This month’s issue of San Francisco magazine tackles the “artisan dilemma” in a feature article by Beard-nominated scribe Emily Kaiser Thelin. She talks with people like Paul Bertolli of Fra’ Mani Hand Crafted Foods, James Freeman of Blue Bottle Coffee, Rachel Saunders of Blue Chair Fruit Company, and Brian Wood, co-founder of Starter Bakery. On the one hand you have Wood who has consciously eschewed mechanization in order to put out a premium, hand-crafted product, like the 300 kouign ammans that the bakery produces each day. On the other, you have Bertolli, who feels that it’s more important to “make a difference at the mass level.”
Bertolli’s been leveraging machines and mass production for his brand, despite the “hand-crafted” moniker, and he’s making charcuterie and Oliveto-esque prepared foods (think penne Fra Diavolo and organic corn polenta with rosemary) for the mass market. “It’s one thing to work at Chez Panisse,” he says, conjuring a longstanding argument about the perceived elitism of Ms. Waters and the Slow Food scene. “Then you got to Costco and see people struggling to get food on the table, and all they have is the option of buying commodity products made by people who want to exploit them. I thought I could make a difference there.”
Then the magazine profiles ten Bay Area food artisans who are still doing the good work of food-crafting on a small scale, like Pim Techamuanvivit of Chez Pim who’s now selling her jams and preserves at Bi-Rite; and Oakland-based Baia Pasta (also sold at Bi-Rite), where Renato Sardo (a longtime director of Slow Food USA who’s married to Anya Fernald, founder of Eat Real) is making organic, extruded pastas.
But the question remains: At what point in one’s success does the “artisan” moniker become just a word, and not a practice?