Parkside’s Loaves Help the Whole Town Rise
BY SARAH HENRY • PHOTOS BY STACY VENTURA
A couple of years ago John Gilbert, the longtime owner of the Parkside Café at Stinson Beach, wanted to add on to his beachside business. He toyed with opening a brewery in a space on his property long used for storage and kitchen prep. But then John’s wife, Maxine, chimed in.
What the town cried out for, she said, was a bakery offering crusty breads and flaky pastries. One the owners could be proud of. Lucky for the residents of this tiny town, and anyone who visits the picturesque seaside spot, the bakery idea prevailed.
It’s now been just over two years since Parkside began turning out levain loaves. Locals and visitors alike have enthusiastically welcomed the new bakery. On the financial front, it proved a smart move for the Gilberts: Bakery items typically sell out, and there’s big demand from wholesale clients.
And that’s not all. One unanticipated benefit for John is that, during the process he found his own path back to the stoves after a long hiatus. These days, he caters private dinners for a dozen served in Parkside’s recently renovated space known simply as The Room.
John, credits the outpouring of support for the bakery’s products as the impetus for reawakening his passion for cooking professionally.
“This project has hit me upside the head,” he says. “I have 50-yearresidents pulling me aside in the post office telling me that what we’re doing for this town is so cool. The locals love our bakery. There’s something about this bread that has brought up the whole quality of the restaurant—from the service to the cooking—it’s upped the ante for everybody.”
Praise for the bakery’s small-batch, high-hydration breads borders on the ecstatic. “When I smell the delicious, inviting, warm aroma of freshly baked bread wafting around the town from the Parkside Bakery, I know that I have truly landed in paradise,” says Felicity Crush, a friend and neighbor of the Gilberts. In a town with around just 630 residents, most folks are a friend or neighbor.
John is the first to point out he’s not the actual baker. He just got the project started. John, 45, is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, but he calls himself a “chef chef,” as in he’s not formally trained or naturally inclined as a baker. As a teenager in Pennsylvania, John landed his first job in the restaurant industry washing dishes at a log-cabin restaurant serving old Continental-style dishes. He says he was drawn to the instant gratification of drawing food. Before purchasing Parkside in 1999, John worked as sous-chef at Lark Creek Inn in Larkspur and the Redwood Room and Bix in San Francisco, eventually serving as the head chef at San Francisco restaurant Indigo in the late 1990s.
But after years in the business, he opted to take on more of a management role after revamping Parkside’s menu when he first came on board. He chose his marriage, his kids and surfing, he says, over the food front for a while. It was Maxine who urged him to step up his game again.
That’s when he got serious about launching a bread business. Certainly, his wife bringing bread home from Tartine Bakery in San Francisco and preaching what a bakery could do for their town helped nudge him along. Maxine, 46, who jokes she’s a former Diet Coke-and-cigarettes girl who has whole-heartedly embraced the local food movement, has fond memories of eating hunks of warm bread with lashings of butter in her native England. Now taking more of a day-to-day role in running Parkside, she’s an unabashed toast champion.
John had his own connection to those Tartine loaves: Chad Robertson, the celebrated Tartine baker, was in the same class as John at the CIA. Robertson’s bread, of course, is legendary. People line up for blocks for his crusty, crumby, flavor-filled loaves. Still, John was initially focused on the return on investment: Bread was simply a better bet than beer, and he could use it morning, noon and night.
FOOD STYLING BY VICTORIA WOLLARD
“I realized early on that to learn this craft, bread making, could take every waking moment of my day,” he says. “So I knew that to make this project work I needed to hire a quality baker. That was a no-brainer.” Parkside’s first baker lasted just six months, but quickly built a following for her wheat and whole-wheat flour breads made with a sourdough starter. Clearly, the demand was there.
“All we’re doing is taking flour and water and maybe a seasonal ingredient and doing something simple that’s delicious,” says John. “This bakery has retrained me in a way, to go back to simple ingredients, simply prepared. I’ve rediscovered what’s important about cooking.”
For the past year, baker Lucia Plumb-Reyes, 29, has been in charge of bread production at Parkside. A former science major, Lucia trained at the San Francisco Baking Institute and has kneaded doughs and made crackly-crusted croissants in locally acclaimed bakeries such as Neighbor Bakehouse and Thorough Bread and Pastry in San Francisco and Fournée in Berkeley. She also worked with Eduardo Morell of Morell’s Bread, who until relatively recently baked his naturally leavened loaves in a wood-fire oven at the Headlands Center for the Arts in Sausalito.
Baker Lucia Plumb-Reyes
John and Maxine Gilbert
Lucia credits the Gilberts for giving her free rein and making sure she has the staff and equipment she needs to do her job well. She bakes a variety of levain flavors, including classic, classic seeded, raisin-`walnut, Gruyere and kalamata olive. A 100% whole-wheat and a sunflower seed rye loaf are oft en on the menu. The breads are available at Parkside and a small handful of local shops including the Mill Valley Market, Stinson Beach Market, Perry’s Inverness Park Grocery, Bolinas People’s Store, Bolinas Market, and Palace Market and Toby’s Feed Barn in Point Reyes Station.
Parkside also bakes for Luc Chamberland’s Saltwater Oyster Depot in Inverness, and Chamberland’s new Depot next door to the oyster restaurant (formerly the Blackbird Café). Marin Sun Farms in Point Reyes Station uses the bakery’s burger buns, and local vacation rental companies contract with the bakery to provide bread baskets for guests.
Five days a week Lucia and one of her two assistants produce about 150–200 loaves a day, in addition to laminated (layered) pastries like croissants. On a wintery Wednesday they might make around 75 croissants. On a summer Sunday they can move around 200. They also bake bagels, English muffins, baguettes and brioche. The bakery accounts for about 20% of Parkside’s total business, and it’s a pretty even 50-50 split between wholesale and retail sales.
Lucia buys her flour from Guisto’s in South San Francisco and Central Milling in Petaluma. She also uses locally sourced ingredients in her baked goods, studding her Gruyere bread with espelette, a red pepper originally from the Basque region, grown by farmer Annabelle Lenderlink in Petaluma. In season, she jazzes up cheddar cheese sticks with green garlic from Star Route Farms, where Lucia’s boyfriend works along with Lenderlink. Come spring, local rhubarb finds its way into fruit pastries, and she adds house-made Meyer lemon marmalade to sweet treats.
Her number one small-town challenge is consistently sourcing ingredients. Case in point: She’s a fan of a high-fat-content, European-style brand of butter by Plugrá, which is ideal for laminated doughs. But she’s reliant on her distributor for such items. On the day this writer visited, she’d been working with an inferior butter, she said, due to availability issues, and her croissants suffered as a result.
“My products depend on my intimate knowledge of specific ingredients and what I need to do to adapt or work with them,” she explains. “Most customers won’t notice the difference, but I do.”
Still, Lucia enjoys small town life. She recently moved back to Bolinas, where she had previously lived while working at Dennis and Sandy Dierks’ farm, Paradise Valley Produce.
She also likes the repetition involved in production baking. And the physicality of it, says the former modern dancer, who is constantly in motion in the small space.
“I think of it is as rehearsal and performance all rolled into one on a daily basis,” she says. She understands her market. “To have an everyday product, like bread, be this special, locally made thing, I think we have a very receptive, ideal audience for what we’re doing here,” she says. “People both appreciate it and can afford it.”
She takes her job seriously. “I have a responsibility to craft a product that’s really, really good. I don’t want to eat a bad $4 croissant or $6 loaf either. So I do think about that with every one of my products. It has to be worth the price and our effort. I’m always thinking about that.”
As for the divide between resident and day tripping customers, here’s how John Gilbert views it: “The locals pay our bills, and the tourists who come for the sun, they’re the gravy. We live here, we’ve raised our kids here,” he says. “It’s important to us feed our community. I’m cooking for the people in my neighborhood.”
Parkside Stinson Beach: Bakery, Café, Snack Bar, Wood-Fired Pizza and Private Dining Room. 43 Arenal Ave., Stinson Beach. M–Su 7:30am–9pm. Bakery: W–Su. ParksideCafe.com; 415.868.1272. The Parkside’s bread is available for purchase in The Room or inside the café when The Room is closed.
Sarah Henry’s local food stories have appeared in print in the San Francisco Chronicle, California and San Francisco and online at Modern Farmer, CHOW and Civil Eats. She is also a regular contributor to Edible San Francisco and Edible East Bay. Find her in Best Food Writing 2014. This spring Sarah will attend the writers’ residency at Mesa Refuge in Point Reyes Station to work on a book about California coastal farms slated for publication in 2016.