Stories by Laura.

Gastronaut: Chez Pim struck out from the tech world and helped pioneer the food-blogosphere

by Laura Copeland / Santa Cruz Sentinel

SANTA CRUZ — Pim Techamuanvivit, known for making macarons so impeccable that her name is used by one student as an adjective to mean perfect, is messing up her meringue.

The batter is too runny, too dark, and pouring too quickly out of the metal pastry tip that Pim — she goes by just one name — holds over a baking sheet as her students at Love Apple Farm watch in an overhead mirror. Later, when she removes the macaron shells from the oven, they come out crispy.

But it’s by design. This is Pim’s demonstration — yes, a perfect one — of what not to do.

“When you make a perfect batch, you know it before it even goes into the oven,” Pim tells the class. “You don’t even have to waste electricity or gas [to know].”

Next to the duds are the model macarons, row after row of glistening batter- buttons that retain their shape even when Pim, as a test, lifts the baking tray and drops it on the counter. (The others dribble away.) These are the creations that drove a sellout crowd of 16, including an Oakland pastry chef, to the farm’s kitchen earlier this month to hear the secret to mastering macarons.

The delicate French confection has intimidated bakers since its invention in the early 20th century, when Pierre Desfontaines thought to join two meringue shells with a dollop of ganache and sell them in his Parisian bakery. Even the word “macaron” confuses many Americans: Spellcheck insists it’s missing an “o.” But the macaroon is a different animal, a free-form cookie that’s traditionally shaped into a mound of coconut flakes and dipped in chocolate, a chewy dessert no more challenging to make than chocolate-chip cookies.

Macarons, on the other hand, are more temperamental sweets that demand aged egg whites and carefully piped batter to come out looking as they should. It’s the macaron, Pim will tell you, that must be pretty to taste good.

And if that’s case, it follows that those “Pim-perfect” macarons, as San Francisco food blogger Jeanne Brophy puts it, are also some of the best- tasting.

THE SCIENCE OF SUSTENANCE

Pim, a petite 30-something who lives in Santa Cruz, has earned international press for being the “mistress of Michelin stars,” as a Guardian writer dubbed her in 2005. She lays claim to one of the first food blogs, Chez Pim [chezpim.com], where for a decade she’s shared the contents of her dinner plates from some of the finest restaurants in the world. She’s closing in on 75,000 followers on Twitter, an online entourage comparable to the comedian Jamie Kennedy’s, and has parlayed her online popularity into TV appearances, including on “The Martha Stewart Show.”

But Pim’s background is in cognitive science, not culinary arts. She is not a professionally trained chef, baker or restaurateur. She is simply someone with patience and determination, one in a long line in a family of foodies.

“My grandfather used to send food back into the kitchen when it wasn’t right,” Pim said in an interview. “Not a restaurant kitchen. The family kitchen.”

When she moved from her native Thailand to the U.S. for school, Pim found “basically no Thai food that [she] wanted to eat.” The crash-course she got in preparing her family’s old-world cuisine beget other dishes from her travels, and before long she had found her groove as a self-taught cook.

After accepting a job at Netscape, Pim moved to the Bay Area in 1997 and started a blog a few years later as a way to update friends and family on her travels and kitchen experiments. Slightly more fanatical than the average home cook, she ran trials and took lab notes.

“I like being creative, I like playing with food, but [cooking] also fits my analytical side,” Pim said.

The researcher’s mindset proved the perfect complement to training a bowl of batter into the consistently round, particularly textured macarons she’d enjoyed daily at Pierre Hermé in Paris — or creating her own interpretation of the paté dish that landed with a thud in front of her at the landmark bistro La Régalade.

A TASTE OF HER TRAVELS

Love Apple Farm, just off Highway 17, might be the only place where locals can taste macarons with a dollop of yuzu marmalade, an exotic Japanese citrus preserve that Pim picked up in her travels — and it might also boast the only kitchen where a cooking teacher can pause the class and let the bakers forage for organic herbs for their butter.

When Cynthia Sandberg and her business partner Daniel Maxfield moved Love Apple Farm from Ben Lomond to Scotts Valley earlier this year, they added a teaching kitchen and a host of cooking classes to their usual gardening curriculum. Pim, who quit her Silicon Valley job in 2005 to try her hand at a career in the food scene, was one of the farm’s first culinary instructors.

“Every good gardener wants to be a better cook, and every chef wants to learn how to grow their food,” Sandberg said.

The 20-acre organic farm seems an ideal fit for Pim, whose blog is a never- ending brochure of eating local, whether she’s at a fish market in Tokyo or foraging for mushrooms in Santa Cruz. She picks up preserves wherever she travels and is herself a “garagist” jam- and marmalade-maker.

“I bought basically every [jamming] book I could get my hands on in every language I could speak,” Pim said. “I was doing a lit review of jam making.”

SWIMMING WITH PIM

Above the refrigerator in the home kitchen of celebrated chef David Kinch, of the Michelin-starred Manresa in Los Gatos, is a small plaque with the saying “le chef a toujours raison” — the chef is always right.

It’s not a reference to Kinch.

“People [come over and] say, Wow, really, did David make you put that up there?’ “ Pim said. “And I say, No, I’m the chef.’”

Kinch and Pim are longtime partners. Love Apple Farms is the exclusive kitchen garden for Manresa, and it was Kinch who introduced Pim to Sandberg. But don’t confuse Pim’s mise en place with that of a professional chef.

“When I work at home, David is always telling me, Keep your station clean!’ “ Pim said, laughing. “And I say, It’s not my station. It’s my countertop.’ “

She may be adamant about things like measuring ingredients by weight, not volume, but the cornerstone of Pim’s teaching methodology is that, as a self- taught cook, she can speak to the layperson.

“See how it moves?” Pim said to the class as she demonstrated the macaronnage, or mixing of the meringue, the step that many bakers fumble. “It kind of flattens out, but see that peak and valley here? And the flow? You want that to be about as fast as the flow of magma. You’ve seen sci-fi movies, or you’ve been to Hawaii. Or Google it, pull up something on YouTube.”

Her protégés left the class with a small box of their own macarons, skillfully shaped but not quite Pim-perfect. But they were close, and many students talked about trying the recipe at home — perhaps no better testament that Pim made the right decision when she quit her Silicon Valley job.

“You couldn’t see the future,” Pim said of the decision to leave Cisco, where she transferred after Netscape. “I just thought, I really love it and I wanted to give it a try. I don’t want to wake up one day and I’m 75 and I haven’t done anything. I just wanted to see, Would I sink or swim?’”

Santa Cruz coffee shop pulls plug on power-hungry patrons

by Laura Copeland / Santa Cruz Sentinel

SANTA CRUZ — People who turn to espresso during the rainy season might find a perk missing from Lulu Carpenter’s.

Owner Manthri Srinath cut off electricity to customers at his Pacific Avenue cafe last month, putting plates over the electricity outlets on one wall and turning off the circuit breakers to the rest. It’s his latest tactic aimed at dissuading power-hungry laptop users from dominating his business.

“I never meant for this to be an Internet cafe,” said Srinath, who also owns Coffee Cat in Scotts Valley, which hasn’t had Wi-Fi since Srinath disconnected it over the summer.

His decision comes at a price: turning off customers who feel they’ve earned unmetered time at the cafe through the purchase of food or drinks.

“I used to stay and eat, and now I won’t spend as much money here,” said Lulu’s customer Troy Ortiz. The 23-year-old was at the coffee shop Sunday and lamented that without power outlets, he couldn’t stay long enough to pick a dinner from the display case next to the register.

Other patrons said they sympathize with the owner, adding that it’s part of cafe etiquette for customers to police themselves.

“If you spend $10 and you’re there for three hours, and you prevent three people from each spending their $10 and staying an hour each, then you’re hurting business,” said Michael Shulman, 47, a senior program manager at Microsoft and a regular Lulu’s patron. “Personally, when I see people come in and all of the tables are full, I’ll get up and give my table to the new customer.”

At Caffe Pergolesi, just half a mile from Lulu’s, owner Karl Heiman also covered his cafe’s power outlets — but with 8-socket power strips, a virtual beacon welcoming laptop users to linger. Heiman disagrees with Srinath that facilitating work and study time and running a successful coffee shop are mutually exclusive.

“It’s pretty common knowledge that coffee helps you get things done faster, like homework and studying,” says Heiman, who also owns Mr. Toot’s in Capitola. “At both coffeehouses, we welcome students studying and using the outlets.”

For the quarter-century he’s been in the business, Srinath has watched the changing landscape of coffee shops in downtown Santa Cruz. His cafe was one of the first in the city to offer complimentary Internet to its customers in 1994, long before many people knew how to use it. But what began as a small perk has spiraled into what Srinath calls a pattern of misuse he couldn’t have predicted, one he says is akin to expecting public restrooms to function as shower stalls.

“We already probably keep the longest hours of any coffee shop,” said Srinath, whose cafes open as early as 5 a.m. and close as late as midnight. “And we go out of our way to make the seating spaces as large as we possibly can.”

Srinath said his reasons for disconnecting the power are twofold. There’s the potential increase in profit that follows higher customer turnover, but just as appealing to him is the thought of reverting Lulu’s into a place where people come to socialize.

Chris Yonge of Studio Cruz remembers a Lulu’s where laptops were less ubiquitous.

“Removing the Internet squatters will free the space to be the way it was,” Yonge said. “Full of talk, with a reasonable turnover of people and a table or two being freed up every few minutes.”

It’s not uncommon for coffee shops in bigger cities to take measures that limit how long laptop users can linger. But in a city like Santa Cruz, whose economy in part depends on its student crowd once the tourists leave, some think Srinath is turning away a crucial demographic.

And it’s not only students in the coffee shops. Others, like telecommuters to Silicon Valley, often seek a break in the monotony of working from home or want a more professional place to meet with clients.

For either demographic, there’s a niche in Santa Cruz for what Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz in 1999 dubbed “third places.” The term was originally meant to describe a space that supplements one’s home and workplace — a spot in the neighborhood meant for meeting old friends, making new ones, or just reading a book.

“Coffee places are great for doing study and research because the temptations of TV, bed, toys’ or other entertainment is not present,” said Scott Brown, 51, the founder of a high-tech startup and former Lulu’s customer.

But with mobile Internet devices on the rise, Schultz’ third places are evolving into primary places, leaving coffee shop owners like Srinath wondering how to keep the valuable business of regulars while herding out those who he feels have overstayed their welcome.

“The quandary [Lulu’s has] is someone else’s business opportunity,” he said.

Srinath is no stranger to criticism over how he manages his cafes. The feedback he’s been getting reminds him of a similar backlash that occurred in the mid-’90s, when he decided to remove the pay phones from his coffee shops.

“Customers asked me how they were supposed to make phone calls without the pay phones,” Srinath said. “And after that, people expected us to let them use the business phone.”

He sees the removal of the power outlets the same way: a natural evolution in his business. He insists that if the dynamic at Lulu’s doesn’t conform to something “more social, less like a library,” then technology will advance to a point where customers can provide their own long-lasting power — and eventually, he predicts, their own Wi-Fi. Springing out of nearby Silicon Valley are hints that he just might be right: Apple’s new line of laptops, unveiled earlier this year, boasts up to eight hours of power after a full charge.

Even so, it’s a gamble not only that the technology will exist but that its price will be affordable for customers too cash-strapped to order a second drink.

Until then, Lulu’s will keep its loyal regulars like R. F. Farrell. The local artist spends a substantial portion of his time — and, he said, a commensurate amount of his money — at the coffee shop. On a recent visit, Farrell ordered the $7 chicken casserole, read for a while, then left, his wooden cane thumping against the worn floorboards. Two hours later, he returned for a $5 slice of strawberry rhubarb pie.

“I’m from the 18th century,” Farrell chuckled as he blew he nose into a handkerchief taken from his pocket. “I’ll never have a laptop, a phone or any of that.”

From high seas to Felton trees: Cargo containers used to create ultra-modern cabin

by Laura Copeland / Santa Cruz Sentinel

ZAYANTE — Suspended from a crane in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Connie DeWitt's kitchen and bathroom are inches from nudging a madrone tree.

The 30-foot shipping container was the largest of six trucked from Oakland up a muddy Zayante road Thursday afternoon. Before dinner, less than eight hours after the containers arrived, workers from NorCal Construction in Santa Cruz had ground the final bits of rust off the boxes and welded them together to create DeWitt's two-story mountain retreat.

“The crane guy said it might be tough, but if we put a man on the moon, we can do it,” Dewitt said.

She was watching the spectacle unfold with some friends from San Jose, who'd dropped by to check on the progress.

Homes built from used cargo containers are a growing trend, but the Zayante cabin was a first for nearly everyone involved in its construction: DeWitt and husband Kam Kasravi; designer David Fenster of Modulus Architects; general contractor Adam Dorn of Norcal Construction; and even Santa Cruz County, which has known an offbeat home or two in its day.

Pieced together like Lincoln Logs in a single afternoon, the construction project seemed to belie the time it took to design the cabin — and fit it within the DeWitts' budget and space constraints.

“There have been more consultants on this project than I've done on certain high rises,” Fenster said.

‘ONE OF THE STRONGEST THINGS MAN HAS EVER BUILT'

As a young girl in upstate New York, Connie DeWitt had a 1,000-acre wooded wonderland at her disposal. She wanted the same for her 7-year-old son, Kyler, and the family's postage-stamp backyard in downtown San Jose wasn't cutting it. In May 2009, she and her husband purchased 10.8 acres on an adjacent pair of parcels off Zayante Road.

High-tech engineers by trade, DeWitt and Kasravi got the “the Internet bug” and moved together to Silicon Valley in 1997. DeWitt eventually left the startup life for art school, nonprofit work and child-rearing; when she got the idea for the mountain cabin, she knew she'd be working on a budget. She didn't want to compromise on the design, though.

DeWitt wanted a light-filled, minimalist retreat, a world away from the family's San Jose residence, which was built in 1912.

“I wanted a clean aesthetic, not something that would get moldy,” DeWitt said. “I didn't want to spend all our time maintaining it.”

A prefab home seemed like the obvious choice, maybe a Michelle Kaufmann or a Rocio Romero. Both designers offer a modern aesthetic, with relatively predictable pricing. But trucking a prefab home into the Santa Cruz Mountains posed challenges. Even if a truck could make it up through the steep, winding road through the redwoods, the private bridge off Zayante Road was too narrow to fit a house.

“Some [prefab homes] are flat-pack, like Ikea houses, and the constructor puts it together,” DeWitt said. “But (the designs are) not that flexible. And our land is terraced, as the creek has worked its way down over the eons.” DeWitt's research eventually pointed her to shipping containers, reused by a growing number of people to build homes and commercial structures. SG Blocks, the New York-based company DeWitt used to purchase and customize the containers, bills them as “earthquake-, hurricane-, fire- and tornado-resistant.” In 2006, Sun Microsystems created a modular data center inside a shipping container and rattled it through a magnitude 6.7 earthquake.

“It's almost like you can see the container laughing,” said David Fenster, principal architect of Modulus in San Jose, a friend of DeWitt and Kasravi, and designer of the Zayante house. “It's really one of the strongest things man has ever built. They'll stack ‘em 10 high and ship them across the ocean.”

Talking with her real estate agent and fellow Felton-area homeowners, DeWitt learned she's not the first to lay steel in the neighborhood. One of the family's parcels runs along the old railroad grade, and there's an underground steel storage container around the corner, rumored to have once kept Disney films safe from disaster.

But perhaps most importantly for DeWitt and Kasravi, shipping containers could be transported to Zayante one at a time, traveling relatively easily over the bridge and assembled on-site into a custom module.

LIGHT AND SHADOW

Cabins in Zayante, many of them built in the 1970s with the wood paneling and shag carpeting to show for it, start around $200,000. DeWitt estimates she will have paid close to $600,000 for her custom home. The couple contacted a homeowner in Richmond, Va., who forewarned them that if they were hoping to save money, they should look elsewhere. The same proved true for saving time.

“It's been a much bigger project than any of us anticipated,” DeWitt said.

Even before the myriad of consultants — soil analysts, structural engineers and geologists, to name a few — DeWitt's first roadblock was finding a suitably flat spot on her land. It helped that she wanted a home with a light footprint, no more than 1,200 square feet.

On a camping trip, she found a clearing, roughly 200-by-70 feet, where the trees were already felled and the sunlight streamed in. A large redwood would have to be axed — there needed to be enough room for a fire truck to turn around — but DeWitt and Kasravi had the fallen tree milled in Watsonville and plan to use the wood to build a staircase at the mountain home.

Fenster also camped out with DeWitt and Kasravi at the site to help him get an idea how to design their shipping-container house — a first in his career.

“To take a container, and figure out efficient ways to make it work on a very small site, in a very small area, on a very small footprint — to create something that would be wonderful to be in would be very challenging,” Fenster said.

The final design is “all about light and shadow,” with five glass doors to the outside, 23 windows, and nine holes for skylights, preinstalled by SG Blocks. DeWitt chose dry-freight containers called Hi Cubes; at 9 feet, 6 inches, they would give her the high ceilings she hoped for.

“Usually containers used for construction are not considered seaworthy anymore,” DeWitt said. “In our case, they did not have, at the time, any tall cubes that were not seaworthy, so we ended up buying boxes that are newer.”

General contractor Adam Dorn of Norcal Construction, the Santa Cruz firm that built the home's foundation, is now at work on the septic and electrical systems, drywall and insulation, work Dorn expects to complete by August.

DeWitt and Kasravi said they may one day retire in their mountain home. Carrying groceries down the 120-foot trail from their new driveway, across the steel foot bridge to their front door will keep them in shape, DeWitt said.

INTO THE WOODS

Half a dozen of the family's friends traveled from San Jose on Thursday afternoon to see the containers craned in. A few brought their children, who ran through the woods to play on the tree swing with Kyler. Around noon, when the clouds broke and half the hot dogs on the grill were gone, an engine puttered up the mud-slick road. DeWitt ushered her family and friends over to watch the third container — this one for the kitchen and bathroom — craned into place. At 30 feet, it was the largest piece of steel, but just like the others, it was gently laid onto the foundation without incident. Once the container was on the ground, Kyler asked his mom for the camera — but not to take pictures of the house.

“This is me with a banana slug on my hand,” Kyler said, laughing and showing his friend photos from earlier in the day. The cabin might not be finished until August, but from the looks of things, DeWitt has already gotten what she wanted.

Quick Bites

by Laura Copeland / Santa Cruz Sentinel

Mission Hill Creamery gets a new look

Supermarket shoppers searching the freezer section for Mission Hill Creamery should have an easier time spotting the Santa Cruz brand: The original red-on-white packaging has been slipped off in favor of a sleek black number.

The bubbly lettering on the old carton, which was layered over an ice cream cone reminiscent of clip art, was swapped with a modern font drawn in white and silver. The only image on the carton is a band of color at the base — each of the nine flavors gets a different shade — with the bin number, batch number and owner Dave Kumec's signature.

Kumec made the change to create a "more professional and elegant look," he said. In response to a Facebook comment from a customer who misses the old branding, Kumec pledged that Mission Hill's "homemade, hand-packed approach" will never change.

Credit for the new look goes to Trevor Thompson Design, a Bay Area firm.

Whole Foods tries for cheese-cracking crown

The perks of being a supermarket mega-chain: more arms for cracking cheese. An army of Whole Foods employees across the U.S., including at the store in Santa Cruz, will attempt to take back the Guinness World Record next week for largest number of simultaneously cracked wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano.

The Canadian chain Loblaws broke the record last year when 200 stores each cracked a 75-pound wheel. Whole Foods set the previous record in 2008.

The local cracking will be noon March 9 at the Soquel Avenue store. Spectators can share photos on Instagram with the hashtag #parmcrack for a change to win a $250 gift card.

Second Mobo a no-go in Sunny Cove spot

The rumor mill has been churning in Live Oak ever since a constituency meeting last month, when a county supervisor hinted that a new Mobo Sushi location would be moving into the old Sunny Cove space on East Cliff Drive. But that's just not a fact, said Dari Vogel, who owns the popular Mobo Sushi in downtown Santa Cruz.

County records confirm Vogel has owned the building since 2008, but the restauranteur said plans for a second Mobo location came to a halt after the 2009 death of his wife and Mobo matriach Kyoung "Suki" Kang.

Vogel is now in casual talks with a number of potential tenants, he said, and has secured a permit to begin remodeling the building at 21620 E. Cliff Drive.

"It could be anything from a bakery to a sandwich shop," he said.

New Zameen truck rolls over to UCSC

UC Santa Cruz will have a new food truck starting Monday: Zameen Mediterranean Cuisine, a mobile version of the Aptos restaurant staffed by Ed Watson, the owner himself.

"I've been watching the growth of gourmet food trucks over the past few years and really wanted to get involved," Watson said. "I love the idea of a food truck, loading it up in the morning and heading out to try and sell everything before returning back to base."

The menu offers grab-and-go versions of Zameen's standard fare — think Greek burgers and salads, sweet potato fries, and lamb and beef gyro wraps rolled with Middle Eastern flatbread made at the restaurant in the morning. Prices run $3-$9.

The truck is available for private hire and could soon be making its way to the county's festival circuit, Watson hinted. He's also brainstorming a Santa Cruz food truck fair.

Zameen's truck operates 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. weekdays at UC Santa Cruz. Find it just down from Shakespeare Santa Cruz in the parking lot by the Digital Arts Research Center and the Music Center.

Casa Nostra to fill Ciao Bella spot in SLV

The curtains closed last month on Ciao Bella Act II, but the landmark Ben Lomond space has a successor in the wings.

Former Ciao Bella hostess Moreah Walker, known among regulars as ukulele-playing Aloha, said the lease has been taken over by a trio of Italians. Construction is under way to remodel the Highway 9 restaurant into Casa Nostra, a family-friendly Italian eatery.

The original Ciao Bella debuted in 1993 and closed in late 2008. Act II had been open since 2009 and was run by Dawn Eighmy and her stepfather, Allen Strong, both Ciao Bella alumni.

Esquire spotlights 515 mixologist

Santa Cruz mixologist Addison Kester, until recently the manager at 515 Kitchen and Cocktails, scored a feature last week on Esquire.com (link: www.esquire.com/blogs/food-for-men/bartender-wisdom-santa-cruz-052412). The men's magazine has a random sampler of thoughts from Kester on its Eat Like a Man blog, where the 25-year-old chats about everything from his real name — it's a mouthful — to his surprising choice of sing-along songs.

A native of Santa Cruz who lived across from 515, Kester served his final local cocktails last week. He took a job managing the gastropub Monk's Kettle in San Francisco.

Esquire was put in touch with Kester through the efforts of the Santa Cruz County Conference & Visitors Council.

Linda’s Seabreeze Cafe reimagines the cinnamon roll

by Laura Copeland / Santa Cruz Sentinel

When I moved to Seabright a few years ago, I was caught off guard when the waitress at Linda’s Seabreeze Cafe asked if I’d like a cinnamon roll with my breakfast entree, rattling it off as the toast option along with wheat and rye. This, to me, was like asking if I’d like a rotisserie chicken with my steak — entirely at odds with my longstanding vision of the cinnamon roll as behemoth, a meal all its own.

Color me surprised when, on a whim, I chose the Seabreeze cinnamon roll and it landed in front of me with a whisper rather than a thunk, and with a modest pat of butter on the side rather than a tub of frosting. The highlight of Linda’s take on these fist-sized cakes is their pillowy texture, the quartered walnuts, the globs of subtle cinnamon sauce living inside the coil.

They’re simply gorgeous, and I didn’t fear that my heart would give out in the parking lot afterward.

Part of the reason Seabreeze cinnamon rolls are different: Technically, they’re not cinnamon rolls. They’re muffins, baked in a muffin tin with gold-streaked tops to show for it.

Seabreeze owner Tex Hintze is the muffin man himself. He’s been baking rolls for the cafe since 1990, when he partnered with cafe namesake Linda Hopper. What started as an occasional special — a tray here, a tray there — has spiraled into a legendary menu item that’s outlasted even Linda. (She left amicably in 1998 to take over Live Oak’s Silver Spur.)

“Now I bake 35 trays a week,” Hintze said, laughing. “It’s become this monster for me. But it’s great. It’s a really good recipe.”

Julia Child deserves some of the credit, Hintze said. He uses her recipe for Danish pastry dough, which makes the muffin skin flaky. He foregoes the raisins — a contentious choice born of his own preference — and skips the “goopy sugar stuff,” a hallmark of the cinnamon rolls found in malls across America.

A la carte, the Seabreeze cinnamon rolls are $2 each. They also come as part of the breakfast specials, which run $6.95-$7.95. Hintze has a handful of takeout clientele who call ahead and order dozens, but devotees of the delectable dish shouldn’t worry about the rolls running out. To meet demand and prepare for his own retirement, the 56-year-old restaurant owner recently hired Bernardo Ramirez as the cafe’s dedicated muffin apprentice.

Cellar Door gets new name: Le Cigare Volant

by Laura Copeland / Santa Cruz Sentinel

Beginning April 1, Bonny Doon Vineyard’s Cellar Door Cafe in Santa Cruz will have a new name: Le Cigare Volant, a tongue-in-cheek reference to a fictional restaurant from the TV sitcom “Frasier” and a nod to the wine that put Randall Grahm’s vineyard on the map.

The flagship wine of Bonny Doon, first bottled in 1984, is Le Cigare Volant. Literally translated, the French phrase means “the flying cigar,” but it’s the looser meaning — “the flying saucer” — that pokes fun at Rhone Valley vignerons in the 1950s who passed an ordinance to prevent UFOs from hovering near their wine plantations. The wine label and the Swift Street Courtyard restaurant decor both feature flying saucers.

Cellar Door Cafe opened in the Swift Street Courtyard in 2008 with the young chef Charlie Parker at the helm. Le Cigare Volant is currently cheffed by Ryan Shelton, who started earlier this month after leaving Michelin two-starred restaurant Baume in Palo Alto.

The 1990s sitcom “Frasier” had its own Le Cigare Volant, a fictional Seattle restaurant that was so posh the title character and his friends could never get a reservation. Grahm promises Le Cigare Volant will offer “comfortable and gracious” dining, just as Cellar Door Cafe has.

At press time, seats were still available for tonight’s Community Dinner Table, a weekly tradition where diners sit communally and share a prix-fixe farm-to-table meal. Call 425-6771 or visit www.bonnydoonvineyard.com.

Coffee talk: Pleasure Point pourers second, fourth best in the nation

by Laura Copeland / Santa Cruz Sentinel

Verve Coffee Roasters is now serving a double shot of trophies at its 41st Avenue storefront.

Chris Baca and Sara Peterson placed second and fourth, respectively, in the U.S. Barista Championships in Anaheim last weekend.

Twenty-nine-year-old Peterson is now the nation’s highest ranked female barista, after just a year and a half of practice.

“She’s out of control,” said Colby Barr, co-owner of Verve Coffee Roasters since it opened in late 2007. “She’s got a knack, really.”

Late nights at the Pleasure Point coffee shop paid off for the baristas in Anaheim, where judges consider not only bitterness, acidity and sweetness of espresso shots but also technical factors like bean spillage.

Competition among coffee scenesters has stiffened in the last few years, Barr said, with more roasters signing up to see their baristas battle for a title. Three of his employees were guaranteed a spot in the nationals after placing in the Top 10 at the Western Regionals in late February. “There were about 50 people on the waiting list to be involved,” Barr said.

The Huffington Post called Baca a “reliable crowd-favorite.” A Western Regionals overall winner in 2008, Baca was recruited last year by Jared Trudy, 27, to work at Verve. He’d been pouring shots at Ritual in San Francisco, commuting to the Mission District from his home in Modesto an hour and a half away.

“He wanted to get out of the city,” Barr said of Baca, 29, who now enjoys a shorter commute to Verve from his Westside home.

Trudy also made it to the semifinals, taking home 10th place.

The coffee shop’s 12-member staff accompanied the trio to the nationals as a “morale thing,” as Barr explained it. Baristas from The Abbey, a church-run coffee shop across town that Peterson once managed, served brewed coffee and pastries outside the store in the Verve team’s absence.

“We didn’t want to leave the neighborhood hanging,” Barr said.

Drunk Monkeys returns — on wheels

by Laura Copeland / Santa Cruz Sentinel

As a flaming black-and-orange truck traveling the Westside, the new Drunk Monkeys is harder to ignore than its old one, tucked for two years between a quiet pair of Seabright streets.

The owner, Dameon Deworken, resurrected Drunk Monkeys as a food truck June 28, two months after laying off his 10-person staff and closing the restaurant. Now Deworken is his own chef — and driver.

“People are kind of skeptical, but San Jose and San Francisco have food trucks all over,” Deworken, 32, said.

He pulled the restaurant into the Ingalls Street tasting room last week, giving Mr. Snappy Dog — one of the city’s few other food trucks — a run for its money. Drunk Monkeys already has an advantage over Snappy’s hot dogs, Deworken said: His “roach coach,” as he calls it, uses local organic produce.

Route 1 Farms and Blue Heron Farms supply the vegetables, which are tossed into $5 salads, rice bowls and sandwiches. A peanut-butter cake sells for $3, half its original price at the old Seabright restaurant.

Neighbors, office workers and UC Santa Cruz students track the truck’s route on Facebook, where Deworken texts updates from the road. He also checks the page for new comments asking the truck to stop in their neighborhood.

To a customer who last week asked for a Seabright stop, Deworken replied: “Seabright let me down.”

Downtown’s Chocolate takes a chance on barbecue — and scores

by Laura Copeland / Santa Cruz Sentinel

My fellow children of the ’90s will remember the line, delivered by a San Antonio cowboy who’s sharing a jar of Pace Picante with his rancher friends around a campfire. He turns the bottle around to read the label — a trailblazer of locavorism, this one — and is scandalized when he sees that the salsa is manufactured in Manhattan.

“This stuff’s made in New York City,” he roars.

“New York City!” the cowboys cry in unison.

“Get a rope,” one declares.

It’s a widely held belief: Stick to what you they know. Filipino lolas make the best lumpia, and Greek grandmas hold the secret to rolling grape leaves into dolmathes. Diana Kennedy, the fair-skinned doyenne of Mexican cuisine who was born in England, is an outlier. Chefs should stand by dishes native to their roots.

Santa Cruz chef David Jackman, a New Yorker who found his culinary legs while living in Italy, hesitated to break the unspoken rule when he opened Chocolate on Pacific Avenue in 1999. Most of the menu is made from scratch — the guy knows his gorgonzola and garlic — but the barbecue sauce, at least in those early years, he was leaving to the marinade experts at Uncle Dougie’s.

“I was very intimidated by the idea of making my own barbecue sauce,” Jackman said. “My family, we don’t come from barbecue-sauce country. We’re not from Kentucky or any other area where people take pride in it.”

Jackman started researching recipes from celebrated barbecue joints, and what he found surprised him.

“They all seemed to be made from other sauces, like ketchup or Worcestershire,” Jackman said. “That seemed bogus to me, that they couldn’t make one 100-percent from scratch.”

Sticking to what he knows, the chef concocted his own barbecue mix — chocolate-flavored, of course.

The restaurant’s title ingredient, sourced from Chocolates El Rey in the foothills of the Venezuelan Andes, wasn’t much of a stretch to take the lead role in a savory sauce. (Ever had mole?) After just a couple hours experimenting in the kitchen, Jackman said, a great-tasting recipe was born.

Earlier this month I walked past my usual downtown sandwich place and headed to Chocolate’s sidewalk cafe for lunch. The pork sandwich, served with a side salad for $8.50, does Chocolate’s recipe justice. The meat is pork butt — shoulder, that is; the actual hind is called ham — and it came out tender and flavorful from time spent roasting in the oven with the slightly spicy sauce.

It was a sweltering day at the sidewalk cafe, and were it not for the homegrown organic baby greens, plucked from the downtown farmers market and nearly nude but for a splash of balsamic, I’d have sworn I was having supper in the South, y’all.