The Reluctant Trendsetters – Chefs Nick Balla & Cortney Burns of Bar Tartine, San Francisco

Nick Balla and Cortney Burns Bar Tartine - San Francisco

“We don’t drive where we don’t have to,” says Cortney Burns, one half of culinary couple behind the critically acclaimed Bar Tartine restaurant in San Francisco. Despite being in Ireland only two days it was she who led the way through the crowds at the Kerrygold Ballymaloe LitFest 2016, beyond the farm, along a shaded wooded path, and onto the narrow country roads that led to Ballymaloe Cookery school. She had taken the 5km trip twice already, before their scheduled demo that evening, and had explored the area further on her morning runs.

Bar Tartine was co-founded in 2005 by Chad Robertson and Elisabeth Prueitt, the baker and pastry chef duo behind San Fran’s legendary Tartine Bakery. Cortney’s partner Nick Balla took over the reigns as chef in 2011, and Cortney got roped in soon after. “The story goes that I came to help butcher a goat and never left – which is accurate,” Cortney laughs.

Less than an hour before their demo, while foraging in the cookery school gardens, for the pea shoots, nasturtium leaves and wild garlic flowers that would later garnish their dishes, Nick tells me they are in the process of buying Bar Tartine, and will rename it Crescent, a nod to the birthplace of cultivation and preservation, the Fertile Crescent region in the Middle East.

“Really what we do is preservation,” says Nick, putting it simply. “Honouring old techniques, peasant flavours, flavours that we got from our grandparents growing up. We have a really strong attachment to our ethnic roots, on her side Russian, Lithuanian, Polish, Irish, European Jewish, and I’ve got a lot of those flavours on my side too.”

“I grew up with borsch and boiled cabbage, cabbage on two very different spectrums,” Cortney says laughing. Nick’s own central European heritage, and a stint in a high school in Budapest, mean that he too was exposed to traditional cooking, and “funky fermented flavours”.

Bar Tartine is where their diverse backgrounds, chef training, and passion for artisan techniques collide. “We both came at it with the desire to create a really big larder,” says Cortney.

“Sometimes I feel like we are cheating, we have this larder and it acts as our creative muse. When we are not sure what to put in a dish we stand in front of this wall of things we have already made, and start to blend and layer flavours. In some ways it’s more like a perfume shop, the way the flavours come together.”

The food that this intuitive approach creates at their world celebrated Mission district restaurant is hard to classify. The dishes on the bill for their demo, like sprouted lentil croquettes and with kefir and cress, read like hippie food, though they taste anything but.

A preservation pantry isn’t just practical, it brings spicy, sour, and punchy flavours to dishes, like the dehydrated yoghurt powder they use that day in lieu of lemon juice to add tartness, or the onion powder is added to mimic the sweetness of sugar. The pungent flavours of these homemade powders, as well as pastes, pickles, preserves, kefirs and krauts are layered to create casually sophisticated, and profoundly delicious dishes, with nods to Japanese, Hungarian, Nordic and Middle Eastern cuisine.

While ‘homemade’ and ‘locally sourced’ are phrases often slapped on menus, Nick and Cortney take it to a whole other level. Cheese making, dairy culturing, spice making and curing of meat and fish all take place in house. “At Bar Tartine we are makers. For us it’s about a curiosity of how things are made, making them, and finding a way to use them in the restaurant,” says Cortney.

“It’s not that we don’t think there are people that make really great feta, and that we make our own because we think it’s better, absolutely not, it’s just that if we can make it we will, and then there will be a story behind it.”

“At the moment all but 5% of our spices are made in house,” Cortney continues. “This year we are working to get those other 5% no longer imported from somewhere else, we want to grow everything ourselves. We can’t grow black pepper so we are using dried nasturtium pods for example, they have the same aroma. We are trying to filter out the things we can’t get locally.”

Putting these parameters on their kitchen breeds a culture of creativity at Bar Tartine. “Honestly, we don’t actually remember what’s in the recipes you have today!” admits Nick, urging participants to use their recipes as templates.

“We don’t use recipes at the restaurant we just taste everything, and the farms we work with just bring us whatever they have, so every time they deliver food it’s different. It’s really hard to follow strict recipes with all that ingredient change. This Fisherman’s stew might be on the menu but it will be different every time; it might have kale or collard greens; it might be different type of fish; in the Winter it might be a thicker broth.”

As Nick suggests, most of the restaurant’s experiments, which often become menu items, are born out of a need to create space and utilize a glut of produce. “We have a relationship with a husband and wife team, that give everything they have to the restaurant,” says Nick of their exclusive supplier relationship with Full Table Farms in California.

“All of our pickles and ferments are made out of necessity because our farmers give us too many vegetables, which is a lovely problem to have,” explains Cortney. “There’s this fermentation trend right now, but really what we are doing is preserving things,” Nick adds. “We get a large quantities of things that we are forced to preserve in one way or another, whether it’s fermenting, drying, freezing, canning, whatever.”

When introducing Nick and Cortney to a packed room, Darina Allen asks who has visited Bar Tartine. Despite being located half a world away numerous hands shoot up, and most of the crowd admit to dabbling in fermentation too. Fermented food is hot right now, and as a result of their kitchen creativity Balla and Burns have become unintentional trendsetters; ‘the king and queen of funky fermentation’ as Darina puts it.

But the way they see it, there’s nothing new about fermented foods, instead they are just honouring and updating an age-old craft. “A lot of periodicals and writers want to box fermentation into a trend,” says Nick.

“They ask how long do you think this trend going to last, and we have come to enjoy when we get asked that question because it’s kind of funny; this is the history of food! We kind of got lost in the canned and boxed food movement in the fifties, but we are heading back towards nature and tradition again. We actually think the entire middle section of the supermarket is the trend!”

Of course, part of the reason behind the popularity of fermented foods is their health promoting nature, and while flavour is king at Bar Tartine, serving nutritious food is very much a part of the restaurant’s ethos. “We just want to make sure that people feel very good when they leave, that we are not adding to the onslaught of things that our bodies have to deal with just to keep us going. So we really try to nurture the body through the fermented food, and cooking with all those flavours too, not just seeing fermented foods as condiments”, says Cortney.

“We want to give people healthy food but without them necessarily knowing it.”

“For having no plan we did a pretty good job,” says Cortney, sighing with relief, as we rush back to Ballymaloe House for the LitFest wrap party. “You’re honorary Irish so – not a plan in the world, but sure we’ll manage,” jokes our driver. “My 50% Irish is coming out today!” beams Cortney.

Though having no plan has typically worked in Nick and Cortney’s favour, Bar Tartine’s utterly unique cuisine is born of abundance, necessity and creativity, and has earned them international respect and applause, and, whether or not they like it, made them trendsetters.

 

Watch this clip of ‘Crafted’, a short film by award-winning director Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me, Freakonomics) starring Bar Tartine:

 

ARTICLE BY ERICA BRACKEN

Erica Bracken Erica grew up with a baker and confectioner for a father, and a mother with an instinct and love for good food. It is little wonder then that, after a brief dalliance with law, she completed a Masters degree in Food Business at UCC. With a consuming passion for all things food, nutrition and wellness, working with TheTaste is a perfect fit for Erica; allowing her to learn and experience every aspect of the food world meeting its characters and influencers along the way.

Erica Bracken  Erica Bracken

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