A new generation of restaurateurs is taking family recipes and running with them, shaping one of the hottest trends in casual/fast-casual dining — the 100 percent scratch-made menu, for here or to go. (I wrote about what specifically defines "made from scratch" in part 1.)
What started in San Francisco with the hand-crafted, artisanal, locally sourced, sustainable, farm-to-fork movement has morphed all the way to Boston, with a significant stopover or two in Colorado. The result is diners lining up around the block every day for a taste of dishes inspired by the love of cooking with real, fresh ingredients.
Michael Y. J. Wang is a Harvard MBA and comes from a long line of restaurateurs. His grandfather founded a chain of dumpling shops in China that stayed in the family for half a century. So it's only natural that Wang has built his Asian sandwich bar, Foumami, on the family's Beijing-style recipes.
The name is a fusion of the Mandarin word for Buddah and the Japanese "umami," the "fifth taste." Wang has drawn inspiration from diverse cuisines across the continent — the Vietnamese bahn mi sandwiches, Japanese katsu and Korean barbecue for his fillings — but the foundation of Foumami, literally, is the flatbread from Shandong Province called shao bing. Crisp and flaky on the outside, chewy and soft on the inside, this fresh-baked bread is insanely good on its own. Then wrap it around braised beef brisket with scallion, cucumber and cilantro, add a side of edamame or Asian potato salad, and that's a lunch worth lining up for.
Breakfast sandwiches, with fillings like brisket and egg or spicy veggies and avocado, are served on the handmade baked scallion pancakes that are also served with the salads and two daily soups.
Wang has yet to have his offerings analyzed for nutritional content, but every menu includes a note asking patrons to inform the server if any person in the party has a food allergy.
Foumami sandwiches are assembled in minutes from ingredients that take hours to prepare. The kitchen opens at 6 a.m. each day, when the staff begins chopping the produce, cooking the meat, baking the shao bing and the pancakes, and preparing the day's soups, sauces and dressings. Nothing comes from a bottle, according to Wang. Even the iced teas are brewed in house, with flavor infusions from fresh ginger root, cinnamon bark, Chinese red dates and, when they are in season, kumquats.
It's a labor-intensive way to run a sandwich shop, but the MBA side of Wang calculated that a weekday-only restaurant opened in the Financial District in the depths of the Great Recession – July 2010 – would have nowhere to go but up. Still, like any sandwich shop, Foumami's margins are fairly thin – lunches include a sandwich and a side for between $7 and $8 — and Wang says he is crazy careful with his money. That doesn't mean another location is out of the question, perhaps in the near future.
Innovative scratch cooking in a casual setting isn't something that happens only in big cities on the coast. Fort Collins, Colo., is home to less than 150,000 people (not including Colorado State University students) and the new hit eatery Restaurant 415 – named for its downtown address on Mason Street. Located in an old garage space that formerly housed the 2008 Democratic campaign headquarters, 415 was opened in March 2012, by a group of young entrepreneurs who met while working at the locally renowned Rio Grande Mexican Restaurant.
The Rio, which has evolved into a statewide chain with six location, was in turn founded in Fort Collins in 1986 by young entrepreneurs from the Gulf Coast, including the Mouton twins, Andre and Stephen. Andre Mouton and his daughter, Amelia, are part of The Mason Street 5 who created 415 (and yes, Samuel from The Voice is Amelia's brother and he really works there as a pizza chef).
"I grew up in the restaurant business with the idea that fresh ingredients make good, delicious food," Amelia said. "I started working at the Rio when I was 15. I've always cooked from scratch, like my whole family — both my grandmothers, both my parents."
The menu at 415 features $3.60 plates, $5.45 plates, starters, pizzas and desserts, with lunch sandwiches and dinner mains. The most expensive thing on the menu is the $16 dinner ribeye. The signature cocktails in the full bar are mixed with hand-juiced ginger and citrus and, this being the Napa Valley of Beer, the brews are mostly local. All the dinner entrees are gluten-free, and at least one daily soup and a number of the standard offerings are also vegan; others can be adjusted on request.
"It's the modern way of eating, and we want everyone to be able to enjoy a meal with their friends," Amelia said. "We are really sensitive to people with food allergies."
Not only is everything on the menu – from the fried chicken with orange-scented waffles and the mac and cheese (with or without bacon) to the pizza dough and all the sauces, marinades and dressings — made from scratch, the ingredients are sourced as locally as possible. In fact, Amelia's cousin started a small farming operation to supply the restaurant with fresh vegetables and herbs; he's adding more acreage next year to meet demand from other kitchens as well.
The menu changes seasonally with the fresh produce, which makes it a challenge to complete a nutritional analysis, Amelia said. The restaurant works with a local food distributor that has developed relationships with growers and producers throughout Colorado to bring whatever is in season to the 415 chefs.
"Our winter menu will feature dishes with Hazel Dell Mushrooms (an organic grower in south Fort Collins)," Amelia said. "It's exciting to get to build new dishes around what is fresh. We are so lucky to have such a wonderful, creative kitchen staff, and they have the space to play around with food. I'm learning so much every day and get to do what I love."
The creative staff also keeps 415's prices competitive in a town remarkably crammed with restaurants.
"Other restaurants have the same access to fresh ingredients, and in the long run (fresh ingredients) really aren't that much more expensive if you know how to cook," Amelia said. "Diners really respond to our cooking
With the business only being less than a year old but wildly successful, Amelia said the Mason Street 5 are already "dreaming up our next place and how to affect this town with good food."
But right now, they're having too much fun where they are – and so are their patrons.