I was chatting about my recent visit to Baker and Olive in Encinitas with Chef Patrick Ponsaty of the Grand Group, whose holdings include Bellamy’s, The Ranch at Bandy Canyon and the soon to open Ponsaty’s in Rancho Santa Fe. With his so very cool French accent, Patrick starts to talk about his days cooking at Michelin starred restaurants in Monte Carlo and says, “Every day in those restaurants, we taste the olive oil. It must have the pepper.” He was referring to the peppery bite that is so commonly associated with top shelf olive oil.
“Oh,” I responded. “You’re talking about the polyphenol level. The lack of a peppery taste means the olive oil has been over-refined or overheated and the polyphenol level has dropped.”
Huh? What the heck did I just say and how did I know that? Patrick was looking at me like I was an alien…and I deserved it. And, therein lies the dichotomy that is Baker and Olive…
There are two core products at Baker and Olive – olive oil and balsamic vinegar…Two.
Simple, right? The products can be used in all phases of cooking, but are primarily meant for finishing your food. Think salt and pepper. Well, maybe think a bit bigger than salt and pepper…
…Amongst the different varieties available, depending on the season, there are olive oils in the store representing Spain, Italy, France, Portugal, Chile, Argentina, Peru, or Australia and a few other strange and exotic regions. There are fused and infused flavors of both the olive oils and balsamics, with potential finishing flavor combinations amongst the two core products ranging in the thousands, from chile lime to coconut lavender.
The Encinitas Baker and Olive is housed in a small space, maybe 1,500 s.f. of retail – probably less. The center aisle layout is designed for easy access so that you can duck in quickly, take a few tastes to make sure what you’re buying is what you need, reach directly under the tasting station, grab a bottle and go.
But, bring your walking shoes. Aside from the seemingly limitless tasting and mixing opportunities available down the center aisles full of olive oils and balsamics, the perimeter of the store is filled with shelves, niches and crannies full of gourmet products and utensils.
It’s the kind of place that you’ll find something you “gotta have” every time you walk in and take a look around, including some of the best locally made charcuterie from another French guy who some may have heard of, Pascal Bessett of Angel’s Salumi and Truffles in Carlsbad.
Baker and Olive is well known in the professional cooking and chef community, providing the finest oils to virtual household names in the area like Davin Waite of the Wrench and Rodent Seabasstropub in Oceanside, pretty much the entire Urban chain of restaurants and, now, a French master chef, Patrick Ponsaty and his burgeoning restaurant group.
But, they are set up for us regular folks to enjoy, the ones that think good olive oil comes in a gallon jug from Costco (which is actually pretty good stuff say the Baker and Olive experts). Hence, the detailed labels on the Baker and Olive tasting vats that include everything from the flavors you can expect from each selection to the harvest date, oleic acid levels, free fatty acids and a free palm reading session…
Kidding about the palm reading – they can tell how long your lifeline is by the amount of olive oil you buy and consume.
Anyways, after my little polyphenol nugget, Patrick and I decided to take a trip back there together. For him, this was a chance to try and source products he hadn’t seen since his European cooking days. For me, well there was an olivewood mortar and pestle and a 2009 Cabernet I noticed on my first visit that were beckoning me to return.
We were met by Sean Fisher, Chef, Sommelier, and guru of pretty much all things gourmet and Nol Calabrese, Owner/Partner of Baker and Olive (along with his sister, Denise, and college buddy Pete Pozzuoli). An hour with these guys and you’ll need to change your socks, take a salt pill and put on your cap and gown, ’cause you’ll feel like you ran a marathon on the way to receiving your Bachelor’s degree in all things olive oil and balsamic.
Two hours later, as I was helping Patrick to his car, both of our arms laden with somewhere around 12-14 bottles of different oil and balsamic flavors, and bags of sundry accoutrement, I laughingly joked that I’d see him in a week or so to try out some of the his new flavor combinations. He shot back, “Come tomorrow. I will be ready and I will buy lobster.”
And this was the menu 24 hours later.
Baker and Olive is a big name. It sounds like a national brand (remember, I said it first!). I had heard the name prior to my visit, and immediately filed it under large chain, niche specialty store with more marketing savvy than substance.
Big mistake. Huge.
They are about as quintessential, small town San Diego as it gets, with locations in Encinitas, Carmel Valley and their newest in Liberty Public Market (September 1st will herald the opening of their first foray out of San Diego, in Corona Del Mar in Orange County).
Marketing savvy they do have in abundance, as evidenced by their continued success and expansion over the last seven years. But it is the type of marketing that is truly local and elemental; the kind of word of mouth marketing that can only be obtained by having a solid, loyal base of customers who have experienced the hands on, personal approach to education about the product and who have tasted and relished the freshness first hand.
As for substance, well, the folks at Baker and Olive are overflowing with it. And knowledge. And a deeply infectious devotion to their mission, which is to educate consumers regarding the freshness, great tastes and heart healthy meals that can be created using the premium products they offer.
But most of all they exude an elevated level of awareness that may have been best expressed by Nol. He shared a nugget with me that is sheer poetry and probably could have saved me a thousand words or so. Regarding his fondest memories of the summer backpacking trip that he and partner Pete took after graduating Arizona State, Nol says,
“The trip was special. My fondest memories are (of) cooking these amazing, cheap (we were broke) meals…throughout Europe. That’s when I realized two things:
- I love to sit with friends and cook. There is no better social occasion.
- If you use the freshest ingredients you don’t have to have fancy recipes and cookware. Food does not need to be complicated to be amazing.”
He should be in the T-shirt business. Ditto, and Cheers, my friends!
Locations in Encinitas, Carmel Valley, Liberty Public Market
and coming soon to Orange County