The Democratization of Criticism

Back in the old days, there were two public voices of food criticism in Washington. She was Phyllis Richman of the Post and he was Robert Shoffner of the Washingtonian.

Shoffner immersed himself in Washington’s culinary history and wrote with real knowledge about our traditions and development.

Richman first wrote a food column for the Baltimore Jewish Times, then a restaurant column for the Washington Star, then for the Washingtonian and starting in 1976 for the Post.


Richman was a pioneer of newspaper food criticism in America, of the generation of Craig Claiborne at the New York Times, Lois Dwan who wrote over three decades for the Los Angeles Times, and others.

Richman had a demanding role; much was expected of her and after a few years at the Post she had three jobs: Food editor, restaurant critic, and syndicated columnist.

What made her job particularly difficult, it seemed to me, was that before the era in which she and others were writing, food criticism had been thought of as “woman’s work.” But Richman considered herself – and was in fact a journalist. She was boxed in, however.   When, as she says, “Food was just food and family, it was acceptable for women to write about it. But when it became money and glamor, then it was men’s work.”

As true as that is, Richman’s voice became more powerful in the Washington food scene’s than anyone else’s had been. Many times I saw the reactions of restaurateurs who realized that she was sitting at one of their tables. They knew how powerful a review from her could be. Her review of Marvelous Market on a Sunday in October, 1990 brought 250 people to a line outside our door. The police came to see what was happening and busses paused to see the sight.

No one will ever be that powerful again.

From 1983 to 1988 Tom Sietsema, then a college student, was her assistant before he moved to Milwaukee to be food editor of the Journal, then to the San Francisco Chronicle to write about food, then to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer to write about food.  He returned to Washington in 2000.


The demands now made on Sietsema are greater even than those that were made on Richman. He is of course first our restaurant critic and writes a restaurant review for the Post Magazine every week. As well he previews new restaurants in the Post’s Wednesday food section, writes periodic stories for the front section, hosts a weekly on-line chat, and wrote post cards from the road once a month that have now been replaced by major stories on the food scenes in other cities.

Yet in spite of it all he is far from being the only food voice in Washington. There is David Hagedorn of who writes for D.C. Modern Luxury and the Wall Street Journal, Don Rockwell who hosts a popular Web site, Tim Carmen of the Post, Todd Kliman and others at the Washingtonian Magazine, Prince of Petworth, Bright Young Thing, and occasionally Warren Rojas of Roll Call.

And above all – Zagat, the little red book (not to be confused with the sayings of Mao Tse-tung).

In 1978 I was working for the Boston Police Department and one evening Barney Frank, then in the state legislature, told me that our mutual friend from the National Student Association, Tim Zagat was going to create a restaurant guide.

Zagat during our student years had talked about ways of empowering consumers, aggregating them so that their opinions about many consumer goods could have more powerful effects. He had dreamed of rating restaurants, films and stores, airlines and others.

I was then an avid home cook and Craig Claiborne reader, a believer in expertise, and I said to Barney, “That’s an awful idea.   You don’t become a restaurant critic just by eating out.”


Wow was I wrong! That is exactly what happened. People became critics. The little red book was successful in city after city. Hundreds of thousands of people bought it, responded to its surveys, and relied on it.


But what empowered consumers even more was, of course, the Internet that gave a forum to everyone, anyone, and a forum of irresistible immediacy.

There are many, many professional Web sites like and offshoots of publications like the Web sites of the Post and the Washingtonian. There are wonderful food sites like Serious Eats, personal Web sites, travel sites like Trip Advisor. And then – of course – there is Yelp.

Yelp is in a category of its own, getting 135 million visitors monthly who want to know about hair salons and dry cleaners. (Under the category “Best Prisons” the D.C. Jail gets one and half stars.)


Even though it carries consumer ratings to great extremes, Yelp, it is said, has great power. A Harvard Business School study argued that a change in the number of stars given to a business affects its business volume by five to seven percent.

How can it be then that virtually no restaurateur – even those with the thinnest of skins – pays any attention whatever to Yelp. Most don’t bother to look at it.

Some have had bad experiences.   Some Yelpers, restaurant owners believe, use the threat of bad reviews to get favors. Some restaurateurs have been publically critical, even rebellious about Yelp. But most just ignore it.

One colleague told me, “I check Open Table almost hourly and check Trip Advisor at least weekly. I don’t regularly check Yelp as I can’t stand the pukes that actually “review” restaurants…”

Another:   “I don’t pay much attention to Yelp. Yelp is for people who have never stepped foot in a restaurant and yet they write about it. If someone walks into the restaurant and can’t get a table, they rate you zero.”

Some believe that Yelp biases its reviews based on who advertises on its site and who doesn’t. One said, “I really never looked at Yelp because it is falsified by competitors and by restaurants themselves who pay people to write good reviews for them. Plus if you do advertise with them they will keep the reviews with five stars stay on.”

Yelp vice president of corporate communications, Vince Solitto, firmly denied to public radio the accusations of extortion:   “…there is no amount of money that anyone can pay to manipulate Yelp reviews or move their placement. Yelp reviews are written by real consumers about real businesses, and they serve as a helpful resource for more than 50 million consumers each month.”

I believe that is true. Yet Yelp called me the other day. That’s not unusual. The company calls restaurateurs all the time to solicit advertising. This time I made notes during the call:

“Eun is not here,” I said, “she went to a meeting. This is Mark Furstenberg. May I help you?”

“I called to go over your options for advertising.”

“I’m sorry. We don’t advertise.”

“Well Eun said that she was interested and I want to discuss the various options.”

“No,” I said, “I don’t think Eun told you that. I appreciate your calling but we aren’t interested in advertising.”

“Why not?”
“We just don’t do it.”

“So you don’t want to build your business and do better in the winter months because you could if you advertise.” We have many programs…” On and on.

“Thank you for calling but we’re not going to advertise.”

“You realize Yelp is giving you a lot of free advertising by reporting what your customers say about you. And in the last week alone we have given location information and directions to 68 people.”

“And I appreciate that but we are not going to advertise.”

“You don’t want to be on Yelp?”

“Are you telling me that if we don’t advertise we’ll drop off Yelp”?

“We’re giving you a lot of free advertising by letting people see who you are and where you are.”

“And I appreciate that. But I just don’t advertise. I haven’t ever advertised.”

“Are you saying that you don’t want to be on Yelp”?

“Again, you’re telling me that if we don’t advertise you’re going to drop us from Yelp?”

“I don’t even know who you are. I called to speak to Eun.”

“Then you ought to do some homework before calling.   Now, I want to get off the phone and go back to work.”

He hung up.

I was almost from birth a sucker for the hard sell. I bought atomic rings advertised on the radio.  I saved cereal boxtops to get secret codes advertised on radio.  I remember listening on the radio to the creator of Charles Antell Formula No. 9, also the creator of the thirty-minute commercial. He pitched lanolin, “Did you ever see a bald sheep?”



I dutifully sent my money through the mail although I can’t imagine now why in 1949, at the age of eleven, I was concerned about baldness.

Perhaps that is why since the age of eleven the hard sell has been unpleasant to me and I always rebeI against it. But perhaps it is effective for Yelp whose its name alone is unpleasant to me although it certainly does justify the hard sell.

But I have other issues to raise in this essay.

If chefs and restaurateurs don’t respect Yelp where do we get our information about our customers’ experiences? Those who use Open Table, the service that allows diners to reserve tables on its on-line site and also carries reviews, is respected. “These are the people who actually dine here,” a friend said to me, “They are sharing their experiences.”

Many of my colleagues pay attention to Trip Advisor. For all of us, what are most powerful are oral comments, letters and emails.   When a customer bothers to complain about food or service I – and I think everyone else in the food business – pay attention. We know that it takes a certain amount of courage to complain directly and in person. We know that it takes a certain amount of industry to write a letter, even an email. And we learn from complaints.

Our responses to them depend on how thin-skinned we are and how firmly we feel about the issue being complained about. I mean that if a customers says to me that our coffee is not hot enough when it’s served, I want to know that and correct it. If they say that they don’t like our coffee I pay attention to the number of people who say that. If they say that our coffee is too strong, I am interested but believe I should be the final voice.

There are now so many voices and if food criticism has been democratized it has also become amateurized. That is not a bad thing but it means I must rely on my own taste.   If I try to respond to every customer complaint by making changes I get lost. I hope that doesn’t sound arrogant but truthfully if I didn’t trust my taste I would not make foods.

It is nonetheless a good thing that customers have so many ways to express their opinions.   It is really wonderful that customers are paying so much attention to what they eat and are so knowledgeable about food and interested in it. But because the Internet has increased so much the volume of customer comments we who make food have to be selective about which media we pay attention to.

Nearly all my friends in the food-making business do that and virtually all of them exclude Yelp from their attentions.





Traumatized in Toulouse

Here are a few sentences you will never hear in a French restaurant:

“Hi, my name is Emile and I will be your waiter for this evening.”

“Have you dined with us before?

“May I explain our menu to you?”

“How are you guys doing?”

“Are you still enjoying that?”

“Is there anything else I can get for you?”

“Here is your check – when you’re ready…”

The French waiter/waitress is a professional. He is such a well-known character that when one dines in a French restaurant, he (or she) becomes an important part of the experience.


Whether haughty or cool or professional or negligent, the French waiter is never like an American server and that’s how I became traumatized in Toulouse.

Someone I trust a lot, a colleague here told me that Christian Constant had opened a restaurant on the Place du Capitole in Toulouse; so when I checked into my hotel, nearly on the grand place itself, I took a walk in the city and inevitably found myself near the restaurant – somewhat too early for dinner in Europe but not too early for a drink.

Christian Constant is an admirable person, a transformational person on the French culinary scene. He was the chef of the magnificent Crillion Hotel on the Place de la Concorde where he trained a generation of chefs who went on to reestablish a simple, ingredient-based, seasonal cuisine. It borrows from other cultures but is thoroughly grounded in French cooking.

One of his protégés, Yves Camdeborde has gone on to great glory in his restaurant, Le Comptoir and his hotel, Le Relais Saint Germain; and another Tierry Breton is the chef/owner of Chez Michel, another restaurant I like a lot.


I had no thought that Le Bibent in Toulouse would be anything other than wonderful and when I arrived at the restaurant I was sure it would be. I intended to sit outside on the soft evening facing the stunning Place but when I saw the inside, I couldn’t stay outside as wonderful as that would have been. The interior was too magnificent.

Baroque, Art Nouveau, this restaurant goes back to 1882; and that it had been taken over by a chef I admire so much made me happy to be there. I wanted to be in that room. I wanted to watch the food pass on its way to other tables. I wanted to see the service.


I wanted simply to stare. I wanted to have a pastis and drink it and drink in the sights, the ornate walls and ceiling. That’s permissible in a French restaurant. Unlike American restaurants no one ever rushes French diners. I had been eating alone during my stay in Bordeaux and in Auch and my dinners had been tranquil evenings of two and half hours and more.

An attractive young server arrived at my table and I smiled. She didn’t. “Avez-vous choisi?” she asked.

I was surprised and I told her that I didn’t have a menu. She brought one.

It was 7:50 PM, an unfashionably early hour for dinner in Europe and only two other tables were occupied. Nevertheless, after three minutes, the waitress returned. “Avez-vous choisi,” she asked again?

Now I was irritated. I told her that I wanted an aperitif. Even before it arrived she returned and asked a third time whether I was ready.

I was – for her. I told her that when I was ready I would let her know. I ordered a second pastis just to spite her – and calm myself.

My appetizer was delivered to my table almost immediately after I ordered it and my main course came just as quickly. I was given my check before I asked for it.

There I was – on the main square of Toulouse on a beautiful summer night, my one dinner in that city – and I might have been at Mon Ami Gabi in a northern Virginia shopping mall. The restaurant was still largely empty. My dinner – even with the delays I had imposed – was 75 minutes long.

Capitole of Toulouse, and the square of the same name with the Occitan cross designed by Raymond Moretti on the ground.

Restaurant service in France has rarely been warm but it has always been proper. I was getting in this beautiful restaurant in Toulouse, the restaurant of a great contemporary chef, service that would have embarrassed him.

It made me think about what is happening to food in France.

My son Philippe pointed me to a study by the French Union of Hotel Skills and Industries that claims 85 percent of the restaurants of France, without telling their customers, use frozen, vacuum-packed, partially, even foods wholly cooked in advance somewhere else.

Some unsuspecting diner (like me) could order tête de veau (prepared in a factory) followed by steak au poivre (cooked in a sous vide factory) accompanied by sauce bernaise (packaged in plastic bags by a factory), frozen vegetables, desserts made by a big supplier, and so on.

Eighty-five percent seems like a very high number but whether it’s literally 85 percent or not those practices have been adopted widely by French restaurants whose customers have no suspicions that they are eating food factory-made.

At the beginning of this year a new law gave restaurants that make food on premises permission to advertise that. Can you imagine? French restaurants having to advertise that they make their food?

Many, many years ago I did a stage in a little bakery in Paris. It was/is a wonderful bakery that makes huge loaves of crusty, mixed grain bread. I worked through the nights there learning the rustic pastries of that bakery. I had hoped as well to learn by working there more about Viennoisserie. But I didn’t.

As it turned out the bakery bought frozen croissants from a big manufacturer of frozen pastries. We removed from the freezer the number needed for the next day, let them defrost and proof and then we brushed them with egg and baked them.

The owner of the bakery told me as we worked that he could offer a better, more consistent croissant by buying than he could by making his own. I believed him but it seemed wrong.

How naïve I was! How persnickety I was!   The croissants my friend made (didn’t make) were good, really good even though they weren’t fait maison. The croissants I saw in France last month were nothing like those of my friend. They were pretty shocking.

What’s going on? What is happening my beloved French food?

Some people say labor laws make impossible the kind of intense work that French restaurants always did when they made their own food.

Others say that Common Market standardization has doomed some of the food-making practices that were followed for ages.

Still others say that the industrialization of food that in the U.S. has been the norm for 70 years is now coming to dominate France too.

But none of that accounts for the service in that beautiful restaurant in Toulouse.

France has lots of treasures: Paris, Mont Saint Michel, Provence, the Louvre, countless treasures. But certainly no treasure has been more important in France – and to France – than its cuisine and dining culture. In variety and quality, no cuisine other than Chinese has been that good (in my opinion). In service no food culture has been as good.

What happens to all of us if they are now in decline?

A Caper on the Road in the Dordogne

I didn’t know exactly where I was, somewhere between Agen and Perigueux  and I was enjoying not knowing. I was meandering the little roads back and forth between Dordogne and Cahors, avoiding the “N” roads staying on “D” roads, passing fields of sunflowers bending in union away from the hot sun as if in prayer.


I had begun in March to plan this trip to Southwest France and Corsica and in my fantasy planning I would go into the Aquitaine, Dorgogne, to Garonne and Gascony, and just drive, knowing where I would end each day but not knowing how I would get there.

Following my plan, I was hungry; it was 1:30 pm.

I passed a handwritten sign: “Dejuner, 30E. 100 mètres à la droite.” I faintly saw it, drove on, and then I said to myself, “What am I doing? That’s just what I want to do.”

And so I turned around and drove off onto a dirt road and after a hundred yards I arrived at a dirt parking lot with deep ruts. Just up a hill I saw an unprepossessing building and an improbable number of occupied plastic tables and chairs.

I was greeted warmly (in the French way) and led to a table. The menu of the day was appealing enough but I saw a display of fois gras around the counter in the rear and that’s what I wanted.

Pretty soon I was served a salad that reminded me of every good salad I have ever eaten in France.


Just good greens, three wedges of ripe tomato, sweet onions, red pepper, olives, herbs of Provence, cubes of feta, and capers all very lightly dressed.   It was perfect.

The feta cubes were small and uniform.   The red pepper nicely roasted and onions carefully minced. And the capers were fat, begging to be noticed.

My little carafe of rosé arrived.

I looked at it and the farmland below, the scenery and the others on the terrace. I was on vacation.

People who spend most of their waking moments thinking about food ought to savor it, not snort it. I eat too quickly. I am an oxymoron, a food lover who eats far too fast, and most people in the food business eat too fast. I don’t admire them for that; I don’t admire myself for it.

I go to dinner frequently with my friends David, Michael, and Saied. We find cheap restaurants, usually in the suburbs, the kind much valued by some food critics who far more frequently than I find food virtues in the suburbs of Washington.

A few months ago, we went to dinner at the Panda Gourmet, a truly seedy restaurant, not suburban, at the seedy intersection of New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road. (It could have been suburban.)


As usual, we ordered a large number of dishes so that we could try a lot; and in spite of our entreats to the contrary, all the dishes were brought to us at the same time – six or seven different foods – soup, noodles, vegetables, pork, this and that.

In the large and frenetic dining room we ploughed through the dinner like horses and the dinner was so unrewarding that in the parking lot I told my friends that I wouldn’t do that again.

I was reminded of that evening as I started to eat my little salad, one caper at a time, with bread from the green plastic basket with a paper napkin liner.

There I was with no appointments, nowhere to go surrounded by people who had no appointments, nowhere to go.

I felt on vacation and I fletcherized every little bite of the salad before moving on to the foie gras and eating that very slowly too. I put the fork on the plate after taking each bite. I sliced the foie gras into ever smaller cubes. I kept thinking: Why can’t I slow down at home too?

A few tables away from me were two women who were already seated there when I arrived.   A waitress put in front of them a dessert, a slice of cake I think, covered with cotton candy, a child’s dessert, a plate both modern and old-fashioned.

Both women squealed softly.

I decided to practice being on vacation. The experience was great and I decided I would do it again the next day. I spent that night in Toulouse in an old and beautifully modernized hotel just off the Place du Capitole.

Again driving aimlessly the following day, again hungry at 1:30 I found myself near Renneville in the Midi-Pyrénées on my route to Carcassonne, the medieval fortified city.

I saw a lunch sign on the road again:  “Cassoulet.”

Cassoulet! I was just outside Toulouse. Could I pass up that opportunity even in the summer heat? When will I ever again be able to eat cassoulet in Toulouse?

Cassoulet restaurant

Again a little salad, this time with a few slices of preserved duck. And then cassoulet.


And so I practiced eating slowly – “mindful eating” as people like to call it – giving up my self-imposed and irrational deadline to arrive at Carcassonne. And I stayed with my cassoulet until the dining room had nearly emptied – before driving to join the 60,000 or so others who also decided to go to Carcassonne late in that hot summer afternoon.


Artists and Feeders

Years ago when I first got interested in cooking, food was for eating. No one thought about food as art. I had five siblings all of whom shared my enthusiasm for food and our breakfasts and dinners were at home.

Each morning at the breakfast table when my father finished reading the morning newspaper (there was an evening one too), I would ask him to pass the sports section to me. Even before reading about the Orioles, I would look at the back page of that section because below the fold was a half page of classified ads.

From time to time, perhaps every few months I would see the announcement that I looked for and with great enthusiasm would tell everyone at the breakfast table that the House of Welsh would be holding its dollar night. That meant we could drive downtown into a seedy warehouse neighborhood “under the viaduct” where all eight of us sat at a big round table.   After being served a desultory iceberg lettuce salad with a pink wedge of tomato and some carrot strips, we eat a T-bone steak, a baked potato, and an indifferent green vegetable for one dollar per person.

That was dining out in the Fifties and I liked it. I wouldn’t expect it to be the same now.   Food is far more interesting than a monthly steak and baked potato. We appreciate the foods of our and other cultures. We have a great variety from which to choose.

But more and more these days, it seems to me the food world can be divided into artists, those who love to sculpt and paint with food and get a deep gratification from creation and artistry, and feeders, often traditionalists, those who focus on flavor and love to see their customers enjoy (as opposed to appreciate) what they prepare.

It’s one thing for “the artists” to be so prominent in America. I understand that. We, after all, are a young country without long food traditions and rarely have had self-confidence about our cuisines. So creation and innovation are high values.

But one reason I always look forward to being in France is that I have always admired French rootedness, the regional traditions of the country. Alsatian food means cabbage and pork and Provencal food means tomatoes and olives.

The French know what they are about.

I had my first French food in 1964. I flew to Paris to visit a woman whom I scarcely knew and who later became my wife; and she chose for my first French dinner a restaurant in the Sixth Arrondissement on the rue Monsieur le Prince, Chez Maître Paul.

It was food from Jura Mountains and Franche Comté and we ate poulet a la crème, a little green salad, and apple tart. My love affair with French food began that evening and it’s never waned.

I’ve just returned from ten days in southwest France and in Corsica. Ten days is a short time and I have no right to pass judgment. In this little visit I was able to find the kind of food in France that I love so much. But it has become more difficult; and the food that can be found more easily is not anything I like very much.

I expected in the southwest, even in summer, that I would see foie gras and cassoulet, boiled meats, sweetbread, prunes. I hoped for a lot of “peasant food,” chicken livers, kidneys, and sausages. They were there but the cuisine most prominent in the restaurants was high art.

My journey began in Bordeaux, a spectacular city.


I had been urged by those who know something to go to Le Pavillion au Boulevard and that is where I went for my first dinner. I was immediately sorry I had done so. I should have known better.The dining room was beautiful and the food was too.

But I didn’t see the point of smoked fois gras and of combining peas, mango, and olives as an accompaniment to sea bass.

fois gras

And why deconstruct a classic combination of foie gras and Sauternes, diluting the wine to a foam and a gelee. Indeed, I didn’t want all those little pillows, foams, dusts, granules, and gelees.

All that invention seemed so fatiguing and I left the restaurant in the rain disheartened, determined to avoid modern food if I could do so.I managed to do that for next two meals. Lunch the next day was at a street stand and consisted of one dozen assorted Atlantic oysters, bread and butter, and a glass of Entre-Deux-Mers.

Dinner that evening at Chez Dupont was perfect.

Chez dupont

But I fell off the wagon again in Condom, a town I had to visit as it was at La Table des Cordeliers that Jean Louis Palladin won the two Michelin stars that brought him to Washington as our greatest chef. I am not sure what Jean Louis would think of the food there now – in this simple, stunning room.


The bread wasn’t good and the service a bit ragged but the big disappointment for me was – again – the modernity of the food. The tomato tart, beautiful and delicious – but why the basil ice cream?

Tomato tart

Why then the tomato ice cream with the “hamburger,” in fact eggplant and tomato?

%22Hamburger%22It seemed so contrived — ice cream in all three courses.

Fifty-one years after my first tastes of French food, I am unreconciled to what restaurant dining seems to be becoming there – those painted plates, carefully contrived arrangements of tiny vegetables with carefully shaped rectangles of meat or fish draped over.

Sauces reduced to unrewarding smears and diluted foams. Gelatinized morsels and powders. Dishes deconstructed into parts that are meant to be parts of a construct. Combinations of flavors whose great virtue is their improbability.

I am a bread-baker and therefore a traditionalist and I know that I am less enamored of innovation than many others. I know “you eat with your eyes before you eat with your mouth.”

But which kind of eating do you prefer?

Modern                Cassoulet

(More to Come)

Queen of the Mediterranean

I have a few friends who quality for that title: Aglaia Kremezi whose newest cookbook Mediterranean Vegetarian Feasts I am looking at more than any other right now when, at the height of the summer, we are getting the best fruits and vegetables available in the mid-Atlantic. aglaia-d Aglaia lives on the island of Kia, an hour-long boat ride from Athens where she teaches people who make the pilgrimage to her home and school there.

But Aglaia is a relative newcomer (most of us are) compared to her close friend Paula Wolfert whose explorations of Mediterranean food began in Morocco before I was even fully aware of Mediterranean food. paula-warka1-s-2 When Paula published The Foods of Morocco in 1973, it was the first American cookbook to explore that cuisine – and it is still the standard – and it was the first of Paula’s explorations that came to include Southwest France, grains and greens in Mediterranean cooking, the cuisines of the eastern Mediterranean, and many more.

In 1973 when Paula published that important first book I was spending some summer times in Corsica and there is certainly no place more firmly in the Mediterranean than that. But I didn’t know enough even to see the distinctions among the various French cuisines much less the commonalities of the Mediterranean ones. My culinary brain – such as it was – was then focused on mastering the art of French cooking – as if mastery were possible.

But my candidate this week for the queen’s crown is Joyce Goldstein whose 80th birthday last week sent me yet again across the country to San Francisco. dsc_2719hr-2 Goldstein is so well known in the culinary community that chefs all over the country refer to her simply as “Joyce” just as we used to speak of “Julia.”

Few people in our Washington world achieve such distinction. Indeed I know of no one in our legal/journalistic/political city other than Barney and Cokie who are known by their first names alone. But Joyce is.

She could have been a great lawyer or journalist but she didn’t have to be. Because her father adored her. “He was a feminist,” she says, “but he didn’t know it. He gave me the courage to do what I wanted.”

And so Joyce Goldstein lived in Rome in the late Fifties, fell in love with Italy, began studying Italian food, moved to San Francisco and began teaching cooking in her home and then in San Francisco’s first school of international cuisines, the California Street Cooking School that she opened.

In 1980 she became the chef of the new café at Chez Panisse in Berkeley and stayed there until she decided to open her own restaurant, Square One at Pacific and Front Streets.

Opened in 1984 Square One was America’s first Mediterranean restaurant, offering mezze when the word wasn’t known, making sauces, spreads, and dressings like charmoula, romesco, and skordalia that were unknown to most restaurant diners in America.

Joyce featured lamb, a meat far less popular here than beef, did stews and braises, risottos that were unfamiliar here, and introduced fried kasseri cheese and bitter greens not then congenial to the American palate.  square-one-w-mural-correct-2 It was a big restaurant, 124 seats, and the menu was very ambitious, huge and it changed every day.

The recipes were complex, the kitchen jumping all the time. So of course the restaurant attracted the young, the bright and curious cooks many of whom went on to establish their own restaurants, their own cuisines always affected by their experiences at Square One.

I was introduced to Mediterranean food at Square One and fell in love with it there. I was a customer not then in the food business and didn’t meet Joyce until 1992 when on a chef and journalist trip to Rome to which we had both been invited, we sat one evening on a sofa in the lobby of our hotel smoking Havanas and getting acquainted. mark-and-joyce-first-meet-001-2 We became friends and I saw her on subsequent trips and even more frequently when I began in 1995 to commute to Napa Valley as the baking instructor at the new campus of the Culinary Institute of America. I nearly always stopped in the city to have dinner or lunch with Joyce and we worked together on the extraordinary conferences the school held each autumn.

I made a special trip to San Francisco to bake bread for a party in 1996 when Joyce decided to close Square One and retire. Retire indeed.

You have to picture: Joyce is a small woman with large glasses. L1000170She She dresses as a hippie would dress if the hippie had taste and had grown up. She moves fast, her head leaning in the direction in which she is going, slightly slouched in a familiar urban Eastern European Jewish way.

She talks fast and after all these years in California still with a New York accent.   She is opinionated, salty, articulate, active, restless, impatient – she is Brooklyn amazingly untouched by the contrary California styles.

The birthday party on Sunday was held at her son’s and daughter-in-law’s home and Joyce’s collegiate granddaughter was the bartender. Food was cooked there by Laurence Jossell of Nopa Restaurant and was (of course) mostly Mediterranean and drawn from Joyce’s books. food-at-party-d The guests were practically all food people, not celebrities but working people and all (except me) 30 years or more younger than Joyce.  They included chefs from all around the Bay area, from, for example, Delfina, Manresa, Greens, Bar Tartine as well as wine merchants, fishmongers, teachers, and journalists.

Aglaia, far younger than Joyce, is spending her summer as she always does receiving guests and teaching classes. (

Paula with an undiminished gusto has transformed herself into an Alzheimer’s activist. ( In character,

Joyce began her birthday week by drafting a letter to friends announcing that she has finished her latest book, her 27th, this one on Mediterranean Jewish cooking, and is now available for other projects. The day after her birthday Joyce preceded her party by teaching a public food class at the Ferry Plaza Market. guesa-d Since her 75th birthday she has written three books including Inside the California Food Revolution, a history of “California cuisine,” taught at the CIA in Napa Valley, conducted classes at Draegers Markets, consulted to a bunch of restaurants. She won’t stop. She looked queerly at me when I suggested slowing down, “I’m a shark,” she said, “If I stop swimming I die.”

Some people don’t know when to retire.

Up in the Air Again

I flew to San Francisco again on Saturday and write this as I fly back after a two-day stay. I didn’t see much of that wonderful city I love so much as I spent much of my time in the kitchen of my hosts.

Dave McElroy and Kathryn Morrison are people of enormous enthusiasm and great generosity.


They express those two attributes publically about 15 times each year by giving fund-raising dinners in their home.

When I say they give the dinners, I don’t mean that they merely lend their home for dinners others put on. I mean that they turn their house upside down and buy the food and generally cook the food and host the dinners – all for the benefit of organizations whose causes they care about or causes their friends care about – like tsunami relief, Obama reelection, a women’s clinic in Africa, AIDS awareness, a Philippine mission, a community music center, and so on.


The McElroy/Morrison home is not a Pacific Heights mansion.


It is a modest house in the Glen Park neighborhood that once was a working class section of the city. Nothing in San Francisco is working class any longer but the homes in this section aren’t quite as chichi perhaps as those in other parts of the city.

The fund-raising dinner for which I flew out is one I have worked on in previous years. It benefits Creativity Explored on whose board Kathryn serves.

This is an enormous amount of work. McElroy and Morrison converted their living room into a dining room and their hall became an exhibition of art to be auctioned. They held two dinners the first of which was attended 24 people who spent a minimum of $125 and the second of which, attended by 22 people, cost a minimum of $250.


Creativity Explored is a visual arts center that for more than 30 years has provided a work and exhibition space for 160 artists with adult developmental issues like Down’s syndrome and other conditions. One of the dinners – the one on which I worked – sold out 16 hours after it was announced by Internet and the other within two days

The contribution of these fund-raising efforts is a pittance in the budgets of Creativity Explored but they are community events attended by friends, people in the food business, people active in charities and who care about this organization, people who attend such events.  They came for the food. They came for the cause. They came for the art displayed on the walls of the McElroy/Morrison home and available for purchase. And they bought it.


All this is in a great tradition. Nothing is more American than voluntary action, the giving impulse.

“Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing associations, in which all partake, but associations of a thousand other kinds – religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive. Wherever at the head of some new undertaking you see the government of France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association.”                                          — Alexis de Tocqueville

Our “chef’s dinner” was a comparatively modest affair.   Dinners like these, fund-raisers based on food, can be twelve-course extravaganzas painful to endure. Ours on the other hand consisted of five courses – certainly enough – each one prepared by a different chef. I, because it is late spring and greens are at their peak with vegetables coming on, chose to do a seasonal bread salad.


I arrived in San Francisco on Saturday at mid-day in time to go grocery shopping at the Ferry Plaza Market. Although now profoundly yuppy-ized and really expensive, this outdoor market on the Embarcadero attracts farmers who offer spectacular produce.   I couldn’t help as I shopped for greens of exotic varieties and summer squash and perfect peas also buying a few peaches and apricots for myself. (When do we deprived Washingtonians get ripe, firm apricots?)


Early on Saturday morning I began my work taking a break to visit B Bakery in Pacific Heights where Michel Suas (see Up in the Air, September 17, 2013) had set aside some beautiful loaves, his donation to the dinner.

By the time the other chefs arrived, I had prepared vegetables to be grilled for my salad and the cumin-marash pepper dressing, and had baked ginger-black pepper cookies to accompany a peach ice cream made by Anne Walker, co-owner of Bi-Rite Market, another great institution in food-crazed San Francisco.


Guests arrived promptly and with great enthusiasm drank a bubbly Loire rose´, one of the six wines donated by guests and by Bi-Rite.

In dinners like these multi-course affairs no portion is huge in size (although the veal chop, our main course, was hardly modest). But as the guests ate happily through shellfish, vegetables, pasta, and red meat, they appeared to feel deprived of nothing.


I have been a food professional for 25 years and have participated in several fund-raisers each year. My first great fund-raising love was the Zoofari, a walk-around on the grounds of the National Zoo. Now, however, I avoid this most common style of food-based fund-raiser, the bazaar, a large space given over to booths at which restaurants serve foods to guests who walk from one booth to another.

The virtue of this style is that it can accommodate hundreds of guests and can raise huge amounts of money.

But after many years of watching people wander apparently joylessly from booth to booth, tasting a beef filet, followed by a molten chocolate cake, followed by a barbecued pork rib, followed by a poached scallop and then a strawberry granita, I decided I could no longer bear to watch people eat that way. I prefer what we did at Dave and Kate’s home, a comparatively modest menu of foods that complement each other.


Our guests on Sunday were animated and enthusiastic and, sitting at two tables of eleven people, had a real dinner party.

The chefs donated the food. We cooked it generally in our kitchens (except of course for me because my kitchen was 3,000 miles away). We stood during the service shoulder to shoulder in the modest galley kitchen, Staffan Terje kneeling at the oven to poke his veal roasts, Joyce Goldstein, the great chef-owner of Square One, America’s first Mediterranean restaurant, meticulously slicing her lasagna.


We helped each other plate the courses, drinking the wines the guests were drinking as well as the aquavit brought by Staffan, the Swedish chef of Perbacco, the Piemontese restaurant in San Francisco.   Off to the side two other volunteers washed dishes all evening long.

I like these events, especially, of course, the ones in San Francisco. It may seem peculiar, spending Bread Furst’s money to help raise money in a city 3,000 miles away particularly as there are so many needs in Washington.  It may even seem excessive.

But this is part of the food business: A cause important to a colleague becomes my cause. Something I haven’t thought about before becomes part of my life. And then I get the pleasures of mixing hard work with the pleasures of that work, enjoying the colleagueship of others who escape their kitchens for a little cooking, eating and drinking.

It occurs to me from time to time that I am in one of the few professions in which we who practice can enjoy the fruits of what we do, enjoy the pleasures we give to others.

Doctors don’t get the opportunity to treat each other for fun. Certainly they don’t give themselves injections while they work. Teachers have to practice in classrooms and don’t teach each other just for fun. Firemen don’t put out fires for fun.

But we who cook are like musicians who play with and for each other just for pleasure. We can share the enjoyment of cooking and eating and drinking with our colleagues. What makes it really special is that we are treating each other to such pleasures for a good cause.

Bread On the Table

Some people in the food business (although not nearly enough) read The Art of Eating, an erudite quarterly periodical available also at very few newsstands. It carries stories on bay leaves and on pork in Southwest France, about bread, about butter, articles that go deeply into food. It has about 10,000 subscribers and is produced by Edward Baer, a Washingtonian who has spent most of his life in Vermont.

Edward_Behr_The_Art_of_Eating            In a recent issue Baer bemoaned the gradual disappearance of bread in restaurants.   Although I think he is being somewhat apocalyptic, it is certainly true that many restaurants now do not serve bread.

Imagine it! Practically as long as there have been restaurants, bread has been served virtually as soon as guests sit down.   Although it is still the practice in lots of restaurants it is now far from universal.

The first question you are asked when you go to a restaurant nowadays is, “Will you have sparkling, still or tap water.”   In other words, would you like to buy our (disproportionately priced) bottled water or settle for the free water that comes to us in very old pipes from the District of Columbia?

I confess to you that the offer of water – whether sparkling, still or tap – is a hospitality practice I simply don’t understand as I am not a great enthusiast of water as a beverage.   (My grandmother used to say, “Water is for bathing.”) But even putting aside my peculiar view, why do restaurants think that offering to give or sell water is a generous way to greet their customers?

I think being offered bread is a real gesture of hospitality.   Bread, after all, is the most traditional, even sacred of foods and offering it is a way of saying “I am offering your something of great value. Welcome to my home.”

Bread Basket

Bread Basket

Some restaurants, respecting this tradition, try to make their own bread. But many learn that they don’t do that very well. They don’t have the skill or the equipment, particularly the oven to do it. Others conclude that making bread requires too much labor and is too costly. Some decide to charge for bread and others try to do without.

Other restaurateurs argue that too many people complain about gluten sensitivity and don’t want to be offered bread. Why should we bother having something that offends customers upon their arrival?

Then there are those who think bread doesn’t belong in their restaurants because their concepts are small plates or…molecular food…or something else.

Most good restaurants do still serve bread and treat it as a cost they must absorb. Sometimes it’s a very significant cost.   A busy restaurant can spend $ 200 a day or more to buy bread from bakeries.

Bread Furst is the beneficiary of some of that restaurant generosity to its customers but we sell bread to just a few restaurants. Even though it’s only a few, I am once again violating a commitment I made to myself – to make this bakery strictly retail and to avoid the wholesale business altogether.

When I became a baker in 1990 I didn’t know enough about the bakery business even to think of baking for the wholesale trade.   I wanted Marvelous Market to be a neighborhood bakery. But when it became such a success so quickly, the world came to our doors – at least it seemed that way. The parade was led by Jean Louis Palladin.

I received a telephone call one day and the voice on the other end of the line, raspy and heavily accented, said, “Ziss ees Jean Louis Palladin. My vfife bought your baguette and I wont your bread for my restaurant.”


This was call for which in every respect I was entirely unprepared and I thought it was the joke of a friend pretending to speak English with a French accent, but one so thick it wasn’t believable. But it was in fact M. Palladin who had the unbelievable accent and that is how my wholesale career began.

Bread wholesale grew at Marvelous Market and in 1993 I built a big bakery to accommodate it. (A mistake of hubris that dunked my career after only four years.)

At The BreadLine I did not repeat the mistake of expansion but once again I did build a wholesale business. It just seemed like the right thing to do.

Bread-making equipment is expensive. A mixer like ours costs $12,000 and altogether a bakery of our size requires an investment of $150,000 just in equipment. Once having bought it all, one is tempted to use it as much as possible to justify expenditures of that magnitude.


So at The BreadLine wholesale bread to restaurants and stores grew to be a third of the revenues.

But making bread and selling it to restaurants and stores is a business quite different from what we do at Bread Furst.  Baking bread for wholesale requires a delivery establishment including vehicles, drivers, packers, and additional insurance. It means that breads must be baked in time for their delivery early in the morning. Inevitably some breads don’t proof quickly enough, and rushing to meet delivery deadlines, the bakers bake too too soon.  Those breads are then packed hot and lying atop one another are crushed on the truck and arrive at the customers’ doors smelling of hot, wet bag.

And then for certain some restaurant customers pay slowly and some not at all. So there’s a lot more bookkeeping and accounting. And the boss (me) spends his time on the telephone trying to get payment commitments from customers who bob and duck and make excuses. So gradually making breads and foods becomes less a priority than making collections.

But Bread Furst a neighborhood bakery.   Making breads and pastries for our customers is what we do.   So although because restaurants call it’s tempting once again to build a wholesale business.  But we’re really not doing that.

I intended Bread Furst not to sell breads at wholesale.


But even before we opened, even before we began to practice baking, Fabio Trabocchi, owner of Fiola, began to send regular text messages to my telephone: “When will you sell bread to me?”

He sent texts to me two or three times a week.

Ed Sands, the owner of Calvert Woodley Wines and Spirits walked up the street to us with his son to tell us he wanted our breads.

Calvert Woodley? It’s 350 yards away from us. All we had to do was walk a couple of bags of bread down the street. And having our breads in a neighborhood institution like Calvert Wodley fit my notions about being a service to the neighborhood.

When we opened a year ago Fabio paid a visit to insist we send our breads to him. But we couldn’t because we had no driver. So for a month or two so Fabio sent someone everyday in his black town car to pick up our breads.

Then in August I went to the anniversary party of The French Laundry where Thomas Keller had in effect rented the town of Yountville, California for an evening, setting up Washington Street with little stalls that served oysters and caviar and foie gras and practically every other food you can think of to hundreds of his friends.

One of them, Daniel Boulud, walked over to me, kissed me on both cheeks and said, “We open next month in Washington. Who is going to make bread for DBGB?”


It’s hard to resist such flattery. Then when Whole Foods asked that we make four of our whole grain breads for its stores, I saw the opportunity to reach far more people with well-made whole grains and I couldn’t resist that either.

But I don’t want our character to change. We used to start our bake at 4 am and now we start at 10 PM. I don’t think we are compromising our quality as we focus first, as we did before, on the dark breads, the ones that benefit from a little aging and then we turn to the large Palladin loaves for the restaurants.

But others are asking for our breads and I have begun to say no. We won’t sell baguettes to any restaurant as baguettes are meant to be fresh and although we now have a part-time driver who spends a couple of hours with his own vehicle, we don’t have a delivery establishment.

But still I have made the compromise I said I wouldn’t make.

The Bond of Trust

I don’t read Yelp; the very word puts me off.

UnknownMany people including my best sons think I should do that and many of my colleagues do so. But if you have been reading these essays for a while you know that I encourage customers to complain directly to me.

And you do:

            “…at opening time…the staff often seems scattered in an irregular tempo and not particularly welcoming. I would suggest they cannot afford to think–Oh–its 7am–we all have to wake up—-They ought to be at their full game and demonstrate through voice and body language that the customer is welcome and appreciated.” 

If someone goes to the trouble of writing to me I respond before day’s end.

We live, as we all know, at a time in which everyone’s voice can be heard. (by all of us including the NSA)


The Internet makes it possible for customers to communicate with me as instantly as they choose. A few choose to use more fiendishly public ways of making their voices heard.

On April 23, the chairman of the Forest Hills Advisory Neighborhood Commission sent me a posting by “Ann Jones” on the Tenleytown website. I put her name in parentheses as it turns out this isn’t her real name. She wrote:

The Department of Health wants to know if you have gotten sick from Bread Furst on Connecticut Avenue. Please contact them asap if you did. I did get very sick from food/ drinks at Bread Furst. Please beware and warn your neighbors. Food poisoning is no fun.

I was alarmed – you might suppose I would be and I wrote to “Ms. Jones” right away. She didn’t respond but Adam Tope did – immediately. Tope is the chairman of our ANC .

Readers who don’t live in Washington might be forgiven for not knowing we don’t really have home rule here. Since 1973 Congress has graciously permitted us to elect local officials (like our mayor) and has allow those officials to carry out some of the powers of government that are generally exercised by elected officials in a democratic society.

In 1974 DC voters created the ANC structure and these unpaid citizens elected by their neighborhoods exercise a lot of power on matters affecting their neighborhoods – parking, improvements, liquor licenses, zoning – many of decisions about life in this city.

anc-logoThis is a good thing, I believe. The ANC commissioners are really close to their constituents.

The ANC in our area has been very supportive of Bread Furst and Tope came to see me; I believe because he was concerned about Ms. Jones’ complaint.

Right away I was invited by Joe MacDonald, a customer, to write a response via the Tenleytown Listserve; and I did:

            Ah yes, the age of Internet.  One scurrilous comment that goes onto an email that reaches hundreds of people.  

            I wrote to the woman when this was passed to me yesterday to ask for particulars.  How did she get food poisoning at Bread Furst?  What did she eat?  When was she there?            

             But she didn’t respond. 

            We are a new and small local business.  We buy the best ingredients we can get — hams from Heritage Foods in the Hudson Valley, daily from Pennsylvania, bacon from Allan Benton in Tennessee, organic flour, fruits, eggs and vegetables from Pennsylvania Amish farms.  

            We are scrupulous in our hygiene and in food storage.  We know a lot about food-bourn illnesses.  Knowing about them and taking precautions is a vital part of our job.  

            People put things we make into their bodies.  There is no more personal act than that and we take very seriously the trust required to do that.

            This woman has called into question whether people should trust us.  I wish she would also come forward to tell us who she is and what her experience was.

She didn’t. A few others wrote to the Tenleytown list questioning her and some wrote nice things about Bread Furst.

imagesFinally on Friday, as I expected, our health inspector came, complaint in hand to inspect our facility.

I imagine you know that food production places – bakeries, restaurants, sausage-makers – whoever makes food for sale comes under the jurisdiction of a local health department. Some who make food are inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture but most of us are watched by local health departments.

This obviously is a good thing. It is reassuring of course to consumers but even more important it is a good way for us to learn from dispassionate authority how we are doing in our most basic responsibility, to help our customers stay healthy.

The inspector assigned to our neighborhood is a polite, careful lady, Alice Jackson, who announced herself to one of our staff and was putting on her lab coat as I came to greet her. She told me that she was there because of a citizen complaint and I told her I had been expecting her visit.

We chatted.


I did not spend much time with her as she did her job – inspecting our walk-in refrigerator and our kitchens, taking temperature readings of our food both inside and outside our refrigerators and the temperatures of our refrigeration itself, and our hot water. I don’t think she wanted me to spend time with her.

She asked questions about our food particularly about the food “Ms. Jones” said she had bought and eaten. As it turned out she hadn’t bought here what she complained about as we don’t make a sandwich resembling what she thought made her sick.

Ms. Jackson then sat for a long time in Shivani’s corner and with her laptop wrote a report that was available to me immediately on line. She found one “non-critical violation” – barbecue being cooled at room temperature instead of immediately in the walk-in or freezer; and she told me that we really must embark on our development of a plan for HACCP system. (HACCP is hazard analysis and critical control points, a simple system for tracking foods through their preparation and holding.)


Since opening one year ago, we have been inspected three times by the health department. Ms. Jackson by this time knows us well. I want her criticisms and suggestions and having health inspections is sobering and useful to the staff.

Preparing foods that others eat is a big responsibility. Every day many people put their well being in our hands and if you stop to think about the number of people who have their hands in the food you eat outside your home, you might wish to prepare more of your own food than you do these days.

We who prepare it for you are surrounded by a body of regulations and physical organization that makes it easy to follow those regulations – hand-washing stations, red sanitizer buckets, cleaning chemicals, physical separation of chemicals from food, and a lot of available instruction to those who get licensed as “food handlers.” We have the wherewithal to protect your health.

But Bread Furst’s business is growing so fast that it’s hard to keep up. We have a cleaning staff of four and two electric dishwashers and a bakery never clean enough and orderly enough for me. That’s why you often see me at crowded times wiping tables and cleaning windows.

But although we’re often packed with customers and at those crowded times customers to my horror sit down at tables that have just been vacated and aren’t wiped, still we don’t sacrifice sanitation in our food-handling – ever.

But one woman thought we had made her sick and she filed a complaint. She was wrong and should have made herself available so that I could learn about her experience. But thereafter everything worked as it should. The neighborhood responded through the Tenleytown Web site. The health department responded and looked carefully at the complaint. And we were absolved of responsibility for her “illness.”

Ain’t democracy wonderful?

I Have a Problem

“You have a problem and it’s up to you to figure it out,” a customer said to me. She’s right and I am trying.

She was sitting at one of our tables on a Saturday morning, the busiest single time of the week for us and she had two computers open in front of her. I asked if she had finished her coffee and would relinquish the table to those who were wandering the aisles food in hand looking for places to sit.


She didn’t like at all how I asked and I pleaded with her to tell me a better way of asking; that’s when she told me it’s my problem to figure out what to say.

The day before, at a Friday lunchtime, also very busy, I had had the same experience and an email exchange with an erudite woman who called her protest “Chilly Day.”

Last Friday I made my first trip to Bread Furst and fell in love.  I spent my morning eating croissants, drinking tea and working at the back table.  I was overjoyed to watch the fresh breads and trays of pastries being bustled around and to see the famous baker bring a darling little girl behind the counter to personally select her glazed donut…  

Unfortunately, my love affair with Bread Furst ended as quickly as it began.  Apparently the famous baker’s demeanor turns frosty with the weather and after one hour huddled in a small corner of a side counter finishing my tea and rather dry scone, I was asked to leave.  Mr. Furstenberg informed me that Bread Furst was not a workspace and I was going to have to finish up…

I apologize for believing that because you served coffee and tea and pastries that you would function like every other cafe in the city, allowing patrons to read, write, converse and ponder.  As I’m sure was your objective in so rudely dismissing me today, you will see my face no more.  But, I’ll also be informing the dozens of others to whom I had previously sung your praises that Bread Furst is not worth their time.  As an attorney and writer, I have come to expect more courtesy and respect than I received in your establishment.  Forgive me for assuming you were in the customer service business.

            I wrote back, “Love’s Savor Lost.”

            It is good of you to write to protest my treatment of you.  Perhaps I was out of line… 

            …(but) I did not plan Bread Furst as a cafe and didn’t put into it enough seating for it to be a cafe.  I wanted very much to create a neighborhood bakery at which people might find really good foods to eat here, to take away, or to eat on the run if they like to eat that way.  I had many reasons for wanting to create a neighborhood bakery…

            I have infinite patience for customers who arrive with their children or their friends and occupy our tables for long visits.  That’s what we’re here for — to be a place where people gather and eat and talk.  

            You say a place for reflection and writing.  I haven’t wanted Bread Furst to be that.  We’re a gathering place, a place of sociability.  You might argue that this is none of my business.  I don’t have the right to determine how people use our bakery as long as they buy a cup of tea.  That is a completely understandable position but it’s not mine…          

            …if people want to occupy our bakery for writing, emailing, research, reflection on Monday afternoon, I don’t mind.  But if people occupy tables on Friday when I see customers looking for tables to sit and eat and talk, is it not my responsibility to see that those customers have a place to sit?… 

            Please come back sometime.  Let me treat you to a cup of tea — or more.  If it’s a Tuesday afternoon, you are welcome to stay as long as you like and do as you like.  But I am going to reserve the right to divide our space during busy periods, particularly on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, among those customers who are here to eat and chat. 

            I hope you will forgive me. 


            She didn’t.

*                      *                      *

images-3When my sister Carla Cohen opened the Politics and Prose coffee shop she put into it free wireless Internet service. I would see there the same people day after day sitting with half a cup of coffee, settled in for the morning or the afternoon, sometimes both.

I am not Mr. Businessman but even I thought this was a bad idea. However this fit Carla’s sense of community and she thought of her coffee shop as a service to the neighborhood.

So here I am, more than two decades later trying to establish Bread Furst as something important and valuable to upper northwest Washington and I find myself from time to time asking customers not to use us as their workplace

Certainly a lot has changed in the 20 years since Carla opened Politics and Prose coffee shop. In those days coffee shops were a novelty and generally people worked in their offices or they worked at home but they didn’t think about working in public spaces other than libraries perhaps.

We don’t have public Internet here.   I don’t want it. Bread Furst is a neighborhood bakery, not a coffee shop. We are here for people who want to buy what we bake and take it home or eat it here.

However, having no Internet does not stop people from connecting to the Web in other ways; and from time to time people want to use Bread Furst as their office. They write emails, compose reports and talk often very loudly on their cell phones.

Sometimes when we are busy I say to them, “I am really glad to have you as a customer but others are trying to find a table.”

Usually the people to whom I say that are gracious and considerate of others.

On one Saturday, however, on our busiest day of week a man sat at a table for an hour and a half writing on his computer while talking on his telephone. Finally, seeing customers wandering in the aisle, I said to the man what I say.


He looked incredulous. “I am a customer.”

“Yes,” I said, “I am glad you’re here but you’ve been here all morning and others would like to use a table too.”

“You want me to leave?” he asked. “It’s a coffee shop, isn’t it?”

“No,” I said, “It’s a bakery but Starbucks is just down the street.”

“And who are you,” he asked. “You think you own the place or something?”

I do think so, I told him.

“Well let me tell you what you are,” he said, “You’re an as——. “

What is our responsibility here? We are here so that people can buy food and drink from us. We have a pleasant place and people like it. What is a reasonable amount of time for customers to use our space at times when others want to sit too?

Frequently I walk past Dolcezza on Connecticut Avenue and look at customers sitting in its window working at their computers. Starbucks next door is packed nearly always with people at their computers. Those companies like having customers stay for long periods.


Indeed, this “third space” concept – a place between home and office where people work or talk on the telephone for long periods surrounded by others – has become a norm in our urban society. But in fact the third space is a place for strangers to share a room and that’s not what I hope we’ll have at Bread Furst.

I do want a third space but one that is community and I’m not at all interested in a place where unassociated people sit with their computers in physical proximity that has nothing to do with relationships. In fact their computers and telephones isolate them in those spaces.  I see that and don’t think I am providing anything more than a chair and table and a cup.

On the other hand I get no greater pleasure at the bakery than in the mornings when the parents of children who go to schools nearby arrive with their children for a donut and a coffee. Sometimes they sit with their children in Shivani’s corner and sometimes they sit at our big table and talk to each other and I feel that we’re making a small difference in their lives.

As a matter of fact, I never say to people talking to each other that they ought to move on no matter how long they occupy our tables.

So I can’t answer the woman who asked me to find a better way of telling people that at busy times – breakfast, lunch, and weekends – they should give up their claim to sit for long periods in our bakery playing with their telephones or responding to email.

I will continue trying and I hope not offend too many more people in the process.



I was a management consultant many years ago, a partner in a firm that specialized in data processing consultation.   I learned nothing from my partners about their specialty but I did like how they responded (privately) to the complaints of their clients.

GIGO. Garbage in; Garbage out.

I have thought about GIGO frequently over the 25 years I have spent making food as I have often had opportunities to replace the expensive ingredients I like to use with ingredients not so expensive. I know whole companies – so you do – and whole restaurant chains – so do you – that buy cheap ingredients and expect to offer good food made from inferior ingredients. But that isn’t possible.

It is possible to ruin good ingredients but it is not possible to make good food from bad ingredients; and that is why we buy the best we can find and frequently I am extravagant.

I really don’t want to use this forum as a commercial for Bread Furst. I like writing about subjects more interesting than how wonderful we are. But people say to me that being too self-effacing is self-defeating and a form of self-centeredness.   And so I write this time about a subject dear to me and I hope not too boring to you.


The Washington City Paper just wrote a paean to our jambon beurre. What it said is true: It is worth the ten dollars we charge for it. I think we make a really good baguette and it makes a big contribution to the sandwich. But apart from that the sandwich is so good because we get out of its way. We spread 82 percent butter on the baguette, run a thin line of Dijon mustard down the middle, add some good Gruyere thinly sliced and slices of the hams we buy from Heritage Foods.

“Heritage Foods USA exists to promote genetic diversity, small family farms, and a fully traceable food supply. We are committed to making wholesome, delicious and sustainably produced heritage foods available to all Americans. In doing so, we will foster the link between sustainable land use, small-scale food production and preservation of the foods of past generations for future generations.”

We buy these hams every two months or so and they are delivered 500 pounds at a time by a long semi-trailer truck that can’t fit in the alley behind us.

I have a great appetite for finding ingredients for what we make and foods for our shelves. It’s a hobby; it’s fun. At the end of June I will go to New York to a gigantic food show at the Jacob Javits Center; and I will walk miles over two or three days just in the hope of finding a few new foods I want to put on the shelves.


At the winter show, much smaller, I found the distributor of cloudberry preserves and tasted Sweet Ella’s peanut butter both of which are now in our bakery.

I went to a meeting here several months ago and some young women were offering tastes of a bloody mary mix. It turned out that they make it. Dubious, I tasted it. It was really good and when I learned it is made by Gordy’s, a local small company whose pickles we don’t buy because we do our own, I asked them to bring us a case to us to sell here.

Gordy’s bloody mary mix and its cherry pepper relish are on our shelves. As are the Geechie Boy grits Tom Sietsema wrote about in his big Washington Post story this week about Charleston, South Carolina.


You can see those – as well as the butters and cheeses we select, the lingonberry preserves I used to eat at breakfast, the son of a Swedish father, the marvelous olive oil, honey, jams, and amazing yogurt being imported by the little Greek store at Dupont Circle. (The real Greek yogurt.)

What you don’t see nearly as well are the ingredients that pass from truck to our storage to be used in foods we make.

Did you know that all our flours and grains are organic?   We get as much as we can locally but the bulk of our flours come from Central Milling, an employee-owned business in Utah. I started using its flours at Greystone, the Culinary Institute of America’s Napa Valley campus when I started teaching there in 1995.


Our milk comes from Trickling Springs Dairy in Pennsylvania whose “happy cows get all the sunshine and free grass they want during growing season and are not pushed in growth or production by synthetic hormones.”

Our eggs come from Earth and Eats, an Amish coop that delivers to us twice a week and our chickens come from local farms via Huntsman Specialty Game and More.

At some point in the late Nineties I discovered Alan Benton and began to buy his bacon for The BreadLine BLT. At Bread Furst we serve it in great quantities each weekend. His superb ham goes into our new country ham scone.


Some years ago at the Ferry Plaza Market in San Francisco, I came across Rancho Gordo’s dried beans, legumes we use at Bread Furst in our white bean and gigante bean salads and hummos and chili with beans (Thursday lunch). It may seem a little precious that we pay $ 980.23 for dried beans and have them sent from California but truly they are better; they have great texture and a distinctively beanier flavor.

Flavor is the point.   The fun of this is finding the best ingredients we can find to make what we like making. Or even better to find wonderful ingredients and imagine recipes for them. Like the new Jerusalem artichoke salad.  If they can be from local sources, that is a double pleasure.   For produce, local is more or less mandatory in my scheme of things.

I am pretty rigid about being local and seasonal when it comes to fruits and vegetables and every year at this time, I wish I were living in California. My friends there send me emails about the asparagus and peas and greens they are buying at their outdoor markets. And I am here enviously reading their emails amidst the apples and butternut squash left over from the autumn.


But I think that seasonal deprivation is one way of celebrating food. I know as well as you that Chilean asparagus is available at Whole Foods. Sometimes I give in and buy eggplant there and make a dark, spicy almost wintery stew. But I really like eating with the seasons.

But it means inevitably that right now I am tired of our winter salads and you must be tired of them too.

Believe it or not spring will come and the farms on which we depend will bring us rhubarb and greens. And then Earth and Eats will run out of butternut squash (finally!) and replace it with strawberries. And Smucker Farms will have affordable greens again. And Northern Neck farm will begin to telephone us each Monday. And finally the farm stands will return to 14th and U Streets and we can tilt virtually our entire menu to what is grown in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.

The lentils and cranberry beans will recede.

Each Saturday Robert Dalliah, our chef, and I will resume going early to the Saturday morning market at UDC and picking out what we want. At the end of the market day, those farmers will deliver boxes and boxes of vegetables and fruits they didn’t sell at retail and we’ll buy them at prices less expensive but still high.

Robert will begin to make strawberry jam and then chutney and then relishes and finally tomatoes and tomato sauces and so much more as our canning explodes (so to speak).

This produce we buy is not cheap.  But to get cheap fruits and vegetables we’d have to be both anti-environment and anti-culinary and buy produce from the industrial farms of Mexico and of the Central Valley in California.

We’re not going to do that. We’ll hold out for local local fruits and vegetables even though the American addiction to agricultural subsidies makes cheaper produce grown 3,000 miles away than that which is grown 30 miles away.

Cheap is not the point, however. The point of ingredients is quality, i.e. flavor. That’s why seasonality is so important.   We know when we buy that what we buy expresses what is important to us about being in the food business. So we buy what is good and as much as possible we buy what is local.