“Even if it’s misshapen, it’s wrapped in puff dough so who cares?!” Andrea Baumgardner is a chef with an easy going attitude, but don’t let that fool you into thinking she doesn’t care. Some people have to convince you of their passion. Not Andrea. Hers infects everything she does, and of course, all the food she makes, which you should try at Bernbaum's downtown if you haven't been going there weekly already.
My name is Andrea Baumgardner. I cook for a living. Right now I mostly do a lunch counter and make bagels on, as Brett says, an all too regular basis.
How did you start cooking?
I realize now that I’ve always really really loved food. I went away to college and enjoyed being in a city and eating, but what really nailed it was spending a year in Europe - France and Spain - during my senior year. I really ate like a pig in France. France made total sense to me with regard to food.
So I came back, started a grad school program, quit it, and instead went to culinary school in San Francisco, which was sort of the closest place I could find to France at the time. Then I worked in San Francisco and was lucky enough to do my externship at Chez Panisse. Chez Panisse was not only seminal in the United States, but it was very French… very Alice Waters who wanted to bring French culture to Berkeley. And by the time I did my externship there, I think they had a network of 70 farms. They had even invested in farms. It was probably the most inspiring place that I’ve worked.
What do you mean when you say “France made sense to you”?
They’ve always been idiosyncratically not a fast food culture.
They really, as a culture, value food and sitting down and paying attention to what they eat. I’ve had opportunities to eat well in my life, but I look at the family I lived with - and the father was from Corsica and his mother would send eggs and dairy products to them from Corsica - made amazing food daily, not for any other reason than this is what we do. We love this.
Tell us about Bernbaum’s. What was the inspiration?
We did bagels at The Green Market because Brett had been goofing around with them at previous jobs and had said “I want to make bagels.” I don’t think I had any clue how to make a bagel… (laughs) When we started making them, people were really happy. We’d make them on Saturdays. And in the ensuing three years after Green Market closed, we’d have people say to us “I wish you would just make bagels again.” So then when I was thinking about what I wanted to be doing, I knew I wanted to do something during the day, I don’t want to work a full restaurant schedule… so we started talking about bagels. I thought you couldn’t sell enough bagels in this location, but what if we did bagels and a small lunch counter.
It was slightly informed by thinking about New York. I had read the book by Russ, the first generation owner of Russ & Daughters, and it was interesting because it was that Jewish immigrant story - first generation is a peddler, second generation establishes the business as a retail business, third generation goes to college and becomes a lawyer but then comes back. And why he came back really spoke to me because I think as a merchant in this world you get to have an interesting relationship with a wide swath of the community that you don’t in any other environment. You don’t get to in non-profits or offices… I missed that after Green Market closed. You get to be in their lives in a certain way. Sometimes they become friends, but sometimes you just know they’re going to have a baby or change jobs or whatever and that’s enough. I like that sort of embedding in the community.
Tell us about your space.
It’s funny because Green Market was more of a kitchen, but not much more. What we did when we sort of hatched this plan, Brett built out this kitchen because we had a three year lease and we could build a stove without a hood, which would’ve added tens of thousands of dollars. What can we put in here with our budget? It’s workable.
I’ve worked in kitchens that are beautifully designed and yeah, it makes it easier, but there’s a lot you can do with very little. When you travel other places and you see where people are cooking and there’s one butane burner and they’re making delicious food.
What’s the best part of owning your own business?
That can also be scary because in that freedom you’ve gotta do it.
I was doing this fellowship in the cities and halfway through we opened Berbaum’s and I realized if I’m there and we don’t produce the food, we don’t make money. The learning is really direct. The mistakes you make, you really feel them. (laughs)
How’d you go about putting together the menu at Bernbaum’s?
First it was really just Icelandic-Jewish, and then some of the Icelandic things I was going to make were hard to explain, and then I realized it might be more of just all our heritage - New York, Scandinavian, Icelandic, Jewish. Because the Jewish food was harder for me to figure out (like Matzo balls…) I’ve been focusing on that.
What sort of food do you like to cook?
The older I get, the more simplistic I get. I don’t know why but I like the direct interaction of food and people more so than fine dining or funkiest ingredient. Now I’m more interested in what’s accessible and I want it to taste good, but sometimes the less you do to something, the better it tastes. If you have a lot of sauces and a lot of things going on, there’s more opportunity to hide.
I’m really interested in people having access to real food.
What do you hope people take away from their experience at Bernbaum’s?
I really just want people to enjoy their food. I believe that food is an expression of care so I hope people cared for when they eat here. It doesn’t have to necessarily be in a deep way, but that they were nourished in that moment. And maybe they got a chance to talk to someone they love, or meet someone new.
What does it mean for you to introduce people to new foods?
To be honest, we get a lot of Green Marketers but I have to say it’s really fun when someone comes in and they didn’t totally know what to expect, but they were willing to take the leap. And then you see them again. I always love that...
Do you have any rules for cooking?
No. Right now I’m rethinking the way I do vegetables. It sounds crazy but I don’t have an ice machine to blanch things so I’m thinking of other ways to maintain color, or even questioning why it’s so important to maintain color. I can only saute or roast them. I was just reading this cookbook called This is Camino and he’s an ex-Chez Panisser and he never blanches any of his vegetables. So I’ve been thinking about why do I do that. Sometimes you do things because that’s how you learned but actually there’s no reason for it. Anything I would say as a rule, I might later find out that it’s wrong. Except for bagels! You don’t have to boil bagels for 2 minutes!
What’s comfort food for you?
Andrea: I think like a lot of cooks, it’s sort of junky. I love real Mexican food.
Brett: I can tell you the truth… Crackers and mustard.
Andrea: Oh! Crackers and mustard! Yeah… I eat a lot of bread products, and mustard. I eat a lot of mustard. I eat a lot of condiments. The other day a customer was apologizing to me for asking for double sauce. He was like “I’m so sorry. I’m like a neanderthal.” And I immediately responded with “Oh no! So am I!” (laughs)
What food don’t you like?
I don’t eat bananas. And I’m really picky about cooked fruit. And I forget about fruit weirdly. I’d rather eat ice cream…
What’s on your music playlist?
I’m really stuck in a time warp, but when I’m doing dishes at night I listen to “Throwback Dance Party”. I like Sufjan Stevens a lot. And of course because Prince died, I’ve been stuck on Prince. And then here I’m thankful because Brett plays some old blues.
How do you overcome burnout?
I drink a lot of coffee. (laughs) There was a point last night when I completely slowed down where I thought “why am I still doing this?,” but you just soldier on. That’s kind of the beauty of this work. It’s not rocket science. You just have to do it. I read a book recently where the author wrote “Whenever anything really good or really bad happens, you can know that it’s not going to last forever.” Everything is dynamic. So I think about that when I make mistakes for instance.
It seems like the world has gotten much more ok with mistakes and failure as an important part of growth than it even has ten years ago. And I sort of like that because it’s true that it’s going to happen so you need to find some way to deal with it.
Do you have favorite cookbooks?
I still love Mario Batali. I go back to the Nancy Silverton's La Brea Bakery cookbooks. I love Nancy Silverton. I think she’s an amazing cook. And I collect cookbooks. I actually buy a lot more than I even really use. I love Julia CHild. I love what she did. I loved the first Momofuku cookbook. Right now I just got Sahad, which is an Israeli restaurant in Philadelphia and it sort of talks about the author’s personal journey as an Israeli in other kitchens until a sad family thing happens which convinces him to start his own restaurant. It’s really beautiful.
What else inspires you?
I was really inspired last year watching the first season of Chef’s Table. I so love how they did that. It was really beautiful. They got to what’s important about cooking - people and craft and the opportunity to change your mind. The Russ & Daughters book. Alice Waters is a thought leader. She said this thing, “Never underestimate the power of an idea whose time has come” and while she was talking about culinary education and the edible schoolyard, it applies to everything else, too. And I’m totally still inspired by Obama. I love seeing people out there trying to do really amazing things. And I have to say this about Bernbaum’s too. It’s been a chance to see young customers who I otherwise wouldn’t have known. There’s something reassuring about seeing them working on stuff, caring about the world.
You just never know who’s going to change the world.
What do you know now that you wish you knew years ago?
You need a good money person. If you’re doing it for a living, you need someone in your life if it’s not you to make sure that you’ll at least be able to pursue what you want to pursue.
Otherwise, as it pertains to cooking, find someone who makes food you like and work for them. Maybe even work for free. I didn’t know before I went to culinary school what working in a restaurant meant. It’s a very specific lifestyle. I think a lot of people look at shows and think that it’s glamorous but it’s not. Like most things. It’s a lot of dishwashing, burning yourself, and cleaning. (laughs)
You’ve gotta be able to withstand a certain amount of discomfort to do anything.