Raising the Bar: Nicolaus Balla and Cortney Burns of Bar Tartine take old-time preservation to new heights

nicolaus balla and cortney burns of bar tartine
Nicolaus Balla and Cortney Burns of Bar Tartine. Photo: Alanna Hale

Meet San Francisco’s reigning king and queen of funky fermentation.

Nicolaus Balla and Cortney Burns, the DIY duo behind arguably this city’s most extensive preservation pantry, are proof your grandma was right: It pays to preserve.

And at Bar Tartine, where they’ve run the stoves since 2011, Balla and Burns have the packed kitchen larder and crowded dining room to back up such a boast. Long lauded for their layered flavors and passion for in-house powders, pastes, pickles, preserves, kefirs and krauts, these geeked-out gourmands have yet to find a vegetable they couldn’t dehydrate.

The culinary couple, partners in work and life, preserve out of abundance, necessity and creativity. On their menu find everything from black garlic powder, dried fennel flowers, smoked peppers, parsnip powder, dried sour cherries, cured fish roe, cottage cheese, chile oil, apple cider vinegar, kombu dashi, chipotle paste, brined beets, Brussels kraut, pickled green walnuts and fresh ginger kefir.

All made from scratch.

All that do-it-yourself activity makes money, too. “We are, after all, running a business,” says Burns from their Mission District digs. “We know our food costs, and according to our numbers it makes sense to do this ourselves. By no means are we overstretching: We can do all this in-house production and still make a profit,” adds Burns, who notes that processing such a large volume of raw ingredients translates into lower food bills but higher labor costs than an average restaurant with 75 seats and under 50 employees.

Saving money, though, say these preservation obsessives, isn’t the prime motivation behind putting up. “It’s a lucky happenstance that making everything ourselves lowers our foods costs, since we use lots of vegetable and less protein,” says Balla from their perch in the heart of Valencia Street restaurant row. “But we’d be doing it anyway because it’s how we like to cook: Preserved foods enhance flavor.”

Quality veggies ain’t cheap. Placing vegetables in the center of the plate, as Bar Tartine often does, can cost on par with a meat-driven menu. “People think that vegetable-forward food should cost less, but at the Ferry Building Farmers Market today I spent $800 and I didn’t buy a single piece of meat,” says Burns. “I got asparagus, citrus, potatoes, guavas and avocados. Our vegetable costs are high, sometimes just as much as our meat bills.”

Bar Tartine defies easy definition. It draws inspiration from around the globe: Diners will note nods to Japanese, Hungarian, Nordic and Middle Eastern cuisine on their plates, among other influences. Asked to define their menu, the pair squirm. They don’t much like labels.

“We cook food we want to eat,” they both say with a shrug. Pressed, Balla calls it “fusion,” a word that makes many chefs sniff, since it conjures up ’80s cooking catastrophes that married kiwifruit, wasabi powder and mashed potatoes. “We’ve struggled, since we started, to describe our food. It’s either fusion or it’s a 10-paragraph-long explanation that there isn’t room for.”

The menu is fluid and reflects the seasons as well as the larder. As you’d expect of the restaurant offshoot of Chad Robertson’s Tartine Bakery, his naturally leavened breads that people line up for are in the mix. Signature dishes include elevated renditions of peasant fare. Consider smoked potatoes with black garlic and ramp mayonnaise; beef tartare with tonnato sauce and bottarga (cured mullet roe); mixed brine pickles; sauerkraut with green horseradish; sprouted lentil croquettes with kefir and coriander; Smørrebrød (open-faced rye sandwiches); yoghurt with blood orange, date paste and pecans.

It reads like earnest, hippie-dippy health food; it tastes anything but. These chefs layer on flavors the way local residents layer on clothes on a foggy day: It’s all about the comforts of home, familiarity and warmth. But there’s excitement in their share plates, too, which wake up the taste buds with sour power, natural sweetness, earthy bitterness, bright saltiness and smooth creaminess—often all in the same bite.

Fondness for Fermentation Starts Early

Balla and Burns know firsthand there’s nothing new about fermented foods. Indeed, for thousands of years home cooks have transformed nature’s fleeting bounty for future use. Fresh cabbage only lasts a little while in the fridge, but preserve it as kraut, kimchi or sauerkraut powder as the Bar Tartine chefs do, and it has a much longer lifespan. Fermentation is just a fancy word for harnessing natural biological processes, using living yeasts and beneficial bacterial cultures, salt or sugar (or both) and seasonal ingredients to transform perishable produce, dairy or meats into something with staying power.

Walk into Bar Tartine on any given day and it’s a given that spices are drying, cheeses aging, pickles fermenting, sprouts growing and meats curing. In their kitchen pantry that occupies two floors, batches of fresh yogurt, fizzing kefirs and fermenting vegetables, rows of containers filled with spices, powders and pastes, and tubs of drying fish all take up valuable real estate. It’s like a science lab in there.

The pair have sensible Midwestern roots, where preserving is commonplace. Burns hails from outside of Chicago, her grandparents first-generation immigrants from Poland and Lithuania, a heritage that exposed her to fermented foods.

“I grew up with classic Ashkenazi food: There was always something pickled, something smoked, borscht, knishes and blintzes and matzo ball soup,” says Burns, a self-taught chef who has a degree in cultural anthropology and has traveled in Nepal, India and Australia, where she began cooking in earnest. She learned preservation techniques from cookbooks and family stories, and in stints cooking professionally at restaurants in the Bay Area, where she landed in 2001. She has worked at other temples to DIY culinary craft, including Café RougeQuince and Boulette’s Larder.

Burns’ keen interest in preservation is personal. She began exploring the techniques when health issues that had dogged her since childhood flared in her 20s. She cut out gluten in her teens, which eliminated bothersome skin rashes. She thought a dietary shift might prevent stomach issues that exacerbated after college. “The non-sexy side of fermentation is that it populates your gut with healthy bacteria. So I started making water kefir and sauerkraut and I began to feel better,” says the now 35-year-old. And she developed a taste for sourly powerful and pungent foods. She lives by the mantra: Feed your own hunger first.

Balla, 37, was inculcated in Old World flavors early on too. A Michigan native with Hungarian roots, he went to high school in Budapest, where he lived with a family whose backyard butchery and traditional cooking made a lasting impression. It’s no fluke that the folks at Bar Tartine grind their own paprika from carefully curated local peppers. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, Balla traveled extensively in Japan, where he learned food preparation techniques from making fish cakes to producing udon noodles that informed his cooking in Japanese-influenced restaurants Ozumo, O Izakaya and Nombe in San Francisco, where he relocated in 2004.

In early 2011, Balla took over the reins at Bar Tartine, open since 2005. He and Burns met in 2010 at a Japanese food conference; later, by then his girlfriend, she came into the restaurant one day to help butcher a goat and ended up staying. She started out wrangling various projects in batches and buckets and quickly became co-chef.

The couple’s penchant for preservation proved timely. Preserving enjoyed a renaissance when the economy crashed in 2008 and took a few years to rebound.

“A lot of people found themselves with a lot of time on their hands and not a lot of money,” says Sean Timberlake, a social media innovator who launched Punk Domestics, a site devoted to DIY cooking projects, in 2010. “It was equal parts hobbyism and practical economics.”

As the renewed fascination with preservation has evolved, interest has shifted from pickling and preserving to home charcuterie and lacto-fermentation of foods and drinks like kombucha and kefir, adds Timberlake. “People’s enthusiasm for fresh food sometimes gets the better of them, and they have to figure out what to do with a five-pound bag of green garlic—not that that’s ever happened to me,” he jokes. As for where Bar Tartine fits into this landscape: “They had whey-fermented pickles on the menu before lactic acid fermentation hit the big time. They were into it before it became cool.”

The unintended byproduct of their kitchen obsessions: Balla and Burns are trendsetters, albeit by honing and updating an age-old craft.

As Timberlake notes, there’s a practicality to preserving for home cooks. That’s true for professional chefs too. Bar Tartine recently found itself with 72 bunches of cilantro—way too much for their needs but also too much of a nuisance to send back. So they just dried the fragrant herb and ground it into a bright green powder. It adds a dollop of deliciousness to yogurt.

Most of the restaurant’s experiments, which often become menu items, are born out of a need to create space and utilize a glut, admits Balla. He glances towards his kitchen and rattles off examples: “We have mung bean sprouts that need pickling before they start to wilt, we have a shit ton of citrus so we’re going to dehydrate the juice down into a syrup with the peels and turn it into an insanely tart citrus jam that has no added sugar. We’ll make a celery root paste with excess celery root.”

There’s more: “On the menu this week: Fermented and fresh kohlrabi with sunchoke oil and pickled celtuce [Chinese stem lettuce] that was poached and puréed and turned into a dip for bread. That was a byproduct of the fact we had an oversupply of kohlrabi and someone peeled too much celtuce and so a new crudité was born.”

A preservation pantry isn’t just practical, it’s a party on the palate. Processed and canned food circa the 1960s and ’70s essentially destroyed people’s palates, says Balla, who sees consumers cycling back, as generations do, to long-forgotten flavors.

“Diners are discovering they love the pucker of fermented foods, they love the muddiness of fresh water fish, they’re not afraid of the taste or smell of spice blends or sauerkraut. We lost touch with these tastes and now people are opening up to them again.”

Still, education is a big part of their role as restaurateurs. “We get skeptical people all the time but if we explain the menu to guests who find it challenging or out of their comfort zone, then we all win,” says Balla. “We suggest things they might like based on flavors they’re familiar with and we recommend dishes that pair well,” adds Burns. “We’re not re-creating the world here, we’re just putting things together in a way that maybe some people haven’t seen or tasted before. We work with people; ultimately we want them to leave happy and sated.”

Cortney burns of bar tartan
Chef Cortney Burns shaving house-made feta onto a leafy beet salad. Photo: Alanna Hale

Farm ties key for Preservation-Minded Chefs

Any kitchen that’s serious about preservation techniques needs to start with top-notch seasonal ingredients. To that end, Bar Tartine has tight relationships with standout local growers, including Free Spirit Farm, Little City GardensFeed Sonoma (a farm hub), Mariquita FarmsDirty Girl FarmLa Tercera Farm and Star Route Farms. A Laotian farmer, whose farm name no one seems to know, grows uncertified organic winter melons (huge ones), Asian greens and bitter melons that Balla and Burns are fond of. These farmer friends also bring the restaurant batches of full-on funky, sun-dried Laotian-style fish sauce brimming with umami in nondescript plastic buckets.

A wife-and-husband-run farm in Yountville, Full Table Farm, now grows exclusively for the restaurant. In 2011 Mindy Blodgett began delivering produce to San Francisco restaurant customers and quickly chose Bar Tartine as her regular lunch spot. (The restaurant no longer serves lunch on weekdays.) Balla and Burns joke that Blodgett and husband, Juston Enos, stalked them, or maybe it was the other way around; either way, it was a meeting of food and farming nerds and a mutual admiration for shared philosophies around nourishment.

“First and foremost their food is always generous, humble and full of integrity,” says Blodgett. If you pay attention to the ingredients on the plate, it can be a profound meal based on years of inquisitiveness, learning and hard work.”

Clearly Blodgett is hooked. She works her two-acre farm full time; Enos helps out when not at his day job. Entering into an exclusive farming relationship with the restaurant in 2015 wasn’t a hard call. It makes sense practically and financially. It also just felt right.

“We appreciate the independence they give us to make planting decisions, trusting us to know what we can do best in the field,” says Blodgett. “We like that they value the gifts of the land as much as we do, minimizing waste, using or trying to use everything imaginable from a plant. The biggest reason, though, is that they bring out the best in us as growers.”

They’ve worked together to raise stellar pepper plants to produce top-class paprika, says Blodgett, by way of example. They tinker with growing ingredients that result in complex spice blends not readily available locally or raising crops that might move consumers away from refined sugars while still satisfying a sweet tooth. All this esoteric produce, some of which would not ordinarily make economic sense, grows alongside mainstays such as squash, tomatoes, cucumbers and eggplants. “We will grow over 200 varieties of produce for the restaurant this year and they are committed to using every single piece,” she says. “As a grower, you couldn’t ask for anything more.”

In the mix: Produce exotica such as horned mustard (a pungent, frilled Chinese green); bell beans (a fava variety); Aji dulce and Trinidad peppers (strong Caribbean flavors similar to a habanero but without the heat); cornichon (sour gherkins); cucamelons (grape-sized cucumbers); tromboncino (a serpentine-like summer squash); snake gourds (a South Asian elongated green with a buttery taste); mitsuba (Japanese parsley) and celtuce (Chinese stem lettuce).

It’s fun times with less-familiar produce and the farmers are in, boots and all.

“They have us harvest things that we normally wouldn’t—like immature green walnuts—as well as fruit tree blossoms, such as apricots, we just picked a big batch,” says Blodgett. “They let us find and grow things we haven’t heard of before, they give us the freedom to experiment.” And then, when they eat at the restaurant, the Wine Country farmers get to sample the fruits of their labor. “We always leave feeling appreciated and inspired.” Balla and Burns serve the kind of food, adds Blodgett, that nourishes at the same time it satisfies a hunger to evolve, improve and understand food.

For these relatively new farmers, it doesn’t get much better than that.

Home Cooks Want to Emulate Bar Tartine

Can amateur cooks try this at home? Of course. Balla and Burns share their comfort food dishes in their new cookbook, Bar Tartine: Techniques and Recipes. Fans of their food will find favorites such as Chilled Sour Cherry Soup, Sauerkraut Soup, Fisherman’s Stew with Green Chile & Collards, Farmer’s Chop Suey—mostly foods served in bowls that are easily eaten with a spoon—along with bold salads such as Chicory Salad with Anchovy Dressing, Beet & Blue Cheese Salad and Persimmon Salad with Honey and Black Walnuts. And plenty of fishy and meaty items from their share plate repertoire, recently revamped on the restaurant’s menu and slanted even more towards communal dining that showcases a lot of different flavors. (The winter Edible San Francisco featured a Pickled Herring with Sour Cream & Onion recipe.)

The award-winning cookbook is arranged a little differently from standard recipe tomes. It begins with an array of techniques inspired by the everyday prepping in the Bar Tartine kitchen—all that drying, smoking, spice blending, fermenting and pickling. It includes what Burns calls the bookends of a preservation pantry: Yogurt takes 5 hours to culture and is ready to use in a few days, radishes and turnips a couple of weeks to pickle, cabbage sauerkraut needs about a month before it’s ready, but brined whole Brussels sprouts can take up to a year before they’re best.

Bar Tartine, the book, is coveted among serious home cooks and food preservationists, but not everyone is a fan. “Balla and Burns’ iceberg wedge salad clocks in at a whopping 31 ingredients, 10 of which require you to first follow recipes in other sections of the book,” wrote J. Kenji López-Alt in a review on the Food52 site’s cookbook match-up competition called Piglet. “To be completely honest, I couldn’t complete one single recipe exactly as written from this book—none of the pickled or fermented products would have been finished in the time frame I had to read and write this review!” Nonetheless, López-Alt, managing culinary director of Serious Eats, remains enamored of the restaurant. He says he finds the chefs “no-compromises approach extraordinarily admirable” and calls Balla and Burns “the real deal.”

He’s just not sure the cookbook will get folks into the kitchen. No matter, says Timberlake, for anyone with more than a casual interest in a preservation pantry it is an inspiration. And, he maintains, there’s a place for aspirational books aimed at all levels of expertise. Hello: Bar Tartine follows in the footsteps of Chad Robertson’s Tartine Bread, which notably includes a 38-page recipe on how to bake a loaf of his beloved bread, a process that takes two weeks from start to finish. Or, you know, you can just head to the line on Guerrero Street and wait your turn instead.

Likewise, for those intimidated by the James Beard Award-nominated cookbook, there’s always the restaurant.

“People love eating out what they may not have the time or the skills to craft at home,” says Karen Solomon, author of several preservation cookbooks, mostly recently Asian Pickles. “Isn’t that what eating out is all about?”

Timberlake agrees with preservation pal Solomon. “The food world benefits from chefs pushing the boundaries; at the same time it’s also important not to lose our roots,” he says. “Food preservation is among our oldest traditions, and should be retained and ever improved on. Diners don’t need to do that—that’s why they’re eating in restaurants like Bar Tartine. Because it’s special.”

Postscript: On April 24, The James Beard Foundation presented the “Cooking from a Professional Point of View” award to Bar Tartine: Techniques & Recipes, by Nicolaus Balla and Cortney Burns (Chronicle Books 2014).

Raising the Bar: Nicolaus Balla and Cortney Burns of Bar Tartine take old-time preservation to new heights, was published in the Spring 2015 issue © 2015 Edible San Francisco. All photos © 2015 Alanna Hale.