Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one-year anniversary.
[Photos: Aubrie Pick]
Last November, the beloved San Francisco chocolatier duo of Michael and Jacky Recchiuti expanded their presence with Chocolate Lab, a Dogpatch café. Boasting locally-crafted hanging glass fixtures reminiscent of chemistry class and wood-lined walls reclaimed from a single fallen Berkeley elm, Chocolate Lab started out quite modestly on the savory side, with a handful of Parisian tartines accenting its flotilla of swoon-worthy desserts. As the year progressed, the couple sought to meet the neighborhood's needs, transitioning from café to restaurant, and bringing on their former consultant, chef Sante Salvoni, full-time. Concurrently, they're in the process of taking Chocolate out of their name, changing it to The Lab. Eater recently caught up with the couple over their signature Lab cake to discuss neighborhood changes, Chocolat, and their plans for the future.
You're one year into the Chocolate Lab. While this isn't your first business venture, it is your first restaurant venture in San Francisco. How has it been?
Jacky Recchiuti: Well, this is our first restaurant as far as the chocolate business is concerned, but Michael has a history in actually both savory and sweet. On the East Coast, he opened several restaurants.
Michael Recchiuti: I had a different version of a café like this in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. It was called Café Dijon, and I was the working partner there [out of three owners]. One of the owners was from Paris, so we did a lot of tartines and sandwiches, but it was a little too far out there for Lancaster for that time. We had a farm we were bringing things in from, and we had someone bake bread for us. And we were there for about two years, and then moved out to the West Coast.
What did you start doing when you moved out here?
MR: I started working for Taste Catering. I started their whole dessert program. I did that for about five years, and I was able to test things on my own while I was working for them. Jacky and I met during that time, and from there, we moved to Vermont. I got a teaching gig, and Jacky desperately needed some R&R from working in the restaurant business for so long. We did that for a year, and then we helped open up a boutique resort in Vermont. We were there for four years in total, and then we moved back here to open up a chocolate business.
Seems like you guys are lifers.
MR: Oh yeah.
JR: In opening up the café, we wanted to create something in the neighborhood that highlighted what we love about traveling: being able to eat like the locals. And of course, we wanted something to complement Michael's dessert-making. The original premise was to embellish the chocolate side of the business by introducing people to Michael's desserts, and with the wine and beer license, we were basically required to do something savory. We didn't want to do just cheese and charcuterie. But there's been some interesting discoveries over the last year.
What kind of discoveries?
JR: Dogpatch, for the longest time, didn't have the luxury of having nice restaurants in the neighborhood. With Serpentine and Piccino spearheading, or pretty much bushwhacking, into the neighborhood...I think it was the impetus for wanting to be part of the community, because those were the places we would go to while working over here [at our commercial kitchen]. So, when the opportunity to take over the little Piccino came up, as they moved to the other corner, it was just the perfect timing for us.
How did it come to fruition?
JR: Originally, we wanted to highlight the desserts and then have some savory. We've since discovered that the neighborhood really needed a place to come to, aside from the anchoring restaurants. So, it's been an evolution. I think that's why we wanted to call it The Lab, because we knew that it would grow into something more. And, in fact, we are in the process of dropping the "Chocolate" portion of it, and just calling it The Lab. Though we'll continue to have chocolate-centric desserts, we've brought Sante on board as chef de cuisine to really grow the savory menu, which we've been doing for the past month.
Tell us about your new chef.
JR: He's actually been advising us from the beginning.
MR: Initially, he had been here two to three days a week. He would come in and help set us up for the week with prix-fixe menus, and Jacky and Sante would work together on the weekend specials. But we discovered that we wanted more permanent evening specials. We wanted a fish, chicken, and different type of protein for the week, in addition to the pasta. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, we're still doing the prix-fixe, but we're really seeing how people respond to the prix-fixe versus individual entrees. Now, we're working on establishing more appetizers. He's phasing things in.
So far, have you noticed that people respond better to prix-fixe or a la carte options?
MR: I think both.
JR: There's definitely the weekday crowd that wants the package, ready-to-go option, because we have a lot of commuters who come up and then take the Caltrain. So, on the way home, they can pop in here, have a nice meal. Then, on the weekends, we continue to embellish the entrée specials. The one thing that we've been playing around with is always having the three protein options, but as the week goes on, working with the farmers to highlight what they can provide us to go along with the proteins. The halibut dish on Tuesday could turn into an entirely new halibut dish by Saturday. We're playing around with the whole lab aspect. And we're giving Sante a lot of freedom with the menu.
In picturing the idea of what savory items at the Chocolate Lab would be like, that scene in Chocolat comes to mind, where they're eating that grand dinner under the tent and chocolate sauce is being poured over every savory and sweet item. You're obviously not doing that, but do you incorporate chocolate into your savory dishes?
JR: We do. For example, our seasonal salad has caramelized cacao nibs in it. However, we don't want to over-do it.
MR: We're also doing a risotto for brunch on the weekends. It's a sweet risotto that has different topping options like currants and candied orange peel, and you can get chocolate folded into it, which we do right before we send it out.
With the other restaurants coming into this neighborhood, how do you see yourselves evolving?
JR: I think that's one of the reasons why we wanted to expand to be more than just dessert. We do still have a dessert crowd later in the evening. There are a lot of very loyal, community-oriented customers that hop along. They'll do drinks and apps at Serpentine, then have their main course at Piccino, then come here for dessert. But they've discovered they can have the savory course here as well, so they change it up. We've also been playing around with a lot of wine cocktails.
It sounds like a lot of the items are seasonal, but do you have a favorite dessert that's on the menu now?
JR: We have the Chocolate Lab cake, which is very much our signature. However...
MR: It's evolving. Currently, it's a devil's food-type cake that's very moist, and it's filled with our burnt-caramel chocolate ganache. It's just like our burnt caramel truffles. Then it's wrapped in 64% semi-sweet chocolate, which is our chocolate that was developed for us by Valrhona. It's topped with a cocoa nib-infused foam and caramelized cocoa nibs, and the whole things sits in a pool of coffee-infused crème anglaise.
But what we're evolving into is a cube mousse cake, which has this tall piece of nougatine, which is caramelized almonds rolled out and cut very thin. It will sit on a bed of our chocolate sauce. The mousse cake has a Madagascar mousse, and on the interior, there's a small sphere of light chocolate mousse. And we're playing around with the flavor profiles of the interior, to make it punchy. I always think, if there's two different types of mediums, but it's all the same texture, how can you differentiate flavor profile? So, it's important that the interior really stands out.
Who would you say your customers are?
JR: During the week, it's definitely people who work or have businesses in the area for lunch, and mostly the community for dinner. And on the weekends, it's definitely a destination crowd, from Thursday-Sunday.
MR: We get a lot of people from the Peninsula who are making their way into the city. They can get off the freeway here in Dogpatch, and they don't have to go farther in. I think the more that starts to happen here, the more interest it will generate interest from down south.
JR: We have a very strong Recchiuti following. We have customers who have been buying chocolate from us for years who travel a lot, and have made their way to eat here. It's been nice to see them.
What have been some unexpected challenges during this first year?
JR: That it's definitely not the Mission, so we don't have the foot traffic. And until I think UCSF is completely built out, with all the housing, and until people really feel comfortable coming into the neighborhood, that's going to continue to be a challenge. It's slowly starting to change. When we first moved into the neighborhood in '97 with the chocolate side of the business, it was a wasteland. Nobody walked on the street.
MR: You just didn't see any cars. No one was around. This Caltrain station wasn't used as readily because it was kind of funky, and you didn't feel comfortable standing down there. But now it feels more safe, because it's very well-lit. The light rail also made a big difference too, because it made the area more accessible.
Your retail spot, Little Nib, came first. When did you take over this space?
JR: Piccino had left this original spot almost three years ago, and we rented it from the get-go. But it was too close to the fourth quarter, and we were too far into the chocolate side of the business. So, we sub-leased it to our friends who have a clothing business called Lemon Twist for about eight months.
In terms of your presence here, what are your daily roles?
JR: Well, I'm essentially the Creative Director for both here and the chocolate side.
MR: I'm mostly recipe-testing desserts across the way in our chocolate kitchen, because there's not enough space here. And the more I can pull away from this kitchen, the more I can introduce new items, because the first year we were open, I was here, working the line sometimes, and trying to figure it out. And it helped me understand the functionality of what we could do, and the types of desserts we could create with the constraints of the space.
JR: We have a very unconventional kitchen, because we don't have a stovetop. It's a bank of ovens, because we primarily intended to do mostly desserts and tartines. We have two induction flat-tops. We inherited them from Piccino, so we decided not to take them out.
Have you had any positive surprises along the way?
MR: It's unexpected for our customers that we do savory. A lot of people who are Recchiuti customers know what we're doing because of Jacky. But the people that are just roaming around and are unsure, then read the menu, end up really enjoying it. You can see that they're pleasantly caught off-guard.
JR: Another positive thing with the savory is that because we were so tartine-oriented from the beginning, there's still a huge French contingent who come here. And that's been a big compliment. Though we've truncated that to mainly tartines at lunch, it's nice to be recognized that way, that they deem us worthy to produce something they're familiar with from Paris.
· Check Out Chocolate Lab's New Menus [~ ESF ~]
· Chocolate Lab Brings on Savory Chef Sante Salvoni [~ ESF ~]
· Michael Recchiuti Unleashes Chocolate Lab In Dogpatch [~ ESF ~]