At the new Chocolate Lab dessert café from Michael and Jacky Recchiuti, there is a bounty of sweets -- adult sundaes, chocolates, caramels, cookies, pastries and classic drinking chocolate. Still, it’s best to plan ahead and opt for a full meal here, since there are savory delights like a goat cheese tourteau and tartines made with bay shrimp and seasonal root vegetables. The savory items are ones that Michael has perfected over the years and reminds him of travels to Europe. He’s openly passionate about using the best produce our Northern California has to offer. The sweet Chocolate Lab space formerly housed Piccino and has been refreshed to suit Recchiuti’s cooking needs and eye for design. There is rooftop Dogpatch honey, plants from Flora Grubb, walls and tabletops from fallen timber elm, and mouth blown glass hanging from the ceiling. After ordering, each table gets a beaker of water, in keeping with the lab theme. Chocolate Lab is open late and has wine, beer and an intriguing probiotic soda from Drinkwell Softers. Young families, couples, travelers and folks doing relaxed meetings were spotted on recent visits. I interviewed Michael Recchiuti in person on what his life is like now that Chocolate Lab has opened.
Bay Area Bites: What are you favorite holiday foods?
Recchiuti: Oh God. Aside from chocolate? [laughs] I just love turkey and stuffing. I always have to have mashed potatoes or sweet potatoes -- and a good stuffing. If we’re cooking a capon or a turkey, I’ll change the stuffing. I don’t like the really dry crunchy stuffing. It’s like marshmallows: some people like them toasted at different levels.
Bay Area Bites: Which Recchiuti products do you recommend for the holidays as gifts?
Recchiuti: I always think of things that can be shared, where there’s more than one of the same. Our Burgundy Box ($83) has 32 pieces. Or try the Dragee Sampler ($29), which is like fancy bridge mix. People can dive into it. There are also Fleur de Sel salted caramels ($23).
Our PEPs (Peppermint Thins $18) are great because there’s a lot in the box. That’s my Junior Mint substitute -- I’ll take it to the movies. Jacky and I go to Sundance because we can book a seat and show up right when the show starts. We get spoiled and it’s tough to see a film elsewhere because at Sundance, you can have a drink and something to eat.
Bay Area Bites: How do you celebrate the holidays?
Recchiuti: Usually with a lot of relaxation because we're just coming off a busy holiday with the chocolate factory. Normally we’ll go see a movie and hang out with a small group of friends who are in the food industry. This past Thanksgiving, I ordered a turkey kit from Bi-Rite and told them “I’m having seven to eight people over.” It had everything in it. People bring pies and we may do hot chocolate. My go-to dessert is always the tarte tatin. It’s simple: apples, butter, puff pastry. Serve it with little bit of ice cream.
Bay Area Bites: You’ve been making confections since 1997, and have retail outlets at the Ferry Building and Little Nib, around the corner from Chocolate Lab. Having a restaurant is a new development. What’s it been like? What are your favorite menu items?
Recchiuti: It’s definitely been different. It’s not the first time I’ve opened a place but it has been awhile. We’ve just been trying to get people to think of it as more than a place for dessert. I am kind of getting used to the groove again—there’s service, with people walking in the door versus when I’m making chocolate and making things in advance. That’s like wine and cigars or precious cargo, where you’re releasing stock.
My favorite menu items are the Tourteau Fromage or Goat Cheese Souffle with a salad. I’ve been trying to perfect it for a while. I wouldn’t call it a cheesecake because it’s lighter than that. Have it with a drizzle of early harvest olive oil and Hawaiian pink salt. The other thing I really like is the vegetarian tartines. We change with the seasons and now we’re into root vegetables that are sliced thin then kept overnight. It’s like vegetable lasagna and we serve it with chickpea spread and salsa verde. We keep it kind of clean and not too garlicky, and there’s also a little Parmesan. People with dietary restrictions can get them.
Two of our workers are gluten intolerant so we’re working on gluten-free bread. A lot of gluten-free people make requests, too. Gluten-free bread mixes differently, and bakes differently. It burns really fast. Some gluten-free bread turns out good, and some of it’s like cardboard. There’s a really good gluten-free flour that Thomas Keller has. I made pasta and pastry crust with it and also made pastry crust with it and cut butter into it.
As for the vegan thing, we can serve it without the cheese. We have an apiary across the street and the woman who lives upstairs is managing it. She pulls the combs off. We have big slabs and racks. The spring honey is very light and clear. The one from last week is like blackstrap molasses. The bees are local, and they’re traveling 4-5 miles.
Bay Area Bites: Chocolate Lab is inspired by your early years as a savory and pastry chef and your travels with Jacky. How did that come about?
Recchiuti: The whole concept is about our travels to Paris. We would always go into this tartine shop in the 6th arrondissement and were fascinated because it was right next to the famous bakery called Poilâne. They serve beer, wine, a tartine and salad. That’s it. They make the bread.
The other funny thing is I used to make the tarte tatin [dessert] during the last job I had in Vermont. There was a British chef who said, “You have no idea what you’re doing. Let me show you how to make it.” His version was so much more rustic and refined in the amount of butter and the amount of pastry. Once I tried his, I was like, “This is fantastic.”
Bay Area Bites: What’s the secret to working together and staying married?
Recchiuti: We both divide and conquer. Jacky’s over at the office working and I’m here working. A lot of times we are in the same physical space. We give each other autonomy and space. I try not to interfere in what she’s working on. It’s hard to shake talking about work, how to craft and shape it. We’ve been together for 20 years....
Bay Area Bites: What are you most passionate about food-wise?
Recchiuti: All the fresh ingredients we’ve been getting from the farms: winter greens and the root vegetables. I didn't realize there were so many kinds of carrots. The watermelon radishes are wonderful. They drop it off at 4 a.m. and it’s like a gift. It’s nice to not work with chocolate -- I love chocolate but it’s a nice shift. With this great produce, you don’t have to manipulate and do too much to the product. That’s probably where Alice Waters and everyone started: out of the ground and onto the table. We can do that here in California and we’re spoiled that way. It was different on the East Coast. You cut, chop, puree, and blanch unless it’s summer.
Bay Area Bites: Who are your mentors?
Recchiuti: Raymond Moderski owned a bunch of restaurants. He spent a lot time working with me in my teens and twenties allowing me to see how things worked. We’d go to his house and bake all day long. He’d do that because he loved it.
Pascal Janvier from Fleur de Cocoa in Los Gatos is another mentor. He recently sold his business and packed his bags to go to Australia with his wife. I worked with him a lot when I was on the East Coast. He was patient and very generous with information. A lot of European chefs aren’t like that. They yell.
Bay Area Bites: What are the best and worst things about being in the confection and restaurant business?
Recchiuti: The best part for both? Before we opened Chocolate Lab, my work was behind the scenes. Here you’re more directly involved with people as they’re having their experience. You get to experience in real time both criticism and accolades. It helps your craft to know immediately what people like and what they don’t like. The hard part is figuring out how to do it well. You can’t make everyone happy. We’re tweaking the menu descriptions and just listening. That way, people will help me craft it.
Bay Area Bites: What are the lessons you’ve learned on the way?
Recchiuti: I did a fig and pink peppercorn and realized it tasted like dirt. It just didn’t work. Then there was a chocolate beet torte and I couldn't put the word “beet” on the menu. People would enjoy it, but then they’d see the pink in the torte and say, “What’s that?”
Bay Area Bites: Do you have any favorite Bay Area spots?
Recchiuti: Bar Tartine is really fun. I love what he’s doing with all the seasoning and dry herbs, bold flavors and textures. The wine list is really good.
Sometimes we don’t make it as far as Dig wine around the corner. We’ll have a glass of wine between lunch and dinner service. We live here and I call it "The Chocolate Triangle" because we have Little Nib, Chocolate Lab and our warehouse all nearby.
INFORMATION: Chocolate Lab Address:Map
807 22nd St (at Tennessee St.)
San Francisco, CA 94107 Phone: 415-489-2882 Hours:
Fri & Sat 11am–11pm Facebook:Chocolate Lab Twitter:@ChocolateLabSF