Chefs Feed: Nick Balla

Chef Nick Balla of Bar Tartine talks about the restaurant's incredible DIY food program and how he's influenced by Japanese and Hungarian cuisines.

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It's difficult with this place to be able to communicate exactly what we do here. We don't really have a culture, we kind of focus on Central Europe, and there's some Asian influence. But really, the menu makes sense because it's all processed here from local ingredients. Versus being from a particular place in the world. [MUSIC] I'm Nick Molla I cook at Bar Tartine. [BLANK_AUDIO] I started cooking when I was in middle school I suppose, would always have friends over and I'd be the one throwing together like 30-ingredient pasta or something. We were in high school and had a band we wanted to Be rockstars but pay the bills, I wash wishing dishes and then ended up flying cooking soon after sue chef. It just clicked. When I think it was one afternoon, I don't know, I was like, yeah I'm excited about this. I think I should, I guess I'll go to culinary school. My mom's gonna be happy I'm doing something. [MUSIC] Japanese cooking became a deep curiosity for me when I was in culinary school because it's such a unique approach to cooking. It really focuses flavors in an intense way. I think it's some of the most intensely flavored food of any cuisine. [MUSIC] I ended up traveling there a number of times [UNKNOWN] at a restaurant. And also started working in a fish cake factory, and worked for a day doing [UNKNOWN] noodles and taco matsu. I finished culinary school in New York and decided to move to the Bay area because I was curious about the West Coast. I'd never really spent a lot of time here. I was given the opportunity to open my first restaurant, to have my first chef job at this Japanese place, [UNKNOWN] Lounge at the Hotel Kabuki I was an untested chef and really never run a Japanese restaurant either. So it was a big gamble. It went over great, we got good reviews. But I really knew in my heart that I wanted to go work in neighborhood restaurants. So I got together with a couple of partners and we opened [UNKNOWN] [MUSIC] I met Chad Robertson he would come in for dinner a few times a week. [MUSIC] And we would talk about food and ideas had said what are come take over Bar Tarteen. I had, in fact, at the time had planned to go and try and open a Central European restaurant, which I had been wanting to do that to explore more of my roots. I have Hungarian roots as well as about seven other things. But that's the one that I connect the most to. [MUSIC] My father was curious about going back and exploring that side of our family, and our heritage. And so he moved to Budapest in 1988. I ended up moving there with him while I was in high school which was the early 90s. We lived with a Hungarian family. They would butcher a pig every few weeks and the grandmother would bring us fresh sausage a couple hours later. We really got to connect to real good quality Hungarian peasant food. [MUSIC] It was terrifying taking over at Bar Tarteen. It was already a Beloved restaurant that was serving food that people liked and wanted. And to come in and make this whatever it is that we make was a big risk. [SOUND] When I came on board, Chris Kroner had just left and he still makes these incredible burgers and that was on the menu. We replaced the burger with goulash, with bone marrow toast [LAUGH]. Threw some people off, but at the end of the day the restaurant's doing really well. We're really busy, and I think that people really get it and really appreciate it. [SOUND] [MUSIC] Large percentage of the menu is vegetable focused. It doesnt make any sense to have a meat heavy menu when we have this incredible bounty here We like sour, we like spice, we like bitter, we like a lot of strong forward flavor that up until recently really want acceptable in this kind of echelon of restaurant. [MUSIC] No wonder we're creating a lot of dishes that might seem more Central European. They always have some element of Japanese cooking. [MUSIC] We started trying to interpret dishes like Hungarian Goulash and realized that starting with the base of Kombu Dashi would only add flavor to the stock in the ends. So, we would start you know, simmering the beef with Kombu Dashi. That doesn't taste. Necessarily overly Japanese, or you don't feel like you're in a Japanese restaurant. But there's a subtle flavor that you're trying to recognize and it really makes sense. [MUSIC] I've always wanted to try to make whatever I could in-house. There's no real specific reason why. I think some of it must come from my mother. She's a bit of a hippie and a lot of the food that we had growing up was raised locally. She was a gardener. She had an incredible garden. We didn't have a lot of packaged foods. [NOISE] I've been playing around with processing things in various restaurants for years but working with Courtney here has really made it possible to take it to the extent that we have here. Courtney and I started dating right when I took over at Bar Tartine and never planned to work together [BLANK_AUDIO] There was one day I believe when we had received a whole goat and hundreds of pounds of vegetables to process, and it was completely impossible. So, she came in to butcher the goat and never left. [NOISE] She was already processing a lot of things herself before we met. She was way into this stuff. So she's really talented and incredible with what she does. These things would never be possible without her here. [BLANK_AUDIO] When possible we try to make everything we can here in house. We make a lot of things. We make, give me one second to think about it. [LAUGH] [MUSIC] There's a large dairy program. We make dairy kefir, which is a cultured milk product. We make buttermilk and cultured butter We make yogurt. We make sour cream. [MUSIC] Fresh cheeses. There's long-aged cheeses, blues, pepper jacks, feta, halloumi, and then, even a fermented thousand oak cheese called Two Dollar Hungarian. In a specialty. [MUSIC] For cured meat items, we get into cured salamis and hams, cured lardo or pork fat, dried beef. We make bottarga from mullet roe that we get from my uncle in Florida. [MUSIC] As far as pickles go, we've done hundreds of different things. Constantly working to make our own capers out of a lot of green seeds and buds. We'll brine ferment all kinds of pickles. Do kind of Jewish deli style pickles. So we'll have green tomatoes, cucumbers, sometimes apples, all kinds of different pickles. [MUSIC] We make a lot of our spices in-house. [MUSIC] We dry peppers for paprika powder, green and red. We smoke peppers for chipotles. We make onion powder, garlic powder. We make our incredible [UNKNOWN] paste every year, by pureeing basically hundreds and hundreds of pounds of fresh peppers and letting them ferment and drying them out. Great paste to spread on bread. [MUSIC] We make vinegars. There will be citrus vinegars, cider vinegars from pear, from apple, quince vinegar. We make some traditional Japanese items. Koji, which is kind of the base of Japanese cooking. In the summer we'll get flageolet beans, or lima beans, and make meso out of it. We try to make all the non-alcoholic beverages in-house. [MUSIC] We dry a lot of flowers for our tea program. [MUSIC] There's a sparkling water keeper that's on draft. It's really tasty. We're constantly getting Fruit when it's season, and making syrups for our soda bases. [MUSIC] There's really no limit. We'll try to make as many products as we possibly can. [MUSIC] Some people think we're crazy for doing it. Maybe a little bit but I think a lot of it just kind of makes sense with the food. At the end of the day, the flavors can be better, so. I just don't think we can go back and do it any other way, now. [MUSIC] [BLANK_AUDIO]
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Chefs Feed: Nick Balla