Paul Berglund of The Bachelor Farmer: A chef in the making, part 2
This week, we're profiling Paul Berglund, executive chef of The Bachelor Farmer. In part 1 of the series, we learned about his childhood in St. Louis, his introduction to the exciting flavors of Spain, and his career in the U.S. Navy.
When it came time for him to leave the military, he began considering his path forward--where to live, what to do. After weeding through a long list of maybes, his decision came down to two very different options: chef... or park ranger?
He smiles. "Yeah, those were the last two on my list. In my free time, I cooked and hiked. So it made a lot of sense to consider both."
But in the end, it was the prospect of working in a team that drove him indoors. "The communal nature of a professional kitchen made me more excited than the solitary nature of being on fire watch in Yosemite National Park by myself," he says.
Although he'd become comfortable cooking at home, he knew his qualifications were sorely lacking. "Could I work in the kitchen? I didn't know," he says candidly.
"My being drawn to this career didn't have a whole lot to do with perceived talent," he jokes. "I'd spent one summer busing tables at Max and Erma's." But in need of a paycheck and a direction, it seemed like the most viable option.
Berglund wanted to stay on the West Coast, so he decided to move in with his best friend in Oakland. He compiled a list of possible restaurants and then started writing out his work history. No c-school. No fancy stages. Not even a burger-flipping stint. Ouch.
Without any formal training, he relied heavily on his Naval accomplishments to establish credibility. "Lead with the only thing you have," he says with a sense of humor. "I thought I had a unique story, but maybe not one that everyone wanted to hear."
He loaded the resume gun and fired as many rounds as he could. But it didn't amount to much. Luckily, finding a job is a lot like selling a house--all you need is one buyer. And after tons of cold-calling, someone finally answered the phone: Paul Canales at Oliveto Restaurant.
At the time, Canales was working under acclaimed chef Paul Bertolli, who had spent a decade at Chez Panisse and authored a cookbook with the mother of California Cuisine, Alice Waters. For whatever reason, there was something Canales liked about Berglund, so he decided to take a chance on the Max and Erma's busboy and hired him on.
Beginning your culinary career at Oliveto is the equivalent of playing pickup hoops at the park and then joining D-Wade and LeBron for a season with the Heat. But thankfully, Berglund was initiated slowly, shadowing the other chefs while he learned the ropes.
Starting at the bottom is never glamorous, but Berglund's first day at Oliveto was particularly sticky. For hours he peeled cardoons--fighting their thistle-like exterior and brown sappy resin--only to later learn they were too fibrous to serve. All his work completely down the drain. Welcome to the kitchen, rookie.
After a crash course in pro cooking, he moved into the casual café. For the next few months, he had his head in a wood-fired oven, churning out pizzas, fish, chicken, and steaks.
But he was a quick study. Before his first anniversary, he transitioned into the fine-dining restaurant, and by the time he left six and a half years later, he'd worked his way up to chef de cuisine, second in charge to Canales.
At Oliveto, Berglund was schooled in the finer points of Italian cuisine. But his education went beyond food preparation. He soaked in the locally driven philosophies that were--and still are--synonymous with the Bay Area.
"There's a deep connection between farmers and cooks, and eventually diners," he says. "I learned the meaning--and the value--of that network."
As his own gastronomy began to take shape, technique and theory began to converge. Canales stressed the importance of remaining true to an ingredient's essence--and using it as the singular focus when creating a dish. It was a seemingly straightforward approach, but required a deft hand to execute well.
This notion of zeroing in on core flavors was also reminiscent of Berglund's experiences in Spain. And today this concept is a cornerstone of his cuisine, particularly in dishes like the Bibb Lettuces.
A fixture on The Bachelor Farmer's menu since the very first service, the lettuces are quite simple. Bibb is splashed with a little cider vinegar and oil, then finished with grated Montforte blue cheese and walnuts. And that's it.
To hear Berglund describe the creation of the salad is to witness his food doctrine in action. Step 1: Key in on the flavor of the lettuce. Step 2: Do whatever necessary to let it shine.
"The bibb is delicate. It's a sweet, juicy lettuce, but it's not strongly flavored," he explains. "So we use a nice quality cider vinegar, a little bit of walnut oil and grape seed oil, and everything else supports it. Hopefully--when we do it right--the flavor of the lettuce is not lost."
The end result is bright and balanced, with the sweetness of the bibb bouncing off the tanginess of the vinegar. The walnuts and blue cheese impart a delicate richness and piquant quality, which adds body but doesn't steal the show.
It's not fancy. It's not flashy. It's salad unsexy. But it's wonderfully and delightfully delicious.
Come back tomorrow for the third and final post in the series, as Berglund tells us about moving to the Twin Cities, meeting Eric and Andrew Dayton, and running the kitchen at The Bachelor Farmer.
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