Bread, Cheese, and Banter: On Artisan Food, City Arts & Lectures

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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 last night 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 on 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.

To see Severson's schtick in person, stop by Omnivore Books tonight at 6 p.m., where she'll be reading from and signing copies of Spoon Fed.

Photo Credits: Chad Robertson (Tartine Bakery), Sue Conley (Cowgirl Creamery), Kim Severson (