Berkeley Bites: Lisa Rogovin, Epicurean Concierge

Lisa Rogovin. Photo: Robert Durell.

A former ad sales rep for Gourmet magazine (R.I.P.), Lisa Rogovin had what she calls her Eat, Pray, Love moment in 2005, meaning she left an unhappy marriage, sold the house, and embarked on a food-fueled journey around the world, visiting 14 countries (yes, India was in the mix) in seven months.

Before she left on her edible adventure, though, the food enthusiast sowed the seeds for her future happiness, both personally and professionally. She met the man who would become her second husband and she led a group of hotel guests on a culinary expedition of San Francisco’s Ferry Building fine-food emporium.

Buoyed from her travels, she took up where she left off when she returned. The Venezuelan golf pro became her hubbie, and she launched her own business, In the Kitchen with Lisa, leading intimate food forays around the Bay Area’s culinary epicenters. Her field trips include the Ferry Building’s Marketplace and Farmers’ Market, West Marin food and wine top spots, and, more recently, a tour of the city’s Mission District eclectic eats.

And for the past two years, every Thursday between 11 am and 2 pm, Lisa or one of her team of seven tour guides (they call themselves epicurean concierges) walks a group who pay $75 a pop for the privilege around the Gourmet Ghetto in North Berkeley — a spot many consider to be the birthplace of California cuisine and the growing food movement.  All while noshing on samples at eight different eateries and getting an insider’s perspective from the area’s food purveyors, restaurant owners, and chefs.

Last Thursday her tour began at Saul’s Restaurant and Delicatessen where, over local pastrami on Acme rye with house-made celery seed soda, co-owner Peter Levitt gave an impassioned overview of the demise of the Jewish deli and Saul’s controversial efforts to provide sustainable, yet authentic, Jewish foods.

One of Rogovin's culinary tours.

Next stop, around the corner to Walnut Square for a quick primer on the evolution of Peet’s Coffee + Tea (it took an immigrant from the Netherlands to bring decent coffee to the States way back in the 1960s, though Alfred Peet would likely turn in his grave at all the frou-frou coffee drinks his brewing revolution spawned). Something savory? Check. Something bitter? Check.

It’s time for something sweet, so we head upstairs for mini cupcakes at Love at First Bite (what’s not to like?), a quick nod to The Juice Bar Collective (this being Berkeley, food politics are never far away) and then it’s time to don our bon vivant hats as we head into Vintage Berkeley wine shop for a tasting of good drops that cost less than 25 bucks.

Turns out, we’re just getting started.

We take a spin through the Epicurious Garden, Berkeley’s genteel version of a food court, for samples of artisanal offerings from neighborhood newbie Lush Gelato and Alegio Chocolate. And there’s a celebrity sighting to boot: author Michael Lewis, disguised as a dad, buying pie with one of his kids.

I’m entering food coma territory at this stage, and I suspect the group of mostly out-of-towners appreciate the short walk past Cesar, and Chez Panisse (photo op!), and other restaurants before experiencing something completely different, culinarily speaking, at the raw food temple Cafe Gratitude.

After sampling I Am Insightful (chard wrapped spring rolls) and I Am Thankful (coconut curry soup)  — one local wag once wrote of the labor intensive eats here “I am hungry and impatient” — we made our way to the grand finale, a swing through the kitchen of The Cheeseboard Collective, where cheese, sourdough bread, pizza, and huge chocolate chip cookies are eagerly devoured.

Photo op on Berkeley tour.

As a local, it’s easy to take for granted all the gourmet goodies we have in easy reach. But seen through the eyes of this group of 16 or so food fans, who hailed from Canada, Utah, Arizona, coastal California, and the Eastern States, I’m reminded, yet again, of the abundance of delicious fare in town.

Well fed, I sat down post tour to talk food with Rogovin, 40, who lives in San Francisco’s Noe Valley neighborhood with her husband and young son.

What do you enjoy about your job?

I love to give people, whether they’re from the Bay Area or somewhere else, an opportunity to experience great, authentic, local food. And I like to demystify the experience. I want visitors to see the food world through the eyes of the people who run these businesses. It gives people an intimate and informative view of the food scene and access they couldn’t get on their own. People who are interested in food want to know the background and the stories behind the food businesses they visit.  And, of course, they want to taste what these purveyors have to offer. It’s like showing people an artichoke, you want to peel back the layers to get to the heart of the matter.

What kind of skills do you need for this line of work?

You have to do a lot of leg work in advance, both in terms of research and coordinating the logistics on the day. During the tour you have put out a lot of energy and have good time management skills. You have to give people firm directions and tell them what to do and where to go.

The Cheeseboard: a Berkeley tour stop.

You also need to be adaptable, depending on everything from the weather to the composition of the group, to what’s going on with the businesses you visit. You need to assess pretty quickly who your audience is and cater to it accordingly.

And you need to make people comfortable and feel welcome, by interacting with them around interests, such as food and travel. Being an epicurean concierge definitely has a performance aspect to it. You need to be on for the entire three hours, even though most peoples attention span starts to wan around the 30 minute mark. That’s why we keep things moving.

Describe the typical demographics of someone on your tour?

Our tours draw 60-70% Bay Area people, mostly women, ranging in age from 30s-70s. But today, as you saw, we had lots of out-of-towners, a mix of men and women, as well as some moms with daughters, and a couple of family groups with teenagers who are interested in cooking.

What do you bring home to eat after a tour?

I always pick up a Cheeseboard pizza. My husband is a big fan, so Thursday is pizza night in our house. I also really like the soups at SOOP, they’re wholesome and satisfying. If I’m feeling a bit under the weather I’ll get matzo ball soup from Saul’s.

How would you describe the difference between the food scene in Berkeley versus San Francisco?

It’s a little slower paced here, there’s a little more rustic natural elegance. The city is a bit slicker in comparison.

Readers: Where would you want to eat on a Berkeley food tour. Where do you take visitors to eat here?

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.

If you have an idea for a Berkeley Bites interview, send your suggestion to sarahhenry0509@gmail.com or leave a comment here. To read previous Berkeley Bites profiles click here.

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  • http://www.origamimommy.org Christine

    I’d love to go on one of these tours! What a wonderful idea. It was really interesting to hear what is involved in planning and leading one of these tours – from the legwork to the people skills.

  • http://www.mynepenthebook.com Romney

    great profile yet again, Sarah, plus I always learn something new.

  • http://frugalkiwi.co.nz Melanie

    Great idea to walk off some of those delicious calories!

  • Susan

    How fun! Sounds like she’s found a job she absolutely loves. I’ve been to Chez Panisse, and I’d love to do this tour the next time I’m in the area.

  • Dan Alpert

    I really enjoy your interviews/profiles of local food stars, Sarah — thanks for providing them. There are many places which are musts for taking out of town guests. Cheeseboard ranks high; Ici ice cream is a must. Restaurants are harder to choose from, as there are so many great choices. One that doesn’t seem to be on many people’s radar but which we find outstanding is Lo Coco at Shattuck and Rose. If you go, order from their specials menu, which is a bit pricier but just outstanding in our view.

  • http://musicroad.blogspot.com Kerry

    Great idea for a business and the right place to do it, I think.

  • http://lettuceeatkale.wordpress.com/ Sarah Henry

    Thanks for the feedback, folks. And to Dan for chiming in with some of his picks.

  • http://www.projecthappilyeverafter.com Alisa Bowman

    Every time I read one of your posts, I get sooooo envious of where you live. You have a place called the gourmet ghetto? How cool is that? And a restaurant that serves only raw food with cool dish names like I Am Thankful? I need to do one of these tours. Just have to.

  • http://www.myKidseatsquid.com MyKidsEatSquid

    Although we don’t have a gourmet ghetto in our town, we do have one of the largest indoor markets in the US, the West Side Market. and it’s incredible. No raw food, but pastries, fresh foods, pasta, sushi.

  • Jules Pieri

    Hi Sarah, It was fun to be on this particular tour with you and you reported it well. I totally missed the Michael Lewis sighting. I was probably too busy Tweeting each destination and getting Tweets back full of advice of all the OTHER places people wanted me to see in the vicinity.

  • http://www.wasabimon.com/ Stephanie – Wasabimon

    Ha, I wonder if Elizabeth Gilbert realizes that she started an entire stereotype of women who leave marriages and wander the earth eating and relearning how to live?

  • http://www.uncorkedventures.com wine clubs

    Cheeseboard pizza, it’s the one thing we miss since my wife seems to have a worsening nightshade allergy!