Long known for the success of his premium wine and chocolate companies, John Scharffenberger is making a name for himself these days as a tofu hawker.
In June, Scharffenberger, 59, who divides his time between a home in North Berkeley and a place in the country, signed on as the CEO of the Hodo Soy Beanery in Oakland, an artisan food factory that makes products from organic, non-GMO soybeans.
The company, whose founder Minh Tsai was previously profiled here, makes fresh tofu, yuba (tofu skins), and soymilk, as well as prepared dishes such as spicy braised tofu salad, poached yuba loaf, and soy omelette.
The former chocolatier is trying his hand as well at making a Spanish-style specialty cured meat, Iberico ham, named for the region of origin and considered the best of its kind around the world. Along with a Northern Californian grass-fed beef and pork rancher, Scharffenberger raises a specific breed of hogs, and fattens these pigs on a diet of acorns to elicit just the kind of taste and texture he’s seeking.
A fan of fermented food, Scharffenberger also makes sauerkraut, using produce from his vast vegetable garden at his property in Philo. It’s a small operation — he sells his cabbage condiment to hot-dog maker Let’s Be Frank in San Francisco.
Clearly, this food entrepreneur has diverse edible interests. But just how did he make the journey from cacao beans to soybeans?
Scharffenberger never cared much for tofu until a few years ago when he was strolling through the Berkeley Farmers’ Market and tried what he thought were spicy noodles, dubbed them delicious, and was curious to learn more. First lesson: the “noodles” were actually yuba strips made from the skin of soymilk.
He talked with Tsai, and, long story short, Scharffenberger invested in the company, came on as an advisor in 2008, and assumed the top slot this summer.
I spoke with Scharffenberger in September at Hodo headquarters.
Are soybeans a harder sell than, say, chocolate or wine?
Not from my perspective. It’s all about getting the word out, getting people sampling the product, and getting a quality product out there. I’m good at talking up product. Lately, I’ve been eating a lot of vegan chocolate mousse made with our silken tofu.
What’s your food philosophy?
I’m an unapologetic omnivore. I want to know where my food comes from and how it was grown or raised, and mostly I want to do those things myself.
What’s good about your time in town?
I love being able to walk to places. So I enjoy going to the Thursday Farmers’ Market. Cheese Board Pizza is high on my list. Corso Trattoria is a new favorite. It offers very simple, very flavorful food.
What do you appreciate about a Berkeley clientele?
They’re enthusiastic, opinionated, and articulate. That’s mostly good. When it’s not, it’s not. But I like to gather input from people and Berkeley people see beyond marketing hype.
What’s missing in this city?
Market gardening. There are lots of open plots of land in Berkeley. It is a perfect place to grow year-round produce.
What makes this city a good incubator for food businesses?
The university is a big help. There is a ton of things going on at the College of Natural Resources and other colleges that involve food. The high quality of retailers and restaurants makes great food impossible to miss.
What are the qualities that make for a good food entrepreneur?
You have to be able to discern flavors and winnow out food fads from good food.
What’s your advice for budding entrepreneurs, food focused or not?
Make something you love, fix something that’s broken, help people in need. Do what you’re good at and the rest will follow.
Do you still eat Scharffen Berger Chocolate?
Yes, mostly the special editions, made from small farms. They sell them at the Ferry Building.
What’s next on the horizon, food-wise, for you?
A farming research project. I am trying to assemble the best practices in the world of cacao cultivation. Then I want to use a Wiki-based collaboration to allow farmers from all over the world to see what does the best job.
Sarah Henry is the voice behind Lettuce Eat Kale. You can follow her on Twitter and become a fan of Lettuce Eat Kale on Facebook.
Thanks to Anne Hamersky for sharing her image. Henry’s profile of Scharffenberger also appears in the Winter 2010 issue of California Magazine.