When Is “Giving Back” Not The Best Approach?

29 06 2010

Over the past week I hosted a food zealot from Paris and we toured the Bay Area meeting with movers and gastronomes throughout our community as we searched for trends and ideas that were bubbling up in our food scene.  I will be posting more information about the meetings in the coming weeks but wanted to note a simple but powerful thought that emerged from the hours we spent discussing where our food scene is going.

No doubt we are deeply political, moreso than many other communities throughout the country.  We wear our food choices as political statements, each one becomes a point of advocacy for a concept that is touted whether it be localism, sustainability, organics, natural, fair trade, food justice, food democracy, etc etc.

I work with companies that are in start up or early growth stages and I see one theme emerging over and over again.  There is a common desire to do good, to give back and to be a part of a larger food based sense of fairness and justice.  Giving back is often used as a mantra, a prerequisite to entering into our brave new food world.

Unfortunately there is bad news for those companies that are tethered to this path.

My thoughts became clear when I met two enthusiastic young entrepreneurs who were launching a new product in San Francisco.  When I asked them what made their product different they said this:  “We don’t just give 10% of our profits back to the community.  We give 15%”.

Nothing about the product (which by the way has potential) and nothing about how the business.

Next question:  Have you made a profit yet?  Answer.  “No.”

And when do you hope to make a profit?  “In a few years.”

This said it all for me.

Take a memo to the socially minded entrepreneur:  10% of 15% of 0 still means 0!

Sustainable businesses are profitable ones.   The next blog will look at profitability and why it remains so elusive.

One hint:  It is not a bad word.


Food and the holidays, a reflection and a plan.

8 12 2009

A holiday survival guide.

There in no time in the year where food plays a more central role in our lives that during the holiday season. During these moments where we as individuals, families, parents and children face a sense of heightened emotions brought on by this unique combination of joys and sorrows, food provides us with a refuge. It becomes a respite from the overload of shopping, unwanted social obligations and an overwhelming sense of being alone while in the company of so many others.

The holidays. A time when people travel great distances to be with others and homes that are empty all year suddenly become full for the first time. We spend time activities with people we care for and sometimes others who we don’t or are just beginning to know. This is where the communal bond of eating together in celebration comes through with flying colors providing us with a real life alternative to sitting on the couch watching television or passing the time drinking or is it drinking to pass the time.

So here is a plan to help. Choose a holiday moment or meal.  Do it soon because that moment is coming soon no matter which one you celebrate. Once you have identified the meal; work backwards a few days and put a plan together. First, choose someone you wish to honor. It can be someone who is gone or still here with us, it doesn’t matter. If they are gone get a picture of them to have at the table during the celebration. Then pick a food that they love or loved. Once you have found that person and the food assemble several recipes and choose one. Buy the ingredients. Have them ready so that when your guests arrive you can share the privilege of making this dish together. If they need to come a bit earlier then usual see if they can. If they can’t, then work with the ones that do and share later at the table.

During the meal as the dish comes to the table talk about why it was selected and who loves or loved it. If the person is gone, talk about them and their lives. You will honor them and help to create the sense of community that we seek at the holiday seasons and often do not find.

To make the concept concrete, here is my personal holiday wish food: Kuglehopf or Gugelhupf (a German yeast based cake) in honor of my long gone grandmother who turned out to be my Great Aunt but that is another story. Francesca, pictured to the right and whom my daughter is named after, was a powerful 5 foot tall woman who cared for me in her 70’s when my mother had difficulty in childbirth. Born in Austria and forced out during WWII, she was a mean baker who never hesitated to share the traces of good in her baking bowls with her young curious grandson. These are the earliest memories I have of the tastes that excite me to this day. After she passed I found her recipe for Gugelhupf, my favorite cake, but it was written in German and I never paid attention to it. I don’t know where it is now, and regret the loss. But there are plenty of recipes out there and we will find one to make. That is part of the fun.

Making it is no easy task and may well not be suited to the holiday season as it is long and difficult dish with many complex steps that will try the patience of those who make it and those who must clean up afterwards. But that challenge is balanced by a real reward. As we stand together in the kitchen and wait for the dough to rise, I see the spirit of her baking that lives on in my daughter and I am reminded of her and the power that she possessed. In those moments my holiday becomes full and the sadness I often feel when I think about those who have left and those we love. My table is now filled with joy as we honor them at our holiday meal. I hope you can find the same. Happy holidays.

If you are interested here are some links to kuglehopf  or gugelhupf recipes:

http://www.netcooks.com/recipes/Cakes/Kugelhopf.(Austrian.Cake).html http://www.recipezaar.com/Kugelhopf-105469 http://www.recipeatlas.com/austrianrecipes/gugelhupfrecipe.html http://www.grouprecipes.com/83883/poppy-seed-gugelhupf.html

One thing for sure, she made hers with dark chocolate or cocoa powder.

Paris Eats: Good wines under 5 Euro.

24 11 2009

Wine for under 5 euro!

Another wonderful treat that France offers you is a wide variety of wines for less than 5 euro (7.50 even at the current weak dollar exchange rate).

Where should you buy wine in Paris?  How about everywhere?  Walk down most major streets and you will see a variety of wine shops ranging from friendly (yes that is right) locals to the reliable chain, Nicolas.  Wine is good at your local grocery store as well and likely to be a bit cheaper there.   The great advantage of going to a local shop is that they will help you and most speak some English. By no means is this an attempt to write a guide to French wines, that is a lifetime of work.  It is a list of some recommendations to drink well and frankly at a good price.

I will break this simple guide to buying inexpensive French wine into white, rose and reds.  Rather than try to go into a particular vintage or producer I will look at kinds of wine to buy rather than which wine to buy.

In the white wines there are two sure fire directions that you can take that will regularly deliver drinkable reasonable wines during your visit. The choice is really one of which grape are you after, the rounder fuller flavors found in Chardonnay or the dryer more acidic (and yes this is good acidity otherwise known as crispness) Sauvignon Blanc.  If looking for a chardonnay, consider buying a Bourgogne Aligote instead.  These are solid wines from the same growing region that produces the high end chardonnays (made with a different grape that is bit lighter in body).  Sauvignon blanc comes from the Loire region usually in the area of Touraine.  We had one, bone dry and delicious for 3.80.

Other Loire wines that really go well with seafood are Muscadet (average cost 5 euros and under) and Bordeaux, the great red wine grown region.  Be careful that Bordeaux blanc that you buy is sec, i.e. dry, because they can be sweet.  If you see the word mollieux, you are getting a sweet wine.

Rose.  At 2 to 3 euros each you can afford to buy several until you find one you like.  Again the problem is sweetness.  One consistent area that produces Rose is Tavel.  Another is Cabernet D’Anjou.  This is a bit hit and miss, so ask for help.

Red.  The best value in reds in France are from the Bordeaux.  They are masters at blending lesser grapes to create solid balanced wines that will compliment meats and cheeses.  Blends that feature Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc that are made to dink now as opposed to the expensive versions that can keep for years and years.   I tried a 2003 and was very disappointed by its lack of body, the younger wines were more impressive.

Loire is another source of value for reds.   Gamay grapes come from the Beaujolais region and should not be confused with the efforts to market “Nouveau Beaujolais” every year in November.  These are great every day wines with lots of pepper and character.  Look for Beaujolais Villages.  If you can find a Cote de Brouilly, a Morgon or a Fleurie at this price grab it.  These are wines meant to be enjoyed young, be wary if more than 3 years old.

Finally, there are the Cote Du Rhones, sometimes thin at this price and the inexpensive Pinot Noirs you may find.  I leave them out because they don’t seem to fare as well at the lower price points.  Save those for when the budget allows.

There are so many other French wine growing regions that I have left out. At 5 euros and under you can take a risk.

You won’t find cheap champagne in France, the lowest true bottle we saw was 15 euro.  You can buy other sparkling wines such Blanquette de Limou, they will more than do the job and keep the euros in your pocket.  If it says Cremant, it has been produced with the same method as Champagne, just not in the region.

Now get out there and buy some.

Paris, the weak dollar and lunch for 4 under 15 euro.

11 11 2009

Eiffel TowerOh Paris, beautiful and expensive like so many things that we covet.  With the current state of the dollar, eating well at the 1.50 plus exchange rate is not always easy.  So here was the challenge I gave to myself as part of enjoying a stay in the City of Lights without breaking the bank.  Can I make tasty lunch for four at our apartment for under 15 euro?

One of the great advantages of renting an apartment in Paris (or any city in Europe right now for that matter) is the ability to buy your own groceries. Today’s post is focused on budgeting out your dollar so you can splurge on some good meals out.

The first rule to keep your costs down at the grocery store is go with the store  or house label.  Just as in the States the quality of private label food has improved but the price gap is more pronounced in France, often as much as 50%.  Remember, you can always buy artisan labels, but you will break this budget.

grocery bag

So lets try our luck to put together today’s lunch for four people for under 15 euro with groceries purchased at our local Simply Market (part of the large Auchan group).  Prices are similar at the other markets such as Monoprix or Casino.

One thing to keep in mind is that the French grocery stores pay a lot more attention to the quality of food than ours do, it is much more about quality than quantity.  You can eat commercial quality grocery food products and have a good quality meal.

butter lettuceOne of the great French bargains (yes that is not an oxymoron) is the head of butter lettuce. Checking in at .60 euro somehow the French lettuce always seems to have better texture and they certainly are a lot bigger than anything you see back in the States.  Tomatoes come in at 1.20 for 3 large red decent ones, not heirlooms by any stretch but decent quality.

The other great bargain (yes 2!) is the baguette.  While a commercial baguette from the store might do, take some time and find an artisan baker in your neighborhood.  The price gap, say 1.30 euro instead of 1 is worth it. But even the commercial version has a certain familiar quality to it even it might be their version of store baked wonder bread.


Lunch centered around two salads.  The fist consisted of a pre-made salad knows as Carrot Rapees, ridiculously cheap at .90 euro for 500 grams, about 1.1 pounds.  The carrots come shredded and dressed in a vinaigrette and ready to serve.  If you buy the same items at a traitteur it will cost triple, the Simply version was more than adequate with no off odors and a pleasant taste.



chevreTreat yourself to a good cheese, we chose a Tomme de Savoie, a semi-soft tasty but mild cheese from the Alps.  3.50 euro for about 200 grams.  If you want a goat cheese go for it, there are plenty or reasonable chevres to be found in the package cheese aisle, just look for the goat on the label.  They are typically soft and easy and under 3 euro.

The other main course was a beet/lentil/cheese salad.  After cutting the Tombe into in small chunks we combined them with vacuum packaged beets that were pre cooked and ready to go, a good deal at 6 for 1.75 euro and lentils.

Yes the lentils came from a can but they quite edible and not over salted, a mere .80 for 800 grams.  That is over 1 1/2 pounds of lentils, more than enough for 4.

For the bargain trifecta, grab a liter of Perrier for .70 euro, that same drink will set you back 4.50 at the cafe for 250 cl.  So enjoy.

Dessert?  4 fresh pears and 4 packs of excellent local yogurt.  1.75 for the pears and 1.80 for the yogurt.  We went for the Activa with meusseli.  You can always spend more on yogurt by going artisan and looking for the small jars.

And the final “bargain”, a liter of Perrier for .70 euro, remember, it’s 4.50 at the cafe for a tiny bottle.  That is a disparity.

So let’s recap the bill;

.60 lettuce 1.20 tomatoes

3.50 cheese 1.75 beets

.80 lentils 1.75 pears 1.80 yogurts

.70   Perrier  (1.0 liter) or .60   flat water

1.30 baguette

And there your are; a bill around 13 euro (about $19) for lunch for 4.  That leaves you 2 euros plus for an inexpensive bottle of wine (there were about 5 different ones at the store but they looked pretty scary to be honest) to round it off if you want or perhaps a better dessert.

Or you can break the budget and find a better bottle for under 5 euro (more on that in the next blog).  There is just one assumption in this lunch, that there is some oil and vinegar at the apartment.  Most of the time there is, if not there goes the wine but you have oil and vinegar for the week.

Next up, wine under 5 euro.


Salads at the open market

Updating the Pupusa.

8 09 2009

Pupusa ModernaThe Pupusa is one of the great street foods of the world and a wonderful export from El Salvador.

Several years ago when I was fortunate enough to visit San Salvador I was stuck in business and could not sneak out of the hotels where we were staying to get out in the street where the pupusas were calling to me. Maybe next time.

Pupusas are, for those that don’t know, a sort of stuffed tortilla, thick as a pancake and with a variety of fillings from cheese to beans to pork all set off by a simple vinegary cole slaw with lots of a local spice called loroco.

In the past few weeks a San Francisco Mexican bakery, Casa Sanchez, has started selling ready made Pupusas in a 10 pack which I found at Costco. While they aren’t up to my favorites from El Zocalo, they are plenty good and you can’t always get to the Mission.

One afternoon I decided to modernize the serving and here is the result and the recipe for updated Pupusas. The pupusa hasn’t changed, but the sides have.

In a heavy pan grill the Pupusas until crispy and cheese is oozing out the sides.

While grilling cut up 1 good sized heirloom tomato, 1/3 of a head of red cabbage or radicchio and 1/2 of an avocado. Dress whatever leaves you use in a vinegary emulsion.

Arrange on a plate and top the Pupusa with a healthy spoonful of  sour cream and hot sauce.

That is lunch.

For more information about Pupusas go to:


Eat Real Gets Real

2 09 2009

eat real taco timeLast weekend the Eat Real festival rocked Oakland’s Jack London square for two days of food democracy.  Aided by incredible weather that felt more like you were strolling down a boardwalk in the south of France than the fog of a typical East Bay afternoon it drew crowds that managed to consume two days worth of beer provisions in one.  All of this without a hint of rancor or dissonance from a huge crowd enjoying the best of what the Bay Area has to offer, incredible food and relaxed vibes.

What the festival really managed to accomplish to hit their objectives, to bring street food to a large crowd of people.  By limiting vendors to a maximum price of $5.00 per item and charging no admission  the crowd did not have the usual earmarks of the gourmet food world, dominated by those (me included) who can afford it.  Indeed, the organizers had hosted last year’s Slow Food festival in the city and they set out to do it differently this time.   They did.

eat real little food lover

eat real rosemary almonds

I spent the weekend working with a friend and business associate, Arnon Oren of Oren’s Kitchen.  Arnon has a great line of artisan hand roasted nuts.  On Sunday Arnon brought along his camp stove and cooked.  The crowd, drawn in by the smells of rosemary, almonds, olive oil, cashews, coconuts and chili peppers, were curious and hungry.  Even the very small eaters had a great time.

What was most impressive about the crowd was its diverse nature, not just mixed in race and gender, but in age, social class and sexual preference.  Babies to grandparents and everyone inbetween. Everyone with one purpose in mind, soak up some sun, enjoy yourselves and have some great food.  And the street trucks provided incredible diversity,from Korean to BBQ, Paella to Falafel, Ginger Miso soup to the Fruitvale’s own helados.

eat real pizza on the flyIt was a place to see and be seen.

My favorite customer of the day was a young black teenager.  She came by to sample some of the cashews with her mom.  She told her mom that she loved them but mom moved on.  At the end of the day she came back and bought a cone with 8 quarters, it felt like it was her money.  And as she ate those cashews her smile just lit up.

That is what being in the food business is really all about.  That is food democracy.

It is a challenge that must be faced every day and a battle that must be one to support everyone in the food world, from grower to her mouth.  I can’t wait until next year.

Garden Envy and Spanish Pepper Gimlets

25 08 2009

Garden Envy and Hot Pepper Gimlets

summer tomatesThis has been a season of garden disappointment for many of us amateurs throughout the bay area.  Indeed, many of my tomatoes have gone the way of the Giant’s hitting, first pitch swinging and hitting soft liners to short consisting of a solitary tomato hanging alone on it’s cage while the plant withers around it.

And they haven’t tasted very good either.  Whether you blame the unusually cold nights this year or the mysterious blight that has arrived from the east coast that sucks whatever moisture is left in the ground after the ants do their thing it is not a pretty site.  Some plants never formed flowers, most flowered like crazy only to fall to the ground with enough heat to set them.  Their identification tags pop up from the ground like tombstones, announcing an organic heirloom lineage that wasn’t mean for bay area growers.  Nepal, Stupice, Zebra, Sungold.  All dead by mid August.  Basil that never go over 2 inches tall squash plants that are already withered and gone.

Yesterday I visited Quivara vineyards in Healdsburg.  While the goats, the creek and the full grape vines were enough to enjoy alone (along with sun and 80 degree temperatures) it was thesyrah of summergarden that made me want to tear mine out and start over or maybe give up on hot weather plants entirely.  Raised bed after bed of beautifully staked tomatoes, basil so full it looked like lavendar, squash the size of clubs….One of the best looking vegetable gardens I have ever seen, all contracted out to local restaurants with the $$ going to charity.

Another failure of this summer was my Spanish pepper plans.  I got a grand total of 2 tiny peppers from the this plant.  Visions of pan fried piquenos disappeared in the Bay Area fog.  But these two peppers gave it up well, contributing a wonderful flavor and slight bit of heat to my Vodka Hot Pepper Gimlets.  That eased some of the pain.

To make 2 of  these hot pepper gimlets you will need:

2 shots vodka

1 shot triple sec

2 grilled lime

2 peppers.

Roll the limes to break up the interiors and grill over a gas flame or bbq (this can be done in advance.

Dice the peppers reserving 1 thin slice for each drink.

Juice the limes.

In a shaker mix the vodka, triple sec, lime juice and diced peppers.

Pour into tumber adding ice if desired.  A martini glass works too.

Add the pepper slice for color.  Enjoy.

And yes, why not play with tequila for a hot pepper margarita and switch peppers to your heart’s desire getting a wide variety of these post modern cocktails.  Oh, and check out this crazy goat:

hburg goat