Almanac

Cover Story - February 20, 2013

Self-made masters: Culinary magic without culinary degrees at Woodside Bakery & Cafe

by Dave Boyce

There are professions in which badges from a school of some kind have become a necessity: medicine, the practice of the law, the enforcement of the law. Cooking for restaurants is heading that way, says Executive Chef William Ruiz of the Woodside Bakery & Cafe. But for now, for himself, for longtime Pastry Chef Jesus Mendoza and for Sous Chef Ismael Guido, they don't need no stinking badges.

Mr. Mendoza, who is 35, came to the Woodside Bakery 20 years ago to wash dishes, and moved up by proving himself at various pastry specialties. Mr. Guido, 42, started as a dishwasher 18 years ago; he has some sous chef duties but not the long hours, and for a reason: He also cooks at a Stanford University dining hall. Mr. Ruiz, 48, puts in long hours at the cafe and says he refined his craft while working for other chefs. He's been the head chef at the bakery and cafe since summer 2012.

At times, it's probably a high-wire act, but always with a net: it's a family place with a menu that changes slowly, warmth that endures, and regulars who order the same thing time after time. "I think part of the magic here is being a family business. That means a lot to people. It's like comfort food," says Jan Sweyer, who with her brother Mark Sweyer bought the bakery and cafe out of bankruptcy in 2006. Their joint career began with the purchase of a deli in Burlingame in 1976 and went on to include an Irish pub in Cupertino and a bar and a cafe, both in Redwood City.

They grew up in Woodside, went to community schools and have worked with their classmates' children. "We have personally hired, and fired, the children of the children we grew up with," Ms. Sweyer says. "This is our home. This is home. We're deep in these roots."

The importance of soup

If Mr. Ruiz carries himself with the air of a street fighter, it may be a consequence of where he went to culinary school: "The school of hard knocks," he says. Culinary schools have it backward by teaching technique ahead of or instead of cooking science; because the school environment is highly controlled, graduates tend to think they know it all, he says. Acceptance in culinary school once required two letters of reference and time in a professional kitchen. Today, "if you have money, you can get into culinary school," he says. "Schools are a big machine, a big cog. You feed the machine to keep it turning. ... Cooking is like going to war. Who do you want doing your fighting? West Pointers or guys who have been in the trenches?"

To bring out his war cry, try ordering something not on the menu. "You want to enjoy your dinner?" he says in reply to such a hypothetical request. "Good. Stay here and eat what I cook. You can cook your own dinner — at home. You come to my restaurant, you're eating my food."

It's partly a business decision. "If Joe Schmo comes in and asks for something completely wretched, he'll tell his friends: 'I ordered something that was putrid and the chef made it for me and it was putrid.' I'd rather have him leave upset" that he didn't get what he wanted, he says.

Chef Ruiz discovered his life's work in Seattle working for Chef Walter Pisano at Tulio Ristorante. Mr. Ruiz made a different soup every day without traditional thickeners such as cream or roux (flour browned in butter). "Working there really pushed my soup-making capabilities to the limit," Mr. Ruiz says. "When I went to work with Walter, that's when I realized that this would be my career."

Asked to name a soup from those days, Mr. Ruiz recalls a white bean puree, made with onions, cannellini beans, a bay leaf, preserved lemon and vegetable stock. At the Woodside cafe, there are two soups daily, one of them always vegan and gluten-free. Spinach and mushroom soup is popular, server Kacey Crosby says. "People come in and eat just that, just that and a focaccia."

Mr. Ruiz says that one of his first soup-related acts at the cafe was to end the use of chicken bouillon. "Throw all that out," he says he told his staff upon seeing a big box of it. "Cooking is not about convenience, nor is it about taking shortcuts, and that's what it comes down to."

Despite his emphasis on fundamentals, some members of the cooking staff do occasionally take a shorter route. "They think there's a shortcut," Mr. Ruiz says. "I tell them, 'If there is a quicker way to do something to where the end result is the same, I'd let you know that.'" They do get it, though, and it's inspiring "coming in here day in and day out and seeing them grasp it."

Don't be fat

Pastry Chef Mendoza also learned his skills on the job at the bakery. He began as a dishwasher at 15, expressed an interest in baking, and spent 18 months making Danish pastries, he says. Next came six months of cookies and a year of cakes. "Whatever station (my boss) showed me, I learned fast, quickly," Mr. Mendoza says. He became head baker and then pastry chef.

That apprenticeship trajectory continues. He's trained about 200 bakers, 20 of whom are now pastry chefs, he says. Making pastry is about love, Mr. Mendoza says, the love of customers biting into one and having the words, "Oh, it's good," arise from somewhere inside. Among his students: his future wife and his brother, both of whom still work there.

Much like buying and eating pastry, making it is about self-discipline. Is it hard not to overdo the sampling of one's work? "Yes, it's very hard, very hard," Mr. Mendoza says with a broad smile. Sample 10 different items and you may have ingested 2,000 calories. "You have to run every single day" to keep the weight off, he says.

Conscious of this, he says he tries to keep the fat content just above the point at which its absence might be noticed. "I want customers to eat, but I don't want them to be fat."

The bakery makes four sandwich breads for the cafe: Tuscan, ciabatta, rye and sourdough — and some 600 focaccia every day. Among breads for sale in the bakery is a 100 percent whole wheat loaf. Pure whole wheat bread can be tricky in terms of taste and texture. The key, Mr. Mendoza says, is allowing the bread adequate rise time. While white breads need just two hours, whole wheat needs six. Patience and precision are important in baking, he says, adding: "I want people to eat more healthy bread."

Timing, it's everything

Mr. Guido, a man of few words for this interview, says he came to the attention of the management after they noticed his interest in cooking. "I noticed that I liked it, too, and I love it now," he says.

And the customers love it. "We try to take items away (from the menu) but people ask for it," he adds. "All the food is really good."

"I don't think anyone can touch Ismael on fish and meat dishes," Ms. Sweyer says. It's his timing, she says, his understanding of how the entree continues to cook after it's off the stove. "He cooks them to perfection. It will be perfect when it gets to the table."

How is it working for Mr. Ruiz? "I listen," Mr. Guido says. "I've got the knowledge, I've got the experience, but I listen."

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