Chef owners Paul Arenstam and Charlene Reis have a slow food sensibility in a take-out business better known for fast food. That’s because the culinary couple (partners in life too) come with stellar cooking credentials: She’s an-ex Chez Panisse pastry chef, he did stints at upscale L.A. joints before landing at San Francisco’s acclaimed Rubicon. A decade ago Arenstam opened his own restaurant, Belon, in the city.
But running a high-end brasserie in the Tenderloin proved untenable; when business faltered, he shut up shop and picked up a gig as the executive chef at the Americano Restaurant in the city’s hipster Hotel Vitale.
Earlier this year, Arenstam, 45, made the move to work full-time in the family store, swapping dishing up fancy food in the Embarcadero, for serving sandwiches, salads, pasta, pizzas, and roasts in the Elmwood at Summer Kitchen & Bake Shop, which he and Reis opened last fall.
These working parents know what it’s like to put in long hours and then wonder what to serve for dinner. Reis, 41, who previously taught cooking classes at Washington Elementary School, had first-hand experience with moms and dads who wanted to get good food on the table but felt pressed for time. That conundrum helped spark the concept for the pair’s food business.
Rather quickly the store has become a popular go-to destination for gourmet picnic fixings and received kudos on this site and elsewhere for their simple yet delicious dishes. We’re talking seasonal picks such as Wild Arugula and Grilled Nectarine Salad and Herbed Orzo Pasta with Cucumber, Peppers, and Feta. And that dessert counter? Don’t get me started.
They’ve also landed in a little hot water with local merchants about whether or not folks should be able to sit and eat what’s coming out of the kitchen. You can read about that complex zoning debate here. What everyone seems to agree on: The food is good, seriously good. And it reflects the duo’s slow food background: Two years ago, Arenstam served as a delegate to Terra Madre, the biannual Slow Food gathering in Turin, Italy.
I talked with the couple, who live in Piedmont with their school-age son Theo, at the shop’s communal wooden table a couple of weeks ago.
What’s the story behind the store’s name?
Charlene: Paul and I worked in restaurants on Martha’s Vineyard early on in our relationship. If you’ve spent time there over the summer you know there’s an easiness to life; it’s really a magical place. That’s also where I, a Southern Californian, discovered the New England “summer kitchen” tradition: An outbuilding with a kitchen away from the main house, where cooking, canning, baking, and preserving takes place. The idea behind it is to keep the main home cool during the summer harvest season. I like to think we serve as the “summer kitchen” for the people who frequent our store. We’re really an extension of our customers’ kitchens.
Can you give us a taste of the kind of food you serve?
Paul: We’re trying to offer people something of a fine-dining experience in a grab-and-go environment. And we want it to be both family friendly and sustainable. So we sell Fulton Valley Farms fried chicken tenders — we can’t keep enough of them — you’re getting a familiar, comfort food, but it’s raised locally, organically, and sustainably. And it’s cooked in a clean oil and all our kitchen grease ends up as biodiesel fuel.
How does it feel to run a take-out shop after years in high-end restaurants?
Paul: It’s humbling. I like to joke that I have 25 years as a professional chef in some of the best restaurants around and now I make sandwiches, salads, and pizza. But it’s really how we eat ourselves right now as a busy, young family. We’re selling the kind and quality of food that we would want to pick up for dinner.
Seating snafu aside, have you had any other hiccups as a new food business?
Paul: I’m always thinking of ways we can be more efficient with the food, while maintaining the quality we want to provide. People want to be able to just walk in and pick up dinner in a hurry. They really don’t want to wait for something to be prepared or cooked. But good food is made with hands. Finding that balance is a challenge.
What else do you have cooking for the shop?
What’s good about working for yourselves?
Charlene: Seeing the vision come to life. It looks and feels exactly the way I thought it would.
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.
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