Every now and then you meet a woman who just captivates you with her drive, creativity, kindness and beaming aura. Cortney Burns, co-chef at the wildly successful, Bar Tartine, is one of these (rare) women and I recently got to catch up with her about her latest projects, life in the kitchen and what’s fueling her imagination these days.
I first met Cortney a few years ago, before she joined boyfriend, Nick Balla, in the kitchen at Bar Tartine. Incidentally, they met at a Japanese food conference, more on that later. Back then Cortney was cooking like mad, anywhere she could. From people’s homes and catering corporate parties to “every restaurant kitchen in San Francisco“. I met her in a friend’s kitchen where she was turning out one amazing dish after another for a party. Rather than mingle with the guests, I found that I couldn’t stop pestering her with questions, quizzing her about the flavors and being introduced to cultured butter for the first time.
It turns out that culturing and fermenting are two fundamental principles she uses to “layer in flavor” – an expression she uses many times during our conversation. She grew up following her dad in and out of professional kitchens (he sold high-end salad dressings to restaurants and hotels) and fast became comfortable in this environment. High school summers were spent at culinary camps outside Chicago, and although she decided not to go to culinary school, and instead did an undergraduate degree in cultural anthropology and Tibetan studies, she never strayed far from cooking. She tells me that she earned money in college doing front of house jobs at restaurants “because they paid more, although I’d always end up working in the kitchen for free so I could learn.”
It was no surprise then, that after she left college she followed her passion for cooking. After stints working in restaurants in Australia and Chicago, she arrived in the Bay Area in 2001, first working at Cafe Rouge in Oakland and later helping to open the original Quince in San Francisco.
Now, three years into her time at Bar Tartine and her collaboration with co-chef Nick, their culinary imagination has a distinctive and unique hallmark: frequent use of cultured or fermented elements, like sauerkraut, house-made cheese, or pickled vegetables, often combined with Japanese flavors and Eastern European ingredients and techniques (Nick’s heritage). The beet soup she points me to for lunch, is a perfect example. Based on a kombu seaweed broth, it features beets (some pureed, some chunkily cut), sauerkraut and yoghurt, among other things. “Food should be nourishing and healthful,” she says, and of course, without sacrificing an iota of flavor. I taste the soup. It is heavenly. There’s an umami quality to it – that Japanese fifth flavor in addition to bitter, sweet, salt and sour – which compels me to eat one spoonful after the other. Pretty soon my bowl is empty.
Lucky Monkey is with me – he and Cortney go way back too – and he opts for an open-face sandwich on Tartine toasted bread with house-cured ham and romanesco. We know that Monkey doesn’t have the usual kid palate, but I don’t expect him to devour this quite as quickly and eagerly as he does. It’s soon toast. Or rather, there’s no toast, just crumbs on the rustic board it’s served on.
We go on a tour of the kitchen and everywhere we look: shelves, fridges, and anywhere there’s room: nature is doing it’s work on ingredients that will later become tempting dishes. Grains are being sprouted; green garlic is being roasted so it can be dehydrated and turned into powder for use throughout the year; bread is proving in the proofing fridge; ham is curing; pickles are stored in big glass jars out on the restaurant floor; farmer’s cheese is being made in giant containers. It doesn’t just stop at foodstuff, Cortney and the crew also make kefir for drinking: we sample the lemon and ginger which is tangy and full of probiotics. And of course, Tartine’s famous bread is baked here too.
I ask Cortney to describe herself as a cook and she says simply one word: curious. That is so evident in the food that comes out of the kitchen and by looking around at the ingredients. In the kitchen she gets into a conversation with Hannah, the pastry assistant, and they talk excitedly about a new idea to try and use buttermilk kefir to culture almond milk. You get the feeling that “I wonder what would happen if we...” is the way many conversations start at Bar Tartine.
There’s a real emphasis on local, seasonal produce and meat – all their beef comes from Mindful Meats for example. Processed sugar is kept to a minimum, instead they are taking the last of the season’s parsnips, dehydrating them and turning them into powder for use as a sweetener later. Natural fats abound: lard, beef tallow, cultured fat. And fat is often a featured ingredient, not just a cooking medium.
Throughout our conversation, there’s a parade of folks from the kitchen. Hannah comes to the table and proffers a teaspoon asking for Cortney’s input on sweetening a custard. Someone else arrives bearing a parsnip and asks how he should cut it. Her influence and input is omnipresent, and while direct, she treats everyone like an equal.
The restaurant is open seven nights a week for dinner (for up to 160 people), lunch is served three times a week and brunch twice. That’s a pretty intense schedule, and while there are two chefs making it easier to ensure one of them is always “on”, it does mean there’s little free time together.
As we wrap-up our meal and conversation, Monkey makes it clear he wants something sweet. Like magic, a peanut butter cookie sandwich appears at the table. Flled with a homemade jelly, it too disappears fast. Knowing that Cortney doesn’t eat gluten, I quiz her about what’s in it: just peanut butter, eggs, sugar. “No flour of any kind?” I ask. “No flour,” she affirms. That’s what curiosity gets you. It wouldn’t even occur to me not to use any flour.
I ask Cortney what she’d like to eat if someone offered to cook for her. “That’s easy. A big steak and a simple salad.” Perhaps foolishly, I immediately invite her to dinner and hope that Claire Herminjard, founder of Mindful Meats will be able to join us. These are women I want at my table.
Cortney and Nick are currently working on a cookbook. Titled simply: Bar Tartine, it’s due to publish in October this year and will include techniques and recipes.
Bar Tartine: Techniques & Recipes is now available for purchase.