Slow Food Folks Serve Fast Food with Style

by Sarah Henry on August 6, 2010 · 21 comments

in berkeley bites,comfort food,food businesses,restaurants

Chef owners Paul Arenstam and Charlene Reis have a slow food sensibility in a take-out business better known for fast food. That’s because the culinary couple (partners in life too) come with stellar cooking credentials: She’s an-ex Chez Panisse pastry chef, he did stints at upscale L.A. joints before landing at San Francisco’s acclaimed Rubicon. A decade ago Arenstam opened his own restaurant, Belon, in the city by the bay.

But running a high-end brasserie in the gritty Tenderloin area proved untenable; when business faltered, he shut up shop and picked up a gig as the executive chef at the Americano Restaurant in the city’s hipster Hotel Vitale.

Earlier this year, Arenstam, 45, made the move to work full-time in the family store, swapping dishing up fancy food in the Embarcadero, for serving sandwiches, salads, pasta, pizzas, and roasts in Berkeley’s up-market Elmwood neighborhood at Summer Kitchen & Bake Shop, which he and Reis opened last fall.

These working parents know what it’s like to put in long hours and then wonder what to serve for dinner. Reis, 41, who has taught cooking classes at Washington Elementary, a Berkeley public school, had first-hand experience with moms and dads who wanted to get good food on the table but felt pressed for time. That conundrum helped spark the concept for the pair’s food business.

The store has become a popular go-to destination for gourmet picnic fixings and received kudos on Berkeleyside and elsewhere for their simple yet delicious dishes. We’re talking seasonal picks such as Wild Arugula and Grilled Nectarine Salad and Herbed Orzo Pasta with Cucumber, Peppers, and Feta. And that dessert counter? Don’t get me started.

They’ve also landed in a little hot water with local merchants about whether or not folks should be able to sit and eat what’s coming out of the kitchen. You can read about that complex zoning debate here. What everyone seems to agree on: The food is good, seriously good. And it reflects the duo’s slow food background: Two years ago, Arenstam served as a delegate to Terra Madre, the biannual Slow Food gathering in Turin, Italy.

I talked with the couple, who live in Piedmont, California, with their school-age son Theo, at the shop’s communal wooden table a couple of weeks ago.

What’s the story behind the store’s name?

Charlene: Paul and I worked in restaurants on Martha’s Vineyard early on in our relationship. If you’ve spent time there over the summer you know there’s an easiness to life; it’s really a magical place. That’s also where I, a Southern Californian, discovered the New England “summer kitchen” tradition: An outbuilding with a kitchen away from the main house, where cooking, canning, baking, and preserving takes place. The idea behind it is to keep the main home cool during the summer harvest season. I like to think we serve as the “summer kitchen” for the people who frequent our store. We’re really an extension of our customers’ kitchens.

Can you give us a taste of the kind of food you serve?

Paul: We’re trying to offer people something of a fine-dining experience in a grab-and-go environment. And we want it to be both family friendly and sustainable. So we sell Fulton Valley Farms fried chicken tenders — we can’t keep enough of them — you’re getting a familiar, comfort food, but it’s raised locally, organically, and sustainably. And it’s cooked in a clean oil and all our kitchen grease ends up as biodiesel fuel.

How does it feel to run a take-out shop after years in high-end restaurants?

Paul: It’s humbling. I like to joke that I have 25 years as a professional chef in some of the best restaurants around and now I make sandwiches, salads, and pizza. But it’s really how we eat ourselves right now as a busy, young family. We’re selling the kind and quality of food that we would want to pick up for dinner.

Seating snafu aside, have you had any other hiccups as a new food business?

Paul: I’m always thinking of ways we can be more efficient with the food, while maintaining the quality we want to provide. People want to be able to just walk in and pick up dinner in a hurry. They really don’t want to wait for something to be prepared or cooked. But good food is made with hands. Finding that balance is a challenge.

What else do you have cooking for the shop?

Charlene: We’d like to showcase more local food artisans. Currently we offer pantry items from Blue Chair Jams, Happy Girl Kitchen and Blue Bottle Coffee.

What’s good about working for yourselves?

Charlene: Seeing the vision come to life. It looks and feels exactly the way I thought it would.

What say you readers: Is it possible to offer slow food in a fast-food setting?

And do you think local takeaway places should be allowed to provide seating for their customers? Chime in below.

[This post originally appeared on Berkeleyside.]

You might also like:

Alice Waters’ 40 Year Campaign for Good Food

Berkeley Bites: Elmwood Cafe Feeds People and Funds Worthy Projects

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Alexandra August 6, 2010 at 11:34 am

Oh, definitely! To answer your first question. It’s a funny mixture, the concept of “slow” food where you take the time to enjoy it, served up as fast food. But, why not?

I think take-away places should offer a few seats. Most of the business will remain take-out. A few people eating in can do no harm.
Alexandra´s last [type] ..Whats Happening in Wellfleet

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Sarah Henry August 6, 2010 at 11:42 am

I tend to agree with you, Sandy, on both fronts. Still, you should see the controversy a table and chairs can stir up among local merchants.

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michelle August 6, 2010 at 11:55 am

I am so annoyed that an Elmwood merchant would lash out at a fellow merchant.

As a resident of the neighborhood, I have been so thrilled with the caliber of new shops and eateries popping up over the past few years. At last we have a diversity of healthy and delicious options. Summer Kitchen, Elmwood Cafe, Ici and the new little market around the corner on Ashby are all wonderful additions to the community.

My work keeps me on the run. I often don’t have time to sit down in a proper restaurant and order a meal. I don’t want to eat junk and being able to pop into Summer Kitchen, grab something delicious, and sit for a moment is frequently a highlight in my day.

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Sarah Henry August 6, 2010 at 12:07 pm

Well said, Michelle. I think many local residents would agree with your sentiment.

I’m only sorry that the ‘hood finally has a range of good eating options after I leave the area. Still, all the more reason to visit ye ol’ stomping ground.

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Christine at Origami Mommy August 6, 2010 at 4:30 pm

I love the concept of a “summer kitchen;” how perfectly it captures what they are doing. I wish I lived closer to this shop. It sounds delicious.
Christine at Origami Mommy´s last [type] ..Gather- pleat- smock- and sew

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Sarah Henry August 6, 2010 at 9:59 pm

I know, Christine, it was a new concept to me but I like the idea of it as well.

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MyKidsEatSquid August 6, 2010 at 6:10 pm

I just read about a restaurant in my area that’s doing the same thing with Italian food. The family–with four daughters–makes the pasta each day from scratch to serve to families on the go. I haven’t been yet, but your post reminds me that I need to give it a try. I love supporting local businesses, especially those that are trying to use quality–and tasty!–ingredients

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Sarah Henry August 6, 2010 at 10:00 pm

Pasta from scratch: Such a simple yet satisfying dish. Let us know what you discover, MKES.

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Andi August 8, 2010 at 12:46 pm

My hubby and I were just discussing this topic over lunch. I definitely believe that slow food can be offered in a fast food environment. I would like to see more of these types of places. One of the arguments for traditional fast foods is the convenience, a place like this kills that argument!
Andi´s last [type] ..Happy birthday Alisa Bowman!

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sarah henry August 8, 2010 at 10:54 pm

I’m with you Andi: Many healthy whole foods can also be made quite quickly, negating the convenience argument of so-called fast food.

Not a huge fan here of the term “slow food,” I think it’s confusing or even meaningless to many people.

But Paul Arenstam’s quote that good food is made with hands, well, it’s hard to argue against that notion, wouldn’t you agree?

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Andi August 9, 2010 at 7:56 am

I agree! That was part of the convo my hubby and I were having too. It should just be said, eat good food!
Andi´s last [type] ..Happy birthday Alisa Bowman!

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Stephanie - Wasabimon August 9, 2010 at 7:54 am

You’re just the perfect source for new stuff around here. Really, you should create a list of the eateries you’ve outlined for easy perusing!
Stephanie – Wasabimon´s last [type] ..Clark Summit Meat Club Farm Tour Bonnie Powell’s Chicken Salad Recipe

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sarah henry August 11, 2010 at 7:42 am

There’s an idea, Steph.

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The Writer's [Inner] Journey August 10, 2010 at 7:26 am

I like the juxtaposition of opposites in their move from high end to take out. Like anything else, I believe these switches make each experience fuller and better.
The Writer’s [Inner] Journey´s last [type] ..How about writing a manuscript in 1 month- 4 days

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sarah henry August 11, 2010 at 7:43 am

You’re probably onto something there, Meredith.

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sheryl August 11, 2010 at 4:45 pm

I have a feeling this is not anyone’s salads, sandwiches and pizzas. And yes, definitely sounds like it’s worth sitting down for!

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