The restaurant game is notoriously tough. Profit margins are thin, the dining public fickle, feeding people day in and day out is bloody hard work. The life span of a typical eatery: a few years, tops.
When a place survives — thrives even — for 35 years, attention should be paid.
Michael Wild, 70, has been at the helm of BayWolf since 1975 when the doors of his chef-owner operation opened on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland.
The place has won critical acclaim — it’s routinely on the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Top 100 Bay Area Restaurants list — and weathered recessions.
BayWolf has stayed open long after flavors of the month, some with meteoric climbs and just as stunning crashes, have come and gone.
Never mind that the New York Times recently dubbed Oakland a new culinary capital, for years BayWolf has consistently turned out unfussy, seasonal California fare with a nod to Mediterranean, French, and Italian cuisine, in a charming converted Craftsman. Local media man Sedge Thomson characterized BayWolf as “the Berkeley restaurant I was most drawn to…in Oakland.”
There’s speculation Wild, who still works the floor a few evenings a week, and longtime business partner Larry Goldman may be considering calling it a night. But for now, this self-taught chef remains a true restaurant man. He loves to eat good food and he loves to feed people. And, he says, he totally “digs” everything about a restaurant experience.
This former college English teacher grew up in a family of cooks who thought nothing of spending a Sunday in the then-farm friendly San Fernando Valley finding fresh produce and other local food.
He’s penned the popular BayWolf Restaurant Cookbook, but he’s more apt to talk about an upcoming publication What the Wild Things Ate (Magnolia Editions).
It’s a slim, photographic travelogue chronicling his edible adventures in Europe this year with his wife, Jill, and 14-year-old son David (who, his proud dad is quick to point out, deserves all the credit for the gourmet guide.) Some folks visit churches and museums, this food family embark on gastronomical tours.
I spoke with Wild in the kitchen, of course, of his home in the Claremont neighborhood, during the week of the iconic restaurant’s anniversary.
What’s the recipe to your restaurant’s success?
Good food, served by pleasant people, in a nice place. We’re most definitely a neighborhood restaurant, as opposed to a special occasion or destination dining place, because that’s the kind of place I gravitate to. I don’t have to have the best food of my life at a neighborhood restaurant, but I do want to eat well, be greeted warmly by someone who isn’t a robot, and I want to feel comfortable and that the price makes sense to me for the kind of food that’s served.
Did you set out to build a business that would last for more than three decades?
No, I don’t think like that. We found a place we could afford in a neighborhood that we felt was undeserved and we did everything ourselves — and I mean everything, even things we had no idea how to do, like construction work. For the first 12 years or so we worked really hard, it was pretty brutal. I shopped, cooked, washed the dishes, and swept the floor — all of it.
Were there any restaurateurs who took you under their wing early on?
Alice Waters was incredibly generous from the very beginning. If we ran out of wine glasses or linens, or needed truffles and couldn’t find any, she’d send stuff over. She showed me where to buy food and who to buy from. She introduced me to the cookbooks of Elizabeth David and I fell under her spell. Without Alice Water’s generosity BayWolf would have gotten off to a much slower start.
What are some of the major changes in restaurants that you’ve witnessed?
A shift from cooking with butter and cream to more olive-oil based dishes. A change from having a big chunk of meat at the center of the plate. A more informal ambiance in the dining room: we took our waiters out of white shirts and vests. We have staff with piercings and tattoos now. Also, when I started cooking people didn’t know anything about the chef. For a long time there was literally and physically a wall between diners and the kitchen. And with the increased interest in what’s we’re eating and where it comes from, there’s a greater attention to the quality of what’s served on the plate. These are all good developments.
Do you have any words of wisdom for people interested in opening their own restaurant?
Slow and steady is probably the healthiest way to grow and build something lasting. We got some good advice from a godfather of mine who was astute in the world of business: never go into debt, pay your bills (pay the people who work for you first, the people you owe money to second, and yourselves last), and never lie or steal. You want to go home at the end of a long day feeling good about the food you’ve served, how you’ve treated your staff and your customers, and how you’ve conducted business. You want to be able to sleep at night. That’s worked pretty well for me.
Each Friday in this space food writer Sarah Henry asks a well-known, up-and-coming, or under-the-radar food aficionado about their favorite tastes in town, preferred food purveyors and other local culinary gems worth sharing. Henry muses about food matters on her blog Lettuce Eat Kale. Follow her on Twitter and become a fan of Lettuce Eat Kale on Facebook.
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