Epicurean Concierge Leads Food Lovers Through Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto

by Sarah Henry on July 23, 2010 · 19 comments

in berkeley bites,food flotsam & jetsam,food foraging,restaurants

A former ad sales rep for Gourmet magazine (R.I.P.), Lisa Rogovin had what she calls her Eat, Pray, Love moment in 2005, meaning she left an unhappy marriage, sold the house, and embarked on a food-fueled journey around the world, visiting 14 countries (yes, India was in the mix) in seven months.

Before she left on her edible adventure, though, the food enthusiast sewed the seeds for her future happiness, both personally and professionally. She met the man who would become her second husband and she led a group of hotel guests on a culinary expedition of the San Francisco Ferry Building’s fine-food emporium.

Buoyed from her travels, she took up where she left off when she returned. The Venezuelan golf pro became her hubbie, and she launched her own business, In the Kitchen with Lisa, leading intimate food forays around the Bay Area’s culinary epicenters. Her field trips include the Ferry Building’s Marketplace and Farmers’ Market, West Marin food and wine top spots, and, more recently, the city’s Mission District’s eclectic eats.

And for the past two years, every Thursday between 11 am and 2 pm, Lisa or one of her team of seven tour guides, they call themselves epicurean concierges, walks a group who plonk down $75 a pop for the privilege around the Gourmet Ghetto in North Berkeley, arguably the birthplace of California cuisine and the growing food movement.  All while noshing on samples at eight different eateries and getting an insider’s perspective from the area’s food purveyors, restaurant owners, and chefs.

Last Thursday her tour began at Saul’s Restaurant and Delicatessen where, over local pastrami on ACME rye with house-made celery seed soda, co-owner Peter Levitt gave an impassioned overview of the demise of the Jewish deli and Saul’s controversial efforts to provide sustainable, yet authentic, Jewish foods.

Next stop, around the corner to Walnut Square for a quick primer on the evolution of Peet’s Coffee + Tea, (it took an immigrant from Holland to bring decent coffee to the States way back in the 1960s, though Alfred Peet would likely turn in his grave at all the frou-frou coffee drinks his brewing revolution spawned). Something savory? Check. Something bitter? Check.

It’s time for something sweet, so we head upstairs for mini cupcakes at Love at First Bite (what’s not to like?), a quick nod to The Juice Bar Collective (this being Berkeley, food politics are never far away) and then it’s time to don our bon vivant hats as we head into Vintage Berkeley wine shop for a tasting of good drops that cost less than 25 bucks.

Turns out, we’re just getting started.

We take a spin through the Epicurious Garden, Berkeley’s genteel version of a food court, for samples of artisanal offerings from neighborhood newbie Lush Gelato and Alegio Chocolate — and a celebrity sighting to boot — there’s author Michael Lewis, disguised as a dad, buying pie with one of his kids.

I’m entering food coma territory at this stage, and I suspect the group of mostly out-of-towners appreciate the short walk past Cesar, and Chez (photo op!), and other restaurants before experiencing something completely different, culinarily speaking, at the raw food temple Cafe Gratitude.

After sampling I Am Insightful (chard wrapped spring rolls) and I Am Thankful (coconut curry soup)  — one local wag once wrote of the labor intensive eats here “I am hungry and impatient” — we made our way to the grand finale, a swing through the kitchen of The Cheeseboard Collective, where cheese, sourdough bread, pizza, and huge chocolate chip cookies are eagerly devoured.

As a local, it’s easy to take for granted all the gourmet goodies we have in easy reach. But seen through the eyes of this group of 16 or so food fans, who hailed from Canada, Utah, Arizona, coastal California, and the Eastern States, I’m reminded, yet again, of the abundance of delicious fare in town.

Well fed, I sat down post tour to talk food with Rogovin, 40, who lives in San Francisco’s Noe Valley neighborhood with her husband and young son.

What do you enjoy about your job?

I love to give people, whether they’re from the Bay Area or somewhere else, an opportunity to experience great, authentic, local food. And I like to demystify the experience. I want visitors to see the food world through the eyes of the people who run these businesses. It gives people an intimate and informative view of the food scene and access they couldn’t get on their own. People who are interested in food want to know the background and the stories behind the food businesses they visit.  And, of course, they want to taste what these purveyors have to offer. It’s like showing people an artichoke, you want to peel back the layers to get to the heart of the matter.

What kind of skills do you need for this line of work?

You have to do a lot of leg work in advance, both in terms of research and coordinating the logistics on the day. During the tour you have put out a lot of energy and have good time management skills. You have to give people firm directions and tell them what to do and where to go.

You also need to be adaptable, depending on everything from the weather to the composition of the group, to what’s going on with the businesses you visit. You need to assess pretty quickly who your audience is and cater to it accordingly.

And you need to make people comfortable and feel welcome, by interacting with them around interests, such as food and travel. Being an epicurean concierge definitely has a performance aspect to it. You need to be on for the entire three hours, even though most peoples attention span starts to wan around the 30 minute mark. That’s why we keep things moving.

Describe the typical demographics of someone on your tour?

Our tours draw 60-70 percent Bay Area people, mostly women, ranging in age from 30s-70s. But today, as you saw, we had lots of out-of-towners, a mix of men and women, as well as some moms with daughters, and a couple of family groups with teenagers who are interested in cooking.

What do you bring home to eat after a tour?

I always pick up a Cheeseboard pizza. My husband is a big fan, so Thursday is pizza night in our house. I also really like the soups at SOOP, they’re wholesome and satisfying. If I’m feeling a bit under the weather I’ll get matzo ball soup from Saul’s.

How would you describe the difference between the food scene in Berkeley versus San Francisco?

It’s a little slower paced here, there’s a little more rustic natural elegance. The city is a bit slicker in comparison.

Readers: Where would you want to eat on a Berkeley food tour. If you’re a local — or know the town –where do you take visitors to eat here?

[Photos: Robert Durell]

This post originally appeared on Berkeleyside.

You might also like:

Eat, Pray, Love: Still Hungry

Berkeley Bites: Tu David Phu, Saul’s Delicatessen

Giving Thanks With Cafe Gratitude

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Patti at Camp Blogaway July 23, 2010 at 10:59 am

Great to know about the food tours “up there.” My hubby and I really love these types of tours, and if you ever get to So. Cal, there are quite a few as well. Nice post!
Patti at Camp Blogaway´s last [type] ..diag-stripe

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Sarah Henry July 23, 2010 at 5:47 pm

Hi Patti, Nice to see you here and thanks for passing along that tip. I think it’s always great when someone who knows an area or subject can give you the inside scoop, whether it’s a good friend or a hired guide, just adds to the experience.

It’s why I like going to galleries with folks who know a thing or two about the fine arts.

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Sheryl July 24, 2010 at 4:38 am

This sounds like so much fun. A day well spent, I say! What a great, fun idea for a business. I really enjoyed reading about this. One thing to add – how about an ice cream/gelato/frozen yogurt tour?

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Sarah Henry July 24, 2010 at 9:28 am

Hey Sheryl, I thought the same thing — what a fun business to run. We did sample some gelato but as you point out there are many ways you could package these food tours — by ethnic eats or particular products (ice cream, chocolate, bakeries), for instance. But I quite liked getting a little taste of everything.

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The Writer's [Inner] Journey July 24, 2010 at 4:37 pm

I really love this idea – and what a great way to not only get to know the best food spots but to learn about why they’re so good from someone who knows, understands and gets food. Just terrific.
The Writer’s [Inner] Journey´s last [type] ..Social Media and Writers- Tips for a Harmonious Relationship

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Sarah Henry July 24, 2010 at 6:49 pm

Exactly, Meredith. And I think folks really responded to the passion of the people making and selling this artisanal fare.

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Kerry Dexter July 25, 2010 at 7:17 am

I’d heard about Lisa’s tours, but this is my first time reading about one in detail — and from a writer who also knows about food. Thanks, Sarah.
Kerry Dexter´s last [type] ..music and landscape

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Sarah Henry July 29, 2010 at 6:32 pm

Curious, Kerry, since you’re not local, where/how you heard about Lisa’s tours? I have a good friend in Singapore who is pretty sure they crossed paths on a food trip when she was in San Francisco on a corporate trip. Small world department.

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Jules Pieri July 29, 2010 at 2:00 pm

Sarah, As one of the lucky people on the same tour with you it was really fun to re-live the experience through your eyes. And your eyes are pretty sharp! As you know, I was accompanied by four men…my husband and sons ages 15 to 21. Lisa had plenty of variety to keep the whole group entertained. Cafe Gratitude was a particular touchstone…when we went out for something totally ordinary the next day (burgers maybe) one joked “What?… nothing raw or green?”

I returned to buy a dozen cupcakes at Love at First Bite, for a dinner party that night. They were a huge crowd-pleaser. Especially the Red Velvet. My youngest is hankering to make his own version now. He apparently has forgotten the Red Velvet cakes I have made over the years….
Jules Pieri´s last [type] ..Jill-able

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Sarah Henry July 29, 2010 at 6:34 pm

Hi Jules, Nice to see you here. Your family was adorable — all three boys very interested in either cooking or eating food — or both!

I think that young one of yours is destined to a culinary career, don’t you think?

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