Oakland’s loss is Berkeley’s gain: local chefs Joan Ellis and Patrick Hooker were exploring opening a venture called Babette’s Table on Temescal’s hipster Telegraph Avenue, but, for a variety of reasons, the deal for the upscale restaurant-grocery-café space fell through.
So the partners in work and life started scouting around for places where they might serve up seasonal, rustic grub. Via the local food-folk grapevine they learned that the owner of Oakland’s Remedy Coffee, who, as well as a Telegraph spot had also set up shop in the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive (BAM/PFA) café space, was looking to sell.
And so Babette at BAM was born. Seven months on, the café has garnered critical acclaim and a loyal following. The café serves breakfast (like bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches, steel-cut oatmeal with apricots, cranberries, and toasted pistachios, and baked goods such as fruit-filled pastries), lunch, and coffee and sweet treats into the early afternoon.
It’s the culinary couple’s first retail endeavor. But the two have impressive industry credentials — if a little off-the radar experience: She got going as a self-taught baker, running a wholesale business, Pani E Dolci, initially out of her home in San Francisco. Ellis had previously spent eight years feeling her way around city restaurants, where she waitressed, worked the line, and learned how to cook savory and sweet. They met cute when she delivered baked goods at the deli where he worked. Later, he joined her burgeoning bakery business — which relocated to official digs — before it fell victim to the dotcom boom and the tripled rents that came with it in the late 1990s.
Friends for years before becoming romantically involved, the two got married, moved to Berkeley, and had a child, August, now 11. Ellis worked part-time running her own business, Aubergine Catering, and her husband lent a hand. Hooker, who did a stint cooking in Paris early in his career, made a handsome living private cheffing for the likes of Larry Ellison and the Google kids, as the couple came to call the young executives they cooked for on a regular basis in Silicon Valley.
But the pair were keen to find a kitchen of their own to make the kind of food they wanted for the public at large. The BAM cafe space has a place in local food lore. Previously occupied by Café Muse, it was once the stomping ground of Ruth Reichl in its Swallow Collective restaurant days in the 1970s. It had recently received a mod makeover, so Ellis and Hooker just softened the place up a bit with splashes of color, succulent plants on an otherwise stark cement wall, and some cushioned chairs around a coffee table that offers a cozy vibe in a setting that otherwise sticks to the sleek, minimalist, art museum script. A nice retro touch: real records playing the likes of Elvis Costello and Tom Waits on a real turntable.
Ellis, 54, and Hooker, 44, live in South Berkeley and share a love of music and performing too. (They recently held a show at a friend’s art studio in Oakland. He plays jazz guitar. She sings sultry songs.) Ellis talked with Berkeleyside this week about Babette, working with her spouse, and black pepper baking snafus.
What’s on the menu?
There’s always a soup, a stew, a composed salad, like the poached salmon salad with French green beans, roasted baby beets, nicoise olives, and soft-cooked eggs that we have on the menu right now. And there’s typically either a sandwich or a taco. This week we’re serving carnitas tacos with tomato salsa, guacamole, and crema. There’s always some kind of savory puff pastry or quiche. We’re doing an heirloom tomato, basil, pine nut, ricotta and goat cheese tart now. We have salads as well — currently quinoa, kale, and lentil salads. We serve Verve espresso and pour-over Ritual coffee.
How’s business and who comes to the cafe?
Business is good. We thought we’d be able to manage, just the two of us with one barista. But we’ve already hired a dishwasher, another barista, and we’ve recently employed two kitchen staff to help with food prep. When school is in session we’re doing about 150 covers for lunch and after three months we were already bringing in the kind of income we’d projected for next year.
Despite what people may think, it’s not the museum crowd that’s frequenting the place regularly. A lot of staff from the university and people living and working in the surrounding area come in for lunch. The weekends, though, are pretty dead. We’ve gone back and forth about being open then.
What are the challenges of this location?
The kitchen has three induction burners and a convection oven, all electric. I’d love to add a hood so we could do things like get that smoky flavor you want from roasting an eggplant over an open flame for a baba ganoush, but hoods are expensive and we’re making do with what we have for now.
Keeping our doors open seven days is challenging, given how quiet things are on the weekend and how well we’re doing during the week. We don’t need to stay open over the weekend but our landlord and the museum want us too, so they’ve offered us incentives to do so, like subsidizing weekend staff.
And parking is tough: we’d hoped to walk or bike more, but we always need to drop off something or pick up something.
How is it working with your husband?
We’ve come a long way from the time I left him in charge at the bakery — he was supposed to make a poppy-seed cake while I ran deliveries — and the cake didn’t rise. That’s when I discovered he thought “b.p.” stood for black pepper not baking powder in the recipe.
It can be hard working together — we both can be a little intimidated by the other or feel judged by the other — but for the most part we complement each other well. I bring my palate, menu planning, and rustic sensibility. Patrick has a more refined, French sensibility in terms of food, though he’s learned to adapt it to a casual setting. And he has really strong kitchen skills. He’s also willing to jump in and do anything — in the kitchen, front-of-the-house, whatever — and he’s brilliant with the books and does our social media too.
It took us — me — a long time to learn to read each other. He told me early on in our relationship that he thinks I’m amazingly creative and talented — and that was wonderful and sweet — but I think it’s only recently I’ve had the confidence to really take that in and not get defensive.
We signed a three-year lease with an option for one more, which is around the time the museum moves to its new location, which will also have a small cafe, but will be up against better food options than are currently available at this site. For now, we’re concentrating on doing what we do well here.
Babette is at the Berkeley Art Museum, 2625 Durant Avenue. As part of the PFA’s retrospective of Les Blank films, Babette will host a Créole dinner at the café at 5 p.m. this Sunday, July 8. The 1978 film Always for Pleasure, about the music scene in New Orleans, shows at the PFA theater at 7 p.m. Tickets are available for the pre-film supper through Friday for $25 per person.
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Palpable possibilities: Berkeley Art Museum’s home awaits [01.25.12]
Berkeley Art Museum mixes old with eye-catching new [09.16.11]