, 1950.” What does that poem mean to you?

Cortney: His dad wrote it. It’s about looking back to a time, being lost. It touches on this familial element. With the food we cook, it seemed appropriate to honor that past.

Nick: It’s a reflection of my dad and his appreciation of his memories, of the old world and that period. It’s what our philosophy is about. Old school food. It’s across from the photos of the old sauerkraut shredders that we’re holding.

They’re like huge mandolins!

Nick: Yep, you’ve gotta be careful not to slice your arm off with those.

The food at Bar Tartine is generally considered very “refined” but in the book you talk about favoring “peasant flavors.” What do you consider refined versus peasant food?

Cortney: Our flavors tend to be layered. When I think of “refined,” I think classically refined and more singular notes. Our flavors tend to be more melded together. Our food isn’t plated in a way that’s fussy, either. It’s more rustic.

Nick: The term has changed. For many years, refined meant not a lot of acid or spice. Over the past few years, funk, acid and spice have been merging. There’s a lot of thought that goes into the vessels (that we plate our food on) but we don’t use tweezers to plate.

It’s not thoughtless or haphazard, though.

Nick: Right. There’s a lot of thought put into it.

I know this is a hard one, but what’s your cooking style?

Cortney: It’s the food that we want to eat. It’s based in flavor memories but also the question, “what could we do with that?” Not, “what would it look like on a plate?” Sometimes we’ve been brainstorming about making something for awhile and then an opportunity arises. (Such as a fruit being in season or having an abundance of a particular ingredient.)

Nick: Fusion is the best way to describe what we do but it just has a bad name. We use modern techniques to make old school food. There’s no one way to describe it.

The first part of the book is all about techniques. Can a beginning home chef dive right into this?

Cortney: By all means. Most of the things we list as ingredients you can buy or substitute for what you have on hand. Like pickled green walnuts. You could buy them on Amazon. If the recipe calls for brisket but you have smoked turkey. That’s great! Use what you have. We hope that people will use it both ways—make some things from scratch and substitute store bought when needed.

We want to encourage people to experiment and play. For people who are recipe people, the notion of play is uncomfortable. But to play, you have to have a base to start with. Flavors are part of that.

Nick: Yeah, I mean, most of the techniques are simple and don’t require fancy equipment. There are recipes that are more complicated and some that are simpler. The soups and salads are our soul food. That’s what we eat at home.

The chopped summer vegetable salad and the sauerkraut soup are my favorites.

We live in a time where there’s a separate tool for almost everything. What’s one kitchen gadget that you couldn’t live without?

Cortney: The blender. It gives you the opportunity to alter texture.

Nick: We use a lot of mortar and pestles. Also cast iron skillets for searing.

Nut milks are very popular right now. How do you like to use the leftover pulp?

Cortney: You could turn it into flour. We make sesame milk and dry out the pulp to use in other things.

Nick: We’ve used that for breads and baking in general. For pie crusts and cobblers.

Animal fats are slowly making a comeback but not at the USDA level yet. If you could redesign the food pyramid, what would it look like?

Nick: I like to eat based on cravings. If you’re eating healthy, your body tells you what you need. We like whole grains and satiating things.

Cortney: And vegetables. We eat a lot of protein, too.

Nick: I hate the fad-y stuff.

As in dietary fads, not fatty foods, right?

Nick: Right.

Cortney: We do eat a lot of fat, though. Salami and cheese should be its own category. As long as it's good food and not full of pesticides, it’s fine. And exercise is important, too.

We’d like to ask a grandmother from every culture what she cooks, and that’s how we should eat.

Do you think lard-based pie crusts will ever be popular again?

Cortney: I think they should! It makes the best air pockets. Or suet. If you’re a meat eater, there’s nothing better. Or butter, if you’re vegetarian.

I like that you add savory elements to your desserts and strive to make sure they aren’t overly sweet. What’s your favorite dessert in the cookbook?

Nick: The kefir float.

Cortney: It’s cultured kefir with water kefir. It’s like having a cultured float. Plus you get all those probiotics.

Nick: Also the nut butter cookies.

Pasture-raised eggs are popular for their flavor, nutrition and provenance. But do you recommend them for baking?

Cortney: They can be really strong flavor-wise, but we don’t do a lot of egg-based dishes. As long as you’re keeping the temperature low, it should be fine.

Nick: We wouldn’t compromise quality to avoid that flavor. We work with what we have.

Cortney: It’s the only type of egg that we use. It comes down to technique. If you do it right, it’ll taste good.

What’s a good recipe in the book that could make a great DIY holiday gift?

Cortney and Nick: The apple butter!

Can you use any type of apple that’s slightly tangy?

Cortney: Yeah.

Nick really loves the creamed honey, too.

Nick: Yeah. I also really like the brined carrots.

Cortney: Or the sprouted nut butters with bread.

Nick: And the hoshigaki (dried persimmons).

Cortney: If you started it now, the hoshigaki would be ready in time for Christmas.

Interview by Sara Bloomberg
Photo of hoshigaki by Chad Robertson (Bar Tartine)

Recipe for Hoshigaki (reprinted with permission)

Unripened Hachiya persimmons are so loaded with tannins that they are essentially inedible until they’ve ripened to an almost custard-like state or they’ve been dried, as they are here.

Instead of loading the fruits into a dehydrator or spreading them on a screen in the sun, we dry them in the traditional Japanese style, hanging the fruits from their stems with a string and gently massaging them over the course of several weeks.

They are wonderful eaten on their own, with a cheese plate and sake, or in salads.

You’ll want to find persimmons with the stems still attached, so you can tie strings to them. If the stem is T-shaped, that job will be even easier.

With a paring knife, carefully trim the peel from the top of each fruit by slicing from the outside of the fruit toward the stem and turning the fruit in a circle to score the entire top.

Cut a slit in the loose ring, and pull it from the fruits leaving the stem intact. Peel the fruits. Tie each one by its stem to a length of string. Repeat until all of the fruits are ready to hang.

Select a moderately cool space (no warmer than 65°F/18°C) with good ventilation and hang them where they won’t be disturbed. When the surface of the fruits begins to look slightly dry, after 3 to 5 days, gently massage the fruits to coax the sugars to the surface, break down fibers, and eliminate any internal air pockets where mold might grow.

Continue massaging the fruits every 3 days until their surface is frosted with a white, sugary bloom. Dry them until they feel like a leather wallet full of cash, about 1 month.