Bread, Cheese and Banter: On Artisan Food

by Sarah Henry on April 26, 2011 · 27 comments

in baking,bay area bites,food books,food events

Kim Severson, Chad Robertson, Sue Conley
Kim Severson, Chad Robertson, Sue Conley

Somebody get Kim Severson a TV gig stat.

Seriously, The New York Times staff writer, currently the Atlanta bureau chief, is friendly and funny — she reminds me a little of Ellen DeGeneres — and a top-notch interviewer to boot.

And Severson knows food: She covers the beat for the Times and before that for the San Francisco Chronicle. Last year she authored Spoon Fed: How Eight Cooks Saved My Life, where she sings the praises of a group of female food icons, including Alice Waters and Ruth Reichl, who have played an important role in her personal and professional life. In an increasingly overcrowded genre (food memoir) Spoon Fed stands out for both its authenticity and candor.

Severson was in conversation March 2 as part of the City Arts & Lectures series with cheese maker Sue Conley, the co-founder of the celebrated Cowgirl Creamery in Point Reyes Station, and master baker Chad Robertson, co-owner with wife and pastry chef Elisabeth Prueitt of Tartine Bakery and Bar Tartine in the Mission, where long lines can be found for the store’s over-the-top baked goods, desserts, and Robertson’s coveted rustic bread.

The baker’s new book, Tartine Bread (Chronicle Books, $40), is a step-by-step guide to making his signature loaves — complete with 29-page instructions for his Basic Country Bread. Queuing to buy may not seem as daunting as tackling his trademark crust. (Read a recent review of Tartine Bread on BAB by Megan Gordon.)

The topic for the evening? “On Artisan Food,” which seemed fitting for two food purveyors known for their singular obsessions, turning out small batches of award-winning, high-quality products using premium ingredients. What could be a more fundamental food than bread and cheese? And yet these two craftspeople have elevated their chosen culinary pursuit to cult-like status.

Am I alone in thinking the Herbst Theatre — with its bright lights, high-backed, stiff-looking chairs, Persian rug, and formal backdrop — is not the warmest or coziest of places to curl up for a chat in front of an audience numbering in the hundreds?

Here’s where Severson showed her craft. From the get-go she loosened up the crowd and her interview subjects with one well-placed quip after another. There was the nod to the news with a Charlie Sheen reference and the jokey asides; when Conley confessed that her adventures with cheese began when she fell for a Marin County park ranger Severson sighed: “Ah, that’s where it always start.” She asked the probing questions in a soft-peddled way, with queries like: “Is there a point in every small producers life where you just want to see your products on the shelves at Costco?” which played for good-natured laughs.

Another thing I admired: Severson didn’t use the stage as an opportunity to flack her own book, which is just plain tacky. Trust me, though, I’ve been to enough of these kinds of evenings to witness such bad behavior. At a recent book event the interviewer in question used his allotted time with the audience to talk up his own tome as often as possible, and while he promised to ask the author sitting next to him about his own work it never happened. Cringe worthy.

Severson teased out interesting tidbits that engaged both her fellow stage members and the audience. Who knew Robertson’s wife is gluten-intolerant and can’t eat wheat? Or that Cowgirl Creamery stopped selling its popular quark (a spreadable, creamy cheese) because it didn’t pass muster with a then 80-something taste tester searching for the soft cheese of his German youth.

There was plenty of talk about cheese rinds, bread starts, and what it means to be a food artisan too. Also discussed: Conley’s self-described epic fails and Robertson’s new-found fascination with ancient whole grains. And there was Severson’s running gag about resenting waiting in line for “100 hours” for Robertson’s bread (“I’m not bitter.”). The entire program is scheduled for broadcast on KQED this Sunday, May 1 at 1 p.m. Take note: Robertson offers frustrated food lovers a tip about how to avoid the crowds at Tartine too.

This post originally appeared on KQED’s Bay Area Bites.

You might also like:

Book Giveaway: Spoon Fed by Kim Severson
Good Food Awards Showcases Sustainable Food Artisans
Mission Reinvention: Food Businesses Buck Recession

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{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

Sheryl April 26, 2011 at 7:15 am

You get to go to the best events! This one sounds really special, as do the presenters. Anything to do with bread and cheese – two of my very favorites – gets my interest.


Sarah Henry April 26, 2011 at 7:27 am

Agreed, Sheryl, on both fronts. So many folks I know giving up bread and cheese — it’s an age thing, I guess — but that would be tough for me in this town.


Casey@Good. Food. Stories. April 27, 2011 at 5:55 pm

Love bread, love cheese, love reading Severson’s work – I’d never be able to give up any of them!
Casey@Good. Food. Stories.´s last [type] ..Happy Birthday- Bakery- One Year in Business


Elliot April 26, 2011 at 5:48 pm

She is really a good author!


Sarah Henry April 27, 2011 at 5:31 am

No argument here, Elliot.


Melanie Haiken April 26, 2011 at 10:22 pm

KS’s personality really shines through in this profile. It’s always nice to get a sense of the personality behind the writing. Thanks!


Sarah Henry April 27, 2011 at 5:31 am

Pleasure, M. I think you’d enjoy her book too.


Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart April 27, 2011 at 7:33 am

Sounds like a fun outing with smart, interesting people. I’m jealous.


Sarah Henry April 27, 2011 at 9:28 am

And I’m jealous you’re in NYC meeting with editors, agents, and fellow scribes, Roxanne. Hope all goes well.


Jennifer Margulis April 27, 2011 at 8:07 am

Sounds like an amazing evening. Wish I could have been there! Hope she DOES get a food channel TV gig!


Sarah Henry April 27, 2011 at 9:29 am

Stay tuned, Jennifer.


Jill Silverman Hough April 27, 2011 at 8:36 am

You’re totally right about Kim needing a TV show! Immediately after her interview with Ruth Reichl, after Ruth’s keynote address, at IACP last year, I was in an elevator with a bunch of attendees, and one said “I’ve got a serious girl-crush on Kim Severson!” And everyone in the elevator sort of sighed in agreement. We were all totally smitten. Cooking Channel, are you listening???


Sarah Henry April 27, 2011 at 9:32 am

Hilarious, Jill. I was in a small session that Kim moderated at the same IACP conference where she worked the room Oprah style. She was a crack up, and at one emotional point during a panelist’s presentation about his war-torn country, a fellow food blogger even cried, and Kim just seemed to know how to handle the change in tone with kindness and humor.


Jill Silverman Hough April 27, 2011 at 10:03 am

She really has quite a skill, doesn’t she? Maybe from being a reporter, interviewing people. No matter – I’m a total, gushing fan.


Sarah Henry April 27, 2011 at 12:30 pm

Oh, yes, she’s an ace reporter, something I totally admire about her. Bit of a dying breed. I like to get interviewing technique tips from watching other journos in action. One thing I learned from Kim: The way to soft ball a hard ball question with a bit of wit and a mumble, like she’s almost sorry, she has to ask, and then she waits patiently for a response. It’s a skill, for sure. Okay, enough gushing. Back to the day job.


Jill Silverman Hough April 27, 2011 at 3:35 pm

Good tips – not just how to pitch a hardball question, but to remember to pay attention and learn from the masters!


The Writer's [Inner] Journey April 27, 2011 at 11:53 am

She does sound like a lot of fun and very down to earth. I don’t watch the food shows but now you’ve even got me rooting that she’ll get one!
The Writer’s [Inner] Journey´s last [type] ..Zadie Smith offers her 10 tenets of writing


MyKidsEatSquid April 27, 2011 at 12:42 pm

You’re right–give that woman a TV gig. It sounds like a wonderful evening. Did I miss it, or did you get samples as part of the festivities?

BTW–here in Ohio, there are many creameries. Unfortunately all of the ones near my house seem to specialize in goat cheese, which I’m still learning to appreciate.


Sarah Henry April 27, 2011 at 1:44 pm

Oh, samples, what a very good idea, MKES. Next time, perhaps?


Lisa Rogovin April 27, 2011 at 2:10 pm

It’s a good day when I have a moment to brush my teeth AND I get to read Lettuce Eat Kale. Thanks for keeping me informed and intelligent about the subjects I love!


Sarah Henry April 27, 2011 at 2:27 pm

Lisa, you made my day, you really did. Thanks for chiming in. And since I believe in the synchronicity of threes, I hope you get to add one more thing to your little list that makes you happy before the day is done.


Donna Hull April 28, 2011 at 7:33 am

What a fun event. Severson should definitely have a program on the food channel.
Donna Hull´s last [type] ..Saturday‚Äôs scene- Charming Eze


Sarah Henry May 3, 2011 at 10:12 am

Stay tuned, Donna, you just never know.


Jane Boursaw May 4, 2011 at 4:12 pm

Bread and cheese – two of my favorite foods on the planet. And really, so many options on both counts. And Kim sounds like a hoot. I’ll keep my eye out for her.
Jane Boursaw´s last [type] ..Three Osama Bin Laden Movies Already in the Works


Sarah Henry May 7, 2011 at 11:10 pm

I’m with you, Jane, a bread and cheese gal. Would be tough to give up either one, and yet I know so many folks who are.


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