Food & Drink

Behind the famed Tartine bakery, a gluten-free talent

Tartine, which Prueitt co-founded in 2002 with husband Chad Robertson, also sells ice cream pies.
Tartine, which Prueitt co-founded in 2002 with husband Chad Robertson, also sells ice cream pies. The New York Times

When Elisabeth Prueitt opened the San Francisco bakery Tartine in 2002 with her husband, Chad Robertson, she was already in on the cosmic joke: Here she was, a brilliant pastry chef who loved her work, married to a bread baker and collaborating on what would become one of America’s great bakeries. And she was gluten intolerant.

As Prueitt became famous for her warm morning buns glittering with sugar, writing cookbooks and winning awards for her work, she also explored the universe of alternative baking, looking toward the hippie-chic pleasures of brown rice, oats and buckwheat.

What may have seemed like an obstacle has worked to Prueitt’s advantage, expanding her repertoire of flavors and textures, as well as Tartine’s fan base.

This fall, Prueitt and Robertson opened Tartine Manufactory, a 5,000-square-foot bread factory that includes a pastry shop, restaurant, ice cream parlor and coffee shop in a luxurious warehouse in the Mission District. Prueitt’s sour-cherry scones and pistachio-almond tea cakes were in the pastry case, along with plenty of her wheat-free triumphs: salted buckwheat chocolate cookies, chocolate-almond cakes and apple crisps.

On a recent weekday afternoon, the sunlit space was full of good-looking people in expensive T-shirts drinking highlighter-yellow turmeric kefir. “It’s totally naturally fermented,” Prueitt told me as I tried some on ice. It was tangy, with the soft, fine fizz of Champagne.

Prueitt’s style is at the heart of a larger shift in U.S. food culture: a growing interest in fermentation and preserved foods, in sprouted and alternative grains, and in techniques that are rooted in older, more established foodways from around the world.

But it has taken years for those ideas to gather steam in the United States, and for Prueitt – whose career path has been anything but typical – to master a new way of baking and work her way into the center of a movement.

“We didn’t serve any wheat-free pastries back in 2002,” she said, “because there was no appetite for that kind of thing.”

Tartine did serve some of the best pastries and breads in town. Within a year or two, the tiny neighborhood cafe developed a following that never waned.

When I lived in the area about a decade ago, Prueitt’s name was spoken with reverence among cooks. It’s not just that her pastries were delicious and technically flawless. They had an effortless-looking, handmade beauty to them, and they often amplified the flavors of local, seasonal fruits without calling much attention to the fact.

I remember trying to stretch out the pleasures of a gâteau Basque indefinitely, cutting it in half again, and again, until the pastry was so tiny that the task became embarrassing. The crumb was tender and delicate, dissolving in my mouth. And I’m pretty sure that what I felt toward the shiny preserved peach, snug at the center of the pastry, was something close to jealousy.

Alice Waters, the pioneering chef of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, used to order her birthday cake from the bakery. She is a longtime admirer of Prueitt’s work.

“Here is somebody who is always trying to make it better than the last time,” Waters said. “Someone keeping a self-criticism going with constant questioning: How can I make it better, bring out the most flavor and make it more nutritious? That’s the kind of work that needs to be done so that food can be something way more than tasty.”

Nine years ago, while visiting New York for the James Beard Foundation Award ceremonies, Prueitt gave birth to her and Robertson’s daughter, Archer, who they soon learned had cerebral palsy.

While Robertson ran their business, Prueitt stopped working to care for their child and to research therapies. She eventually helped found the Conductive Education Center of San Francisco, a six-week summer camp for children with motor disorders or developmental delays.

Prueitt left the restaurant industry to raise her child at what may have seemed like the apex of her career, then went back to work to find more success.

This is not how the story usually goes, but as it turns out, her time away was exactly how long it took for the market to demand more high-end sweets made from esoteric grains. When Prueitt stepped back into the pastry kitchen, she began to draw more deeply on her knowledge of the countless, exciting configurations that exist beyond wheat flour and white sugar.

Michael Laiskonis, the creative director at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York, said he has seen a shift in other areas of baking and pastry since the U.S. bread renaissance of the 1990s.

“I used to associate specialty grains with the health food set, but something has changed within the last five years,” he said. “The wheat we use for all-purpose flour represents such a narrow range in terms of variety, and all of these other grains can contribute much more in terms of flavor.”

Prueitt, 49, grew up in Brooklyn and studied acting and photojournalism before graduating from the Culinary Institute of America. She is best known for her sweets, but in her next cookbook, “Tartine All Day” (due out in April), she shares both sweet and savory recipes for home cooks.

One is for pork ribs braised in a reduction of apple cider vinegar with garlic and ginger. It features a very small photograph of her eating them messily with both hands, looking joyful.

“I’m wary of this being too me, me, me,” she said.

I counted only three, maybe four photos of Prueitt as she went through the entire book, page by page, in a Skype conversation with her designer, Juliette Cezzar. And the book’s working cover was not of a grinning celebrity chef but a pot of jam after cooking, scraped nearly clean.

Heading back to work was an organized campaign for Prueitt. In 2014, Tartine planned a merger with Blue Bottle Coffee, and she took over as Blue Bottle’s corporate pastry chef. When that deal fell apart last year, Prueitt returned to Tartine to develop menu items and manage large projects, such as Tartine Cookies & Cream, the ice cream parlor inside Tartine Manufactory.

It’s the company’s first foray into making ice cream, soft-serve produced from local cow and water buffalo milk. One of Prueitt’s newest additions to the menu is an ice cream pie filled with Concord grape sorbet and fior di latte soft-serve in a peanut butter tart shell, which has been celebrated on Instagram for its swirls of deep, vibrant purple.

“I used to mostly post pictures of my cats to Instagram, until I made a decision to professionalize my account and make it all about my food,” Prueitt said.

That was just last year, and since then, social media has become a powerful tool for her when promoting new dishes or seeking feedback on recipes. It was also a way to find her identity as a chef again and to bring together her personal and professional cooking styles. Prueitt’s Instagram following is 28,000 strong and deeply engaged, often trying the recipes she posts and offering notes.

Those two cats were still around during my visit, racing from the garden into the house. Prueitt gently plopped the springy one onto the floor, for the fifth time, but it insisted on returning to see what she was up to.

Prueitt was testing a gluten-free carrot cake made from teff flour (“teff holds moisture really, really well”) and coconut oil, frosted with a tangy mix of butter and cream cheese. It wasn’t being produced at the bakeries yet, but her fans had gotten a peek, and they were waiting.

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