Cortney Burns and her husband and co-chef Nick Balla led the team at Bar Tartine in San Francisco’s Mission District for almost six years before departing at the end of 2016 to start their new restaurant, Motze. The unique style that they developed at Bar Tartine and continue at Motze combines ingredients and techniques from around the world with a focus on processing all their ingredients themselves, including the widespread and creative use of microbial foods. We caught up with Cortney in September 2016 to talk about her approach to cooking and microbe wrangling.
There are a lot of very unusual vegetables and spices on your menu. Where do you get your ingredients?
[At Bar Tartine], we work[ed] with a farm in Yountville about an hour north [of San Francisco]. We met them at this talk we were doing; they came up and introduced themselves, and they’d brought us some produce. We became very close with them because we wanted to work on a paprika project where we could focus on the right peppers, the right amount of oils, how do we dry them, are they grown correctly [to be made into a powdered spice], and they were really keen on that.
In 2016 we switched our trajectory a little bit. Although they were able to grow absolutely delicious vegetables for us, we decided to shift gears to really focus on spices. About 90% of the spices we use[d at Bar Tartine were] made in-house. That’s been our focus this year. We couldn’t grow our own black pepper but we could grow nasturtium and grains of paradise and blend them so they acted like black pepper. Growing enough fennel so it can go to seed so we have fennel seed. It’s been lovely for us.
Has your focus on fermentation been put on a back burner as a result of this deep dive into spices?
Not at all. Fermentation for me is just one avenue of preservation; I don’t even think of it as its own category. Fermentation is this big buzzword these days: people always want to say it’s a trend. I want to say, “I’m so sorry that from the 1950s to the ‘90s we forgot about that.” The “trend” was [those fifty years], and that trend needs to die. It exists for a reason: IQFVs (individually quick frozen vegetables) have more nutritional value than the ones that we can get at the farmer’s market. I don’t feel comfortable turning my nose up at the things that are out there; they are there for a reason. But I don’t believe that we’re in the middle of a [fermentation] trend. Hopefully we’re in the correction.
Do you start by preserving things and then figure out what to do with them?
We cook backwards. The larder is the muse. It’s very rare that we order something specifically for something. We ask: what do we have, what needs to be used up, what do we have on the menu, what’s the temperature today? There are all these different elements at play. Right now, we have 60 liters of Barhi dates that we got in super-underripe and are preserving and we don’t know what we’re going to do with them. We have stuff like that everywhere. Very rarely do we have to throw away a bucket of something that is not delicious.
How do you deal with batch variation?
Batch-correct is the only way we know how to do things. We do have some ways of achieving consistency: Lactobacillus is going to taste like Lactobacillus. It’s just the vegetables that are going to change the taste. But from one day to the next lemons will taste sweeter or more sour than the day before. How much lemon? I don’t know, until it tastes right. I can give someone a list of ingredients to gather, I’ll give you a baseline and we can taste from there.
Our training is complex and involved but our style is a real shoot-from-the-hip style that works for some and doesn’t for others. We find that this way of working breeds really good cooks, because they have to think, they have to be aware all the time, and they have to continually ask for help when they need it, because they might not know that they don’t know. Being okay to break down your ego and ask when you don’t know is important. We’re always tasting things together: “Tell me what you think so I know where your palate is.” And then we can figure it out.
At any given time, you’ve got produce coming in. What’s the balance of work in the kitchen between advance-prep, pre-industrial-style “preserving for winter,” and what needs to be done for service tonight?
We have a whiteboard. I usually come in around 8 and I’ll make a list to organize us for the day: AM checklist, PM checklist, project list, a longer project list… Depending on what has to happen for service, that’s first and foremost. If we have huge projects going on, we’ll manage that as we go. It’s this organic thing where what needs to happen happens, and other things can get paused. Are the dehydrators full or empty? What’s the next step? There’s always something going on: you have to be on it all the time.
Does sharing spaces between ferments present difficulties?
It’s really challenging. We’re not doing as much aged cheese here as we used to. It’s not set up for it; it’s like a baby that needs a lot of attention. For a few years I was able to give it that, and then we said, “let’s pause on this.” We’re always making feta, always making our farmer’s cheese, and cheddar-style pepper jack in the summer. We have two aging caves, a couple of meat fridges, we have a proofing fridge that holds the bread at about 52F, so we can take our ferments that are where we want them and slow them down. There’s different temperatures all over.
What about fermentations gone wrong?
We’ve seen some of that happen. Every once in a while we’ll get this crazy ropey texture in our pickles, and if it hits the pickles, then it always hits the water kefir, and everything’s screwed for a week. It’s sooo ropy! It’s a matter of understanding, “Okay, something got in, something might be too warm, why hasn’t the lactic taken hold?” It’s probably happened three or four times in five years. We’ve only had to throw away the liquid from the water kefir base and rinse the grains really well and then they’re happy again. With the pickles if we leave them long enough, the ropey structure goes away. There’s been one batch of cabbage where it didn’t, and we sent it to the compost. There are other things, like our yoghurt kinda tastes like rye bread, which is unique and fun. While yoghurt is not supposed to taste like rye bread, it’s like the terroir of the restaurant, and there’s a lot of that going on.
Does anyone ever ask if they can get cultures from you?
People ask all the time, and as long as the kefir grains aren’t stuck behind 47 other things in the middle of a huge rush, we’re usually happy to oblige. We don’t have any secrets, we didn’t create the beginnings of what we’re doing, we just stole them from someone else. It’s kind of like a lineage. We have no issues with handing that out; it’s great. There are people all over who we’ve traded our mothers with.
And do you collaborate with any scientists?
There’s a gentleman named Ali Bouzari who just put out a book called Ingredients. It’s absolutely wonderful. He’s a culinary scientist, a chef-turned-PhD scientist. I can call him and ask questions: “I want to infuse shochu and retain these aromas,” or whatever.
There are ways that you can cook your vegetables so they can be as soft as the mash that our mothers inadvertently made, but the vegetables will retain their shape. Ali and I are constantly going back and forth about ideas.
What has it been like being at the forefront of the “correction,” as you described it earlier? Is it heartening to see something that was niche in 2010 now part of the mainstream?
It’s interesting because we joke that you can never be in front of a trend; somehow you’re only in it or being dragged by it. It’s just the way that we cook. It wasn’t like, “Oh hey, let’s try and do something really different.” All of a sudden we were blindsided by the fact that we were unknowingly inside of a trend.
Our friends at the Cultured Pickle Shop [in Oakland] who have been doing this for over twenty years are like, “are you f***ing kidding me? Where have you all been?” They think it’s ridiculous. They’re very grateful because it’s great for them. We kind of have our heads in the sand, in a lot of ways. We don’t get out a lot so to see the birth of it in modern gastronomy isn’t something that we totally “get.”
For us it’s important to keep doing what we’re doing, and find new things and stay excited and just keep cooking. Preserving is just one part of what we do. It’s part of the umbrella, but I wouldn’t say it’s the umbrella.
So, the logic behind your cooking is that everything you serve you’ve made yourselves, that you’ve done the processing?
We’ve touched it. That’s the larger umbrella from which we create. For us it’s about curiosity and wanting to know how something is made. It’s not that we can’t get amazing cheeses, but it’s just that if we were going to bring them in, we’d want to know how to make them first, just so we can understand what to do with it.
Or even honor it more: it’s almost more like paying tribute to something: it’s not exactly feta that we’re making but it’s in the style of feta. If we can make it ourselves, why wouldn’t we?
We learn how to work with ingredients by understanding how they’re made. I don’t make cheese at home, I buy cheese for my house, and I use black pepper at my house. It’s not a full life-spectrum dogma, it’s just like at some point we have to put up fences—they’re not walls—so that we can work within them. If the span is too great, it’s almost like we don’t know how to narrow down. We’ve even considered saying something like, “This summer we’re going to use cucumbers and peppers, but next year we’re not,” because the palette is too big; the world is too big.
Is there a process of educating your customers?
People are always asking what kind of food we cook, and we’re like, “fusion!” [laughs] We hate that word, it has such a bad connotation: “Wasabi and mashed potatoes, it’s totally what’s happening!” But that’s really what it is, and I don’t have a problem with that word. We have 8-12 different countries represented in our kitchen team, and we’re pulling from everybody. “What did your mom cook? What’s your favorite food?” We feed off each other and it becomes this language in the kitchen. We make stuff, we’re curious, we try and make it make sense all together, we try to work with what we have.
It’s all of these little bits, but from week to week there are always different things on the menu. The proteins are always changing. We use one protein all the time, and we use it in two or three different applications. I don’t want to have three different animals in the restaurant at once…it just feels strange. I love animal protein; it makes my body feel good…but it’s a side dish. We want people to feel good when they leave.
Finally, do you have a favorite microbe?
I don’t know if I’ve ever thought about it! I have to say, I love the breadth of flavors you can get from Aspergillus [oryzae]. From how sweet you can make amazake to the intense savory flavors of soy and sake to miso, the gamut of it is mindblowing. Just the umami you can get from it is mindblowing.