| | By David Schwoegler
When it comes to innovations in food (and housing prices) San Francisco and New York top the nation. In January, San Francisco hosted two of the nation’s biggest food happenings just two days apart—the Good Food Awards and the Fancy Food Show—one hosting thousands of exhibitors and visitors, the other a private ticket to the gourmet literati.
East Bay foodies should be proud of hometown companies like stalwarts Semifreddi’s and Ghirardelli Chocolate, and newcomers like grain company Enray and Back to Roots, which sells mushroom kits. Many local companies, 0like Alameda’s Donsuemor, showed off their wares, and some came home with best-in-show prizes.
Our local market maintains a reputation for culinary innovation and excellence, from California cuisine to slow foods. When it comes to food preparation and gourmet products, trends begin in the West and migrate East.
When Alice Waters started Chez Panisse in 1971, she opened more than a restaurant. She opened the door on a concept that blossomed into a movement, which today is a credo that lies at the heart of the Good Food Awards: tasty, local, socially responsible foods.
Although national in scope and appeal, the Good Food Awards have incubated and prospered here, especially in the East Bay, without the resistance of a stodgy food establishment.
And the site of the Bay Area’s premier farmers market was the setting for the gala and awards ceremony Jan. 18 saluting the Good Food finalists at San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza.
Two days later, south of Market Street at the Moscone Center, the Winter Fancy Food Show convened for three days of mass commercial interaction of national food buyers and sellers looking for the perfect match under one roof.
The summer and winter shows are held a continent apart annually in the nation’s two culinary capitals, New York and San Francisco. It’s been that way for decades, without a hint of movement towards Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, or other metropolitan markets. Why? Because these shows are about food, and according to the industry experts, San Francisco and New York are where taste and innovation meet.
The Good Food Awards and the Fancy Food Show are separate events: One is a competition; the other is an exhibition. One stresses good taste and social responsibility; the other, while valuing those concepts, is blatantly commercial.
For the public, food competitions share common shortcomings, like the state and county fairs where the policy is “Look, but don’t touch.” And in the past, socially and environmentally responsible foods were judged separately from foods that tasted good—as if they were mutually exclusive.
At the Good Food Awards, however, winning foods need to be easy on the green conscience and the palate.
The show’s centerpiece was the gala and reception held Jan. 18 in the main hall of the San Francisco Ferry Building. That evening the 114 Good Food Award winners from 30 states gathered with chefs, news media, and 140 judges, hosted by Berkeley’s own Waters.
A $95 ticket to the gathering allowed those lucky enough to score admission not only to mingle with the winners, while tasting the winning foods from all corners of the country, but also to enjoy tasting plates concocted by local chefs featuring the winning entries.
The tasting event provided a two-stage opportunity to try some of the best food and drink firsthand and chat with the creators. The first wave of willing tasters included the winners and competitors, their families, support staff, the food press, and local dignitaries. Plied with adult libations during the reception before the ceremony, this group sported a mix of black-tie and cocktail gowns with denim and Birkenstocks. They got a head start at the tasting tables, before the crowd pulsing at the velvet rope was unleashed into the narrow hallway.
Like most mass tastings, the plates, napkins and cups (except for the beers) were incredibly small, and the utensils fragile and disposable—although here they were biodegradable. The mood was good-natured, but the laws of physics still applied. Some pushing and crowding was inevitable, and the odds were good that eventually you would be wearing what you were tasting.
If a C-note proved too rich, a more plebian event followed the next morning on Jan. 19. In the Ferry Building’s front alcoves, a $5 bill provided entry to a five-hour meet-greet-taste-and-purchase called the Good Food Awards Marketplace. Another $10 would buy a preview of the same event one hour earlier, with all the goodies served and sold at the hands of their creators.
Upstairs in the Ferry Building, a beer and spirits garden operated in full swing. For $15, the public sampled 15 of the award-winning brews, along with distilled spirits in their pure form, as well as mixed-in signature cocktails. This tasting also included general admission to the Marketplace downstairs, which drew more than 15,000 foodies.
San Francisco’s Seedling Projects created the Good Food Awards three years ago through a partnership of food producers, farmers, food journalists, and independent grocers to honor people who produce good food.
Simply put, Good Foods are tasty, authentic, and responsible. Tasty means the food tastes delicious to those who eat it. Authentic means no artificial ingredients are used in foods that “express tradition and culture, while valuing seasonality and locality.” Responsible covers a multitude of factors, including GMO-free components produced without artificial ingredients, hormones, synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizer.
In 2012, the Good Food Awards recognized a select group of Gold Seal, or best-of-the-best winners. Some of these pioneers have reached the stage of full, certified organic status while being leaders on taste and social responsibility. In 2011, more than a quarter of the winners received the Gold Seal.
There were nine different food or beverage categories, each with its own expert-judging panel: beer, charcuterie, cheese, chocolate, coffee, confections, pickles, preserves, and spirits. Competitors could submit up to three entries per category—except for coffee roasters who were restricted to two. Of the 114 winners, 38 were from California, including four from the East Bay.
Winners can use the Good Food Awards seal to adorn their products, participate in national news media coverage, sell their wares at the Good Food Awards Marketplace, and connect with local and national industry buyers. Last year these buyers included Whole Foods Market, Cowgirl Cream-ery, Bi-Rite Market, Dean and DeLuca, and Williams-Sonoma, several of which shelved the winners’ products the following month.
EAST BAY GOOD FOOD AWARD WINNERS
Columbus Foods of Hayward for Charcuterie. Founded in San Francisco in 1917, this San Francisco food icon packed up and moved to the East Bay suburbs (like Ghirardelli Chocolate) where it prospers today, making slow-aged, old-world salumi in the traditional way: Start with the finest ingredients. Take extra time. Keep it wholesome. Finocchiona is a salumi seasoned with wild fennel seeds. A repeat win from the 2012 competition.
Fra’Mani Handcrafted Foods of Berkeley for Charcuterie, specifically Salame Toscano, a salty, ruby red, Tuscan-style salume. Last year chef/owner Paul Bertolli explained that he locally sources his beef and seasonings. But the Berkeley chef and curemaster acknowledged, “There aren’t enough pigs in California” to locally source his pork products. So he buys from family-owned farmers in the Midwest.
INNA jam of Emeryville for Preserves, Pretty Spicy Fresno Chili Jam. It produces fresh, seasonal, small-batch jams from organic fruit harvested within 150 miles of its Emeryville kitchen. Additionally, it transports and delivers on bicycles, and accepts returns of empty jars.
St. George Spirits of Alameda for Spirits, specifically Agua Libre California Agricole Rum and Aqua Perfecta Poire Eau de Vie. With 30 years experience producing craft spirits, it distills and bottles single malt whiskey, bourbon, gin, rum, absinthe, eau de vie, and fruit liqueurs.
Two days later, about a mile away at the Moscone Center, food fans gathered again for the annual Fancy Food Show, whose theme might have been “out with the old; in with the new.” Notable debuts showcased botanical drinks like broccoli-cilantro tea, wild poppy juice, and blood-orange chili juice. Oils from seeds saw esoteric entries pressed from tomato, chili, and cherry seeds. Blue-veined cheeses emerged prominently in nontraditional forms like chocolates, goat cheese, blue cheese powder, and blue cheese wine grapes. And the familiar banana found its way into a bevy of processed dried chips, plus banana peanut butter, banana milk chocolates, and frozen banana cinnamon pops.
Perhaps it’s because the microbrewing industry has become a national show venue unto itself over the last two years, but the show’s beer pavilion has completely disappeared. Only two Greek beers were poured at this year’s event. And in the spirits category, the multiple tequilas of last year were nowhere to be found.
Green and organic themes showed up more this year—even among mass producers of traditional products. The number of offerings in the “free zone” (salt-free, gluten-free, sugar-free, fat-free, etc.) continued to expand. And salt, both as a seasoning and as a confection topping, found its way into more exhibit spaces, spouting brags about its site of origin, mineral content, naturalness, and salinity—without a single mention of the word “iodized.”
The concepts of sustainable, locally sourced, socially responsible, healthful, as well as tasty are at the very heart of the Good Food Awards. And they have made substantial inroads at the Fancy Food Show. But the latter event maintains a commercial focus at its heart. Each year many Fancy Food first-time exhibitors have saved their lunch money to live the American dream of taking that personal cookie recipe, BBQ sauce, or spice rub from the family kitchen to the hallowed halls of commerce. The show provides a highly critical—yet impartial—jury that’s more of a heartbreaker than a success facilitator. So exhibit your product at your own risk. The outcome is as risky as your first high-school dance.
Paul Bertolli always smiles when he talks about curing meats and hanging salumis—especially the ones he’s made at Fra’Mani, which he started seven years ago in Berkeley. A Bay Area food icon for some time, he was chef at Chez Panisse and chef/co-owner of Oliveto restaurant in Oakland’s Rockridge district.
In 2001, he received the prestigious James Beard Foundation Restaurant Award for Best Chef in California. A firm believer in food science, he’s book smart from his studies in meat science and cured meat production at the Meat Science Laboratory in the heart of America’s hog country: Iowa State. But it’s his hands-on experience and precision execution that elevates his products far beyond academic principles.
Bertolli sources his meats from small, family-run farms in the Midwest. Although he’s branched out into prepared foods like turkey meatloaf for Costco and other retailers, Bertolli’s passion lies in charcuterie, and more specifically in producing handcrafted salumis. Bertolli’s finest handcrafted Fra’Mani cures have been available vacuum-packed at supermarkets and Costco warehouses. Now nearly all of the specialty meatmongers, high-end delis, and better supermarkets carry them.
In booth 2910 at the Fancy Food Show, with a surgeon’s precision he shaved micro-thin slices of his new smoked, uncured pancetta, along with a soft, savory capicollo. The fat content was so soft, delicate and buttery that it was impossible to chew before melting on the tongue. That soft fat, a product of proper animal feed and breeding, provided the essence of both taste and mouth feel.
And all the while Bertolli smiled, not only as he talked and sliced, but especially when he saw the look of astonishment and wonder bloom on a taster’s face. Most of the show attendees had never tasted top-quality charcuterie like this. Although up until that sample, many were mistaken that they had.
FANCY FOOD FOLKS
The East Bay was well represented at the show, from makers of caramels and brownies to whole grains and mushrooms.
An Oakland upstart generated by two young entrepreneurs, Nikhil Arora and Alejandro Velez, entered last year’s show as first-timers with Back to Roots, which they founded in 2009 after graduating from Cal. They offered a unique food product, brimming with innovation. But were they just a splash in the pan, or could they pull it off again?
Well, Back to Roots’ success continues to mushroom. Their grow-it-yourself oyster mushroom kit, in a milk-carton-like cardboard container, enjoys continued success. It also won the Sofi award (stands for “specialty outstanding food innovation”—the Oscars of the fancy food world) in the Food Gift category at the Summer Fancy Food Show in New York.
Their centerpiece this year is an aquaponics garden that measures less than one cubic foot. Set it on your kitchen countertop—or on top of your microwave oven. Within the closed-loop gardening system, plant roots convert fish waste into plant fertilizer, as the plants clean the water for the fish. Their kit includes a self-cleaning fish tank, and everything the consumer needs to plant and grow—except the fish.
Semifreddi’s co-founder Tom Frainier, who still bills himself as “Chief Boot Licker,” personifies socially responsible food production. Not only does the family-owned artisan bakery—now in Alameda—support local community nonprofits like Catholic Charities and local seniors groups, all employees received bonuses last year. Frainier believes it’s not enough to bake delicious goods in a socially responsible way; he believes good food should be affordable. To this end he plans to expand his wares shelved at local Costco warehouses to include buckets of individually wrapped, almond- and chocolate-dipped biscotti—unique because the first ingredient is almonds. Additionally all of his bread is kosher pareve, and all of his sweets are kosher dairy.
This San Francisco icon calls San Leandro home for its headquarters and factory. World-famous Ghirardelli Chocolate continues to enjoy success with its individually wrapped and packaged SQUARES, including a savory style topped with coarse salt—and the newest, Hazelnut Crisp. It continues its award-winning Intense Dark chocolate and a new line called Gourmet Milk chocolate. But what may be the best news for locals is its Factory Outlet Store at 1111 139th Ave. in San Leandro, open to retail shoppers seven days a week, with prices that are low, low, low.
Many East Bay foodies lamented the passing of Alice Waters’s Café Fanny in Berkeley. Named after her daughter, the bread and breakfast place has reopened in a way that might be considered better than ever. Cassandra Chen, chef-owner of CC Made has purchased Café Fanny’s original Berkeley location at 1619 Fifth St., where she’s rehired many of the former cafe workers. Chef Chen is producing a line of handmade caramels, caramel sauces, and caramel corn. Using the more delicate butterfly popcorn for the latter, she says it doesn’t crush while caramelized, because it’s hand-mixed. She’s also marketing three varieties of the original recipe granolas under the trade name Café Fanny.
No newcomer to Oakland’s waterfront warehouse district, Peerless Coffee has been family-owned and -managed since its founding in 1924. The business continues to prosper, according to Executive Vice President George Vukasin, Jr., a graduate of U.C. Berkeley and Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. The company is expanding the tea lines, adding a retail product called Tropic Star Organic Iced Tea, while emphasizing individual-serving coffee equipment and packaging. If you long for New Orleans’ famous coffee-chicory blends, there’s no need to abstain or pay cross-country freight bills. A Peerless blend is available at the retail store, where insiders know that besides whole-bean, ground, and brewed coffee, customers can pick up a 1-pound bag of warm, roasted peanuts, “a Peerless tradition for 80 years” at 260 Oak St. in Oakland.
These pastries show up at office parties, catered events, and business luncheons whenever Costco provides the sweet baked goods. Sugar Bowl Bakery in Hayward manufactures the delicious madeleines, brownie bites, and palmiers sold in clear plastic tubs at the warehouse stores. No Costco card? Find the pastries at Lucky, Safeway, Food-Maxx, and Mollie Stone’s.
Historically, Livermore may be wine country, but that’s the suburban home of Enray, producers of organic, kosher, gluten-free, whole grain, sprouted food, ancient grains, and cookies. Its lines include germinated brown rice, sprouted lentils, sprouted mung beans, Chia seeds, Haiga rice, whole grain and sprouted quinoa, all under the truRoots brand.
Moving in another direction, to the fringes of the East Bay, Benicia is a former California state capital and the home to KettlePop, the kind of kettle corn you’ve tasted at county fairs and farmers markets, because that’s where the founders got their start. Now they use only USDA-certified organic ingredients: popcorn, soybean oil, sugar, and sea salt to produce two varieties: Kettle Corn and Sea Salt. There are no artificial colors, flavoring or GMO. Sales manager Aaron Reimer says it’s all hand-cooked, “one bag, one batch, one customer at a time.”
David Schwoegler has been an Oakland food and travel writer since 1970. A weekly contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle’s Thursday travel section for many years, his work has also appeared in Bay Area Business, Diablo Magazine, The Nooner, Get Up and Go, and Roundel Magazine, where he was national consumer editor.
Taste test: Hundreds sampled winning wares at the Good Food Awards Marketplace at the San Francisco Ferry Building in January. Photo by Jonathan Fong, Gamma Nine Photography; courtesy Seedlings Project.
Palate pioneer: Alice Waters hosts the Good Food Awards at the San Francisco Ferry Building in January. Photo by Marc Fiorito, Gamma Nine Photography; courtesy Seedlings Project.
Good Food Award winners (top to bottom) Columbus Foods of Hayward for Charcuterie specifically finocchiona. Fra’Mani Handcrafted Foods of Berkeley for Charcuterie, specifically Salame Toscano. INNA jam of Emeryville for Preserves, Pretty Spicy Fresno Chili Jam. St. George Spirits of Alameda for Spirits, specifically Agua Libre California Agricole Rum and Aqua Perfecta Poire Eau de Vie.
Photos courtesy: (top) Columbus foods of hayward; (middle two) Seedlings Project/Marc Fiorito, Gamma Nine Photography; (bottom) St. George Spirits.
Appetite for success: Patrons check out an olive bar at the Fancy Food Show in San Francisco in January. Photo by Kenneth R. Krehbiel, Imageworks Photography; courtesy NASFT.
Meat major: Paul Bertolli, a meat science expert, makes handcrafted salumi at Fra’Mani in Berkeley. Courtesy Fra’Mani.