At San Francisco’s Bar Tartine, the chef’s Lithuanian Jewish grandmother shows up regularly in the kitchen — or rather, her spirit does.
“Family influences are our strongest inspiration,” Cortney Burns writes with co-author and co-chef Nicolaus Balla in their intro to “Bar Tartine: Techniques & Recipes.”
“Collectively, we are Hungarian, Eastern European Jewish, Japanese, Irish, Polish, German, Filipino, Slovak, Laotian, Mexican and Mayan.”
That’s a lot of ethnicities in one kitchen, which is perhaps one reason the food at the Mission District hot spot is so unique — San Francisco Chronicle critic Michael Bauer raved in 2013: “Once in a while, a restaurant comes along that is so different and exciting that it becomes my personal benchmark.” He added Bar Tartine to his short list.
Burns, 35, of East European Jewish descent, brings the flavors of Ashkenazi Jews into Bar Tartine’s kitchen. She grew up in the Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights, attending a Solomon Schechter day school until fourth grade.
Though her grandmother Ethel died when Burns was 8, her culinary influence is cited in the new book; a recipe called “Farmer’s Chop Suey” — a salad with cherry tomatoes, cucumber, mushrooms, bell peppers, red onion, cottage cheese and hard-boiled eggs — notes: “Cortney’s grandmother Ethel came from Lithuania in 1906. A frugal shopper, Ethel thought nothing of going to three different grocers looking for the best deal on cabbage … It’s one of Cortney’s mother’s favorite dishes from her childhood, and one of Cortney’s as well.”
Burns also remembers her grandmother’s stuffed cabbage and borscht, a soup frequently found on Bar Tartine’s menu along with other beet soups.
“Food-wise, my family was very traditional,” said Burns. “A lot of Jewish American food is the food I grew up with. There were always beets in some form, as well as smoked fish and smoked meat.”
Burns thought about attending culinary school, but instead headed for the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where she studied Hebrew and anthropology. Later on, she became interested in theology and ended up living in Nepal and Tibet and traveling through India, Mongolia and Thailand. Everywhere she went, she saw what was going on in people’s kitchens.
“I didn’t know it at the time how ingrained their culinary world had become in my palate, so that’s something that I’m very aware of, how [at Tartine] we cook and infuse flavors and techniques from all over the world,” she said.
Burns cooked in several kitchens, working her way up before landing at Bar Tartine. Chad Robertson, who co-founded San Francisco’s popular Tartine Bakery with his wife, Elisabeth Prueitt, writes in the foreword: “Cortney Burns came in one day to help butcher a goat and never left.”
While the menu changes daily according to what’s in season, some dishes appear regularly, like blintzes for brunch and chopped liver, which Burns makes with hard-boiled eggs just as her family did. “That’s always a strong flavor memory,” she notes.
The book includes a recipe on how to make your own farmer cheese, using whole milk and heavy cream. The recipe for rugelach uses the restaurant’s house-made kefir butter, fermented honey, dried fennel flowers that are turned into a powder, and sour cream. Rye and kamut flours are added in addition to regular flour.
Balla, Burns’ partner in the kitchen and in life, contributes his own Eastern European culinary influences to the restaurant (he’s part Hungarian and spent time there as a teen), so pork is in heavy rotation on the menu. Even with the prevalence of pork in Hungarian cuisine, Burns said, there is a lot of overlap with Jewish cuisine.
“So much of the food that Nick is familiar with from his childhood speaks to me,” she said. “There was a huge Jewish Hungarian population, and so much of their food is absolutely similar. It’s really about the flavors and agrodolce [an Italian term meaning sweet and sour]. Both use savory and sweet foods together, and one can always use schmaltz or goose fat rather than pork fat, which is actually more flavorful sometimes. With cuisines from Russia and Poland, I see more of a similarity than not.”
Bar Tartine has a huge pantry, where all kinds of kitchen projects are taking place. The chefs are big on fermenting and serve house-made beverages like kvass, a rye bread–based fermented drink popular in Russia and Ukraine. (To see a video of Burns making kvass, visit www.tinyurl.com/bar-tartine-cookbook.)
The cookbook, impressive in scope, includes descriptions of various projects, such as how they make their own spices and flavoring powders, pickles and dairy products.
“When we decided to write it, we didn’t know what we were going into, as we’re not necessarily writers,” Burns said. “We needed to figure out our voice together, and be able to put the words down on paper, which was definitely a challenge. We’ll probably do it again, but not right away. It really just depends on if there’s anything else to say.”
“Bar Tartine: Techniques & Recipes” by Nicolaus Balla and Cortney Burns (368 pages, Chronicle Books)