August 10, 2008
The Way We Eat
By CHRISTINE MUHLKE
When I visited Big Sur Bakery in March, I had no idea it would be so much in the news by July. I’d heard about the bakery and restaurant through my friend Liz, who had returned from a month in the coastal California hamlet and e-mailed me about their chocolate-chip cookies in capital letters. The visit confirmed that the cookies were uppercase material, with multiple exclamation points for the breakfast pizza, a life-changing pie of bacon, eggs and cheese that will make scallion skeptics rethink that ’70s garnish. Then last month, when I wrote the co-owner and pastry chef Michelle Rizzolo for recipes, she said she’d do what she could before they had to evacuate. The restaurant’s pizza oven wasn’t the only thing burning in Big Sur.
Rizzolo and her husband, the chef Philip Wojtowicz, quit their Los Angeles kitchen jobs in 2001 to come to Big Sur. The New Jersey natives were following Mike Gilson, with whom Wojtowicz worked in Venice Beach and who is now the manager of the bakery, and they knew that when they set out to create a restaurant in a former ranch house next to a barely marked Shell station, disaster would be part of the deal. “Just on the way up here, you could see the types of challenges that are going to happen,” Rizzolo told me: the car broke down, the road was closed, etc. They slept on the floor of the bakery at first, learning how to bake in a wood-burning oven and how to feed the town.
Big Sur has around 1,000 full-time residents, but millions of people pass the bakery — marked only by a handwritten sign on Highway 1 — in high season. Although the free-spirited locals can be reclusive, a bakery visit might yield a glimpse of a Barefooter, a member of a movement that is exactly what you think it is. Little by little, the trio built good will, giving away test-run pizzas and working their way up to lunch and dinner.
Now mornings can present a line out the door for exquisite pastries and coffee (sleep in and you’ll miss the jelly doughnuts), while on weekend evenings the house’s former living room is filled with locals as well as guests from the nearby $1,000-a-night Post Ranch Inn, who prefer the bakery’s unfussy but substantial fare, like grilled pork shoulder with grainy mustard aioli. The bakery team learned that the room can’t appear too sophisticated — the addition of tablecloths caused a local revolt. But the food has an elegance that only the best ingredients, simply prepared, can carry off. If this is gas-station cuisine, Alice Waters has won.
Rizzolo’s wholesome breads and all-butter pastries, including rich almond croissants, Meyer lemon bars, puff-pastry turnovers and those cookies, combine her experience at Campanile and La Brea Bakery in Los Angeles with her Big Sur lessons: “Being a community that is so remote,” she says, “we went back to the idea that we could pickle and can food. I started making all my own marmalade and jams for all the pastries.”
Wojtowicz, too, had lessons ahead. He trained at the Culinary Institute of America and has worked at restaurants like Campanile; “I didn’t go to culinary school to make pizzas,” he says. But pizzas, he learned, pay the rent. (“I mean, like, literally,” Rizzolo adds.) And so he tops them with prosciutto, butternut-squash sauce and sage or barbecued Niman Ranch pork; at brunch, there’s that breakfast pizza. High real-estate prices make it impossible to hire trained cooks full time, so Wojtowicz rethought his complicated sauces and techniques. He now preps all of the dinner components and breaks down the meat and fish himself to make it easier for the night cooks. The result is a hearty California cuisine with a curious soul, like wood-roasted quail stuffed with foie gras and local chanterelles, served with star-anise sauce.
The food caught the attention of the former publisher Judith Regan, who dined there with her son two years ago and was so impressed she offered a cookbook deal on the spot. “The Big Sur Bakery Cookbook” will be published early next summer. Not bad for a restaurant that hadn’t been written about in the local paper.
And then, the fire. Gilson lost his house in the first days. The bakery served as the meeting point for the community and firefighters, who insisted the place remain open in order to maintain a sense of normalcy. One day, Rizzolo started getting calls from evacuated patrons, who saw the bakery on the news. “One customer called, sobbing, saying: ‘We can’t lose the bakery! It’s a symbol of Big Sur.’ ” That’s when Rizzolo realized they were not only truly a part of the town, but they were also in the line of fire. Gilson and Wojtowicz stayed, while Rizzolo packed up their chickens, dogs, cats and sourdough starter and went to nearby Carmel.
The bakery reopened the week of July 14. Losing three weeks of summer business has been hard — “our summers pay for our winters,” Rizzolo says — but it has taught them more about what it means to be a little restaurant in a disaster-prone town. “How do we create a form of income that doesn’t depend on whether or not the road is open?” she wonders. I vote for Big Sur Breakfast Pizza.
August 10, 2008
½ teaspoon dry active yeast
2 cups plus 2 tablespoons bread flour, plus more for dusting
6 strips bacon
½ cup grated Parmesan
2 cups grated mozzarella
6 large eggs
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons minced
2 tablespoons minced chives
2 scallions, thinly sliced
1 shallot, minced.
1. The night before, prepare the dough: place ¾ cup lukewarm water in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a dough hook. Sprinkle in the yeast, stir and let sit for 5 minutes. Add the flour and 1 teaspoon of salt and mix on low for 1 minute. Increase the speed to medium and mix for 2 minutes, then increase the speed to high and mix until a smooth dough forms, about 2 minutes more. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface, divide into two equal pieces and form each half into a tight ball. Place on a large floured sheet pan, place the pan in a plastic garbage bag, tie the bag loosely and refrigerate overnight.
2. One hour before baking, place the dough in a warm spot. Adjust the oven rack to the lowest position and set a pizza stone on it. Preheat the oven to 500 degrees.
3. Fry the bacon in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat until crisp. Cool on a paper-towel-lined plate; roughly chop.
4. Dip your hands and a ball of dough into the flour. On a lightly floured countertop, pat the dough into a disc with your fingertips, then drape the dough over your fists and carefully stretch it from beneath to form a 12-inch circle.
5. Generously dust the surface of a pizza peel or large inverted sheet pan with flour and place the stretched dough on it. Sprinkle the dough with half of the Parmesan, mozzarella and bacon. Crack 3 eggs over the top and season with salt and pepper.
6. Shake the pizza peel slightly to make sure the dough is not sticking. Carefully lift any sections that are sticking and sprinkle a bit more flour underneath, then slide the pizza directly onto the baking stone in one quick forward-and-back motion. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, rotating after 5 minutes. When the crust is golden, the cheese is melted and the egg yolks are cooked, use the peel to transfer the pizza to a cutting board. Sprinkle half of the parsley, chives, scallions and shallot on top. Let cool for 2 minutes, slice and serve immediately. Prepare the second pizza in the same way. Makes 2 (12-inch) pizzas. Adapted from Big Sur Bakery.