You can take it with you
Sept./Oct. 2010 California Country magazine
Story by Kira O’Donnell
Photos by Scott Monaco and Matt Salvo
High-end meal components are just part of the draw at this San Francisco restaurant.
Chef Amaryll Schwertner believes in the art of simplicity: carefully selected ingredients that are simply prepared and beautifully presented. Her San Francisco restaurant, Boulettes Larder, is a popular place for customers to relax over a meal or purchase ready-made meal components.
Chefs, as artists, draw inspiration for their craft from the world around them. Cookbooks, colleagues, music and travel can all influence a particular chef’s style. But the most powerful muse for many chefs is the bounty of ingredients available to them—fruits and vegetables, grains and herbs, meat and dairy products. And some chefs, like Amaryll Schwertner of San Francisco’s Boulettes Larder, have deliberately and reverently built their cuisine—and their reputation—around the creative use of these farm products.
Located in the Ferry Building Marketplace, a vibrant magnet for Bay Area foodies, Boulettes is surrounded by a lively, year-round farmers market, several independent restaurants, artisan producer stands and specialty food businesses. Yet Boulettes stands apart.
Launched in 2004 by Schwertner and business partner Lori Regis, Boulettes Larder serves its customers in a number of innovative ways—perhaps most notably through the larder that gives the business its name. More common in homes before the advent of refrigeration, a larder is, in Schwertner’s words, “a storeroom for food and a place where cooks come to find the ingredients underpinning a planned meal.” At Boulettes Larder, Schwertner makes available food items and ingredients to her customers that she characterizes as “one step closer to preparedness.” These include a selection of stocks and broths (chicken, lamb, pork, beef and vegetable) and vegetables (such as wilted greens, marinated cabbage sauerkraut and green beans with pesto).
The larder also provides useful components for bakers, such as pastry dough, whose acquisition may allow a time-crunched hostess an opportunity to make her own tart or pie without the hassle of preparing dough from scratch.
“We give our customers access to many items we use right here in our kitchen on a daily basis,” Schwertner explained. Other popular larder items range from whole roasted chickens and house-cured anchovies to an ever-changing selection of salads.
A near-blur of activity from daybreak to well past dark, Boulettes is also a busy restaurant, serving up a daily breakfast and lunch menu of farm-centric cuisine to crowds of tourists and local residents alike. At night, Boulettes offers intimate, private dinners for small groups.
Schwertner acknowledges working 60 to 90 hours a week, but said she became accustomed to the live-at-work lifestyle many years ago. “I just feel compelled to express myself,” she said with a smile.
It’s hard to believe that all this production takes place in one compact, beautifully designed 900-square-foot space overlooking San Francisco Bay. The focal point of Boulettes is an open, rectangular kitchen area with ovens, shelving and expansive counters for busy staff. Clutches of dried chilis and shiny copper pots dangle above this beehive of activity, and customers are inevitably drawn into the scene as they savor their meals.
Showcasing the cooking process was very deliberate on Schwertner’s part—she said she believes it significantly enhances her diners’ experience.
“Customers see the produce being delivered, and it’s beautiful,” she said. “I love to then show them what we do with it in the kitchen.” Watching ingredients come in through the front door, and essentially watching them come out again on a diner’s plate is, she said, both an educational and inclusive experience.
Farmers such as Judith Redmond, co-owner of Full Belly Farm, provide Amaryll Schwertner with inspiration and the ingredients for the chef's ever-changing menu.
Farm products, particularly produce, have inspired Schwertner and defined her style throughout her 30-year career. “Produce informs and underlies my work,” she said. “I feel I have a dual role at Boulettes—to support farmers and to try and give people pleasure and beauty.”
Fruits, vegetables and an impressive array of grains appear lavishly in the display case of her larder and on her continually evolving café menu. And the produce isn’t limited to consumption. If you visit during the spring, for example, you may spy strawberries nestled in the floral arrangements atop the restaurant’s communal table.
Schwertner visits three farmers markets weekly, including the Ferry Plaza market (above) and the Berkeley market (below), where Redmond sells potatoes and dozens of other crops from her Capay Valley farm.
Fall’s farm bounty is celebrated in a number of ways at Boulettes. Brunch might include scrambled eggs with roasted brussels sprouts and escarole, sprinkled with toasted nuts, or a smooth-as-silk parsnip soup, topped with blanched celery leaves. A featured lunch item in late September is the kitchen’s sautéed quail salad, embellished with locally grown Concord grapes. The dessert menu might feature a warm custard cake, garnished with a chunky quince compote.
Regardless of the season, diners are likely to find Schwertner hunkered thoughtfully over a plate, carefully considering the arrangement of its components before sending it out to an expectant table. Boulettes’ vegetarian farmhouse lunch, a frequent and ever-changing menu item, is one such palette for Schwertner. A mouthwatering showcase of the day’s carefully foraged produce, it may include a warm tuft of Chinese broccoli doused with a fragrant hazelnut relish and nestled onto a plate brimming with quinoa, cauliflower and fava beans.
Born in Budapest, Hungary, Schwertner and her family emigrated to the United States in 1956. “I grew up on savory, beautiful foods,” she recalled. One of her first professional cooking positions was at Berkeley’s Omnivore restaurant, whose fruits and vegetables she purchased from Berkeley Bowl, a store known since the 1970s for its extensive produce section. In the 1980s, she also found a bounty of inspiration cooking at Mudd’s restaurant, an East Bay pioneer of farm-to-table cuisine.
Over the years, Schwertner has honed her considerable skills at such restaurants as Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Sol Y Luna in San Francisco and Stars in San Francisco. In fact, Schwertner and Regis purchased Stars from founder Jeremiah Tower—whose innovative California cuisine brought it national acclaim—and operated the eatery until 2003.
Schwertner’s commitment to buying directly from farms has remained unwavering throughout her career. She continues to purvey daily from farmers, ordering from faxed-in harvest lists. She maintains strong relationships with a raft of small farms throughout Northern California, works with a handful of expert produce “foragers” and visits three farmers markets weekly—in Berkeley, in Marin County and at the bustling market located conveniently outside Boulettes’ door at the Ferry Plaza.
A favorite partner of Schwertner’s is Full Belly Farm, located about 80 miles away in the picturesque Capay Valley. The 300-acre certified organic farm, established in 1985, employs 45 to 55 people and produces a wide array of vegetables, herbs, nuts, flowers and fruits year-round. The farm’s crops—about 80 total—are sold to stores and restaurants, at farmers markets and through a popular Community Supported Agriculture program that allows consumers to buy their produce straight from the farm by paying for a “share” of the harvest in advance.
Full Belly Farm co-owner Judith Redmond is enthusiastic about working with Schwertner, who has been a customer of the farm for a decade. “I respect her a lot. She really loves fresh produce and is always open to new suggestions,” Redmond said, adding that Schwertner is a uniquely talented chef who “is always pushing boundaries in how she presents food.”
Redmond said she views this type of close relationship between farmers and chefs as mutually beneficial, and that there is great value in learning how chefs use their produce. “We need to learn how to cook our own products,” she said. “When we know what the chefs do with it, we can then educate our CSA and store customers. We can say, ‘This is how this chef uses our winter savory or wild mustard.’ That kind of marketing gets us more loyal customers.”
Back at Boulettes, patrons arriving early may find the door beside the counter propped open, encouraging the fresh, moist air to blow in from San Francisco Bay. Diners sitting outside relish pastries and coffee from elegant silver pots while the shop’s namesake—a Hungarian Sheepdog with ropy black locks—snoozes under the café’s communal table. Customers curiously examine Schwertner’s extensive spice collection, which looks like a medieval apothecary, as tempting aromas waft from the open kitchen. Just then, the produce starts rolling in—straight from the farms—to be passionately crafted into some of San Francisco’s finest cuisine.
For more information, visit www.bouletteslarder.com, www.fullbellyfarm.com, www.ferrybuildingmarketplace.com and www.ecologycenter.org/bfm.
Kira O’Donnell is a Sacramento-based food writer. She can be reached at email@example.com.