Q& A: A foodie from the Roughrider state

Name: Roberta Klugman

Age: 63

City: Oakland

Position: Food and wine consultant

Roberta Klugman

J.: You’re from Fargo, North Dakota. What was it like growing up Jewish in a state with only a few hundred Jews?

Roberta Klugman: There were maybe 100 Jewish families in Fargo. I went to the Reform Temple Beth El, which was about five blocks from my house, for nursery school, Sunday school and Hebrew school. My mother was not Jewish, but it was exceedingly important to her that we go to temple. She pushed my dad in that direction, mostly because she thought we were surrounded by the other stuff, and we needed to know about Judaism, and I’ll always be grateful for that.

How did your interest in food evolve, and what kinds of foods did you eat growing up?

My dad was a grain dealer, so I have very strong agricultural memories. In the summer, my dad would take my older sister and me to visit grain elevators in rural North Dakota. My mother was an exceptionally good cook and never wanted us to get bored with our food so she cooked a lot of different things. Even in the ’50s, she sent away to Minneapolis to get whole-grain wheat for cereal that she would cook in a double boiler overnight. She didn’t like for us to have sugar, only a little on special occasions. She loved butter, though, so we got lots of butter.

You came to the Bay Area to attend Mills College, left for seven years and came back to attend graduate school. What made you leave, and what finally made you decide to stay?

In 1975 there were no jobs. Also, as a young, educated woman, I didn’t yet know what to think about a career. I also wasn’t interested in getting married yet, so I left. For three years I lived in Montana and was a summer relief cook for geologists. That’s where I learned how to cook. I was 50 miles from a big grocery store, so I learned about things like keeping a pantry, cooking wild game and braising. During grad school, I got a part-time job with Narsai David at his market in Kensington and dropped out of grad school. My avocation became my vocation.

The ’80s and ’90s were an exciting time to be working in the Bay Area food and wine scene. Is that the sense you got back then?

I was acutely aware that something was going on, and I was very proud to be part of it. I was so excited to get that job and to be on the front line of learning about things like olive oil, balsamic vinegar, fresh white truffles and single-malt Scotch. And the wine thing added a whole new layer. It was a heady time.

Did your work as a consultant for food and wine businesses grow out of your time as an executive at the American Institute of Food and Wine, founded by Julia Child and Robert Mondavi? And what do you remember about Julia?

I learned so much from her. She really did not believe in jet lag — you got off the plane, changed your watch, and that was that. She also was one of the hardest-working people I’ve ever met, and she would handwrite her thank-you notes. When everyone started getting so excited about email, I believed that etiquette and good taste never go out of style. Someone once told me writing email thank-yous was fine, and I said, “If Julia Child can write a handwritten note, so can you.”

You’ve also been active with the California Olive Oil Council. What’s your connection to that industry?

Olive oil has been part of my professional food life since the ’80s. I’ve served on the board of the council for years and promote their certification process, which is important because there are so many layers of confusion and misunderstanding about extra-virgin olive oil. The process for California allows the consumer to know the harvest year and that it’s passed both the lab test and the taste test to be considered extra virgin, so you know what you’re getting. A lot don’t have a harvest date on them, and with imported olive oils on supermarket shelves, who knows how long they’ve been there? There are a lot of flawed products out there.

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Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."