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||They met at a caviar tasting. They've been known to work through the night on secret baking experiments. They're in the same lineage as fellow Californian Alice Waters, cooking only with what is locally and seasonally available. They've made it in a cutthroat male industry and are not afraid to tell you who's boss.
JT Leroy talks kitchen politics with Elizabeth and Jennifer before the dinner rush.
JT: The ephemerality of professional cooking would drive me crazy. You put a lot of time and energy into making something, and then someone eats it and it's gone. Then you have to create it all over again.
Jennifer: It's the immediacy of it that I like. There's so much adrenaline involved when you're feeding a lot of people at once. It's sort of like conducting a little orchestra. And I enjoy the way I always have the chance to do it all over again, and if the last dish wasn't perfect, I can make the next one dead-on.
Elizabeth: It is difficult when you make a really beautiful wedding cake and have to leave it behind. It's like saying goodbye to a baby. You just hope it can make it through the evening by itself.
JT: Elizabeth, you're the pastry chef, and Jennifer is the chef de cuisine. Are you two equal partners in the business?
Elizabeth: We actually have thirty-seven silent partners. But Jennifer and I have partial ownership, as does our General Manager, John Mark.
JT: I've heard some female chefs say that restaurant investors will only support male chefs who have worked at Michelin-rated restaurants in France.
Elizabeth: When I was trying to raise capital for this place, I often thought, "God if I were just a French man I could probably get a lot more money for the exact same concept."
Jt: It's weird because everyone seems very comfortable with the idea of say, Betty Crocker, slaving away in the kitchen at home. But when it comes to gourmet food or the science of cooking, suddenly the chef needs to be a man.
Jennifer: I've always said, "Who do you think taught those male chefs how to cook?" It's almost always their mothers. As a female who happens to be in charge of a kitchen, sometimes you have to remind people that you're not their mother.
Elizabeth: I was recently at a pastry conference where Condra Easley, who owns a bakery in Santa Rosa, said that during job interviews she always asks people about their relationship with their mother.
JT: Do you try to hire more women?
Jennifer: I try to get the best people. For a while, there seemed to be more women who were interested in cooking. These days I get a lot more resumes from guys. I hate to say this - I'm going to pigeonhole myself - but women are really good line cooks. Without even trying too hard, women are incredibly organized. Working a line requires a certain way of thinking about things and tremendous organization.
JT: What was it like when you started out as a chef?
Jennifer: At my second restaurant job, I was the only woman in a kitchen of thirteen guys. Getting to the point where I was allowed to make something besides a tossed green salad became a huge accomplishment. I was working in Chicago at the time. One of the reasons I moved to San Francisco was because the restaurants were just more skill-based. If you could do the job, nobody cared if you were a woman or a puppy dog.
JT: How did Citizen Cake come to be?
Elizabeth: I started up the original Citizen Cake as a bakery in the Mission District. I was working as a pastry chef at another restaurant, and people would ask me where to go for custom cakes all the time. I didn't know of anyone who was doing it well.
Jt: So you figured you'd open a place yourself.
Elizabeth: Yes. In 2000, I relocated to a bigger space in Hayes Valley, and Citizen Cake was transformed into a full-on restaurant, bar, and patisserie about a year after that. Around that time I asked Jennifer if she wanted to work here. She used to come over to help out in her spare time because she was interested in learning about dessert making.
Jt: Elizabeth, your desserts are known for being visually stunning, besides tasting like you died and went to heaven. Where were you trained?
Elizabeth: I actually studied experimental film at the San Francisco Art Institute.
Jt: That somehow makes sense.
Elizabeth: What I like about restaurants is that they're theatrical and architectural. They're three-dimensional, like sculpture. I grew up around a lot of art and design because my father was an abstract painter in southern California. My brother and I went to museums and galleries all the time.
Jt: I know your brother, the musician Jason Falkner. It's fascinating to me you've both achieved so much in your respective fields.
Elizabeth: It's funny, Jason and I used to play music recitals together when we were little. I would miss a note with my pinky and I'd be like, "Oh no! My career is over!" Meanwhile Jason would forget half a piece and still get a standing ovation. He is a born entertainer. I think it was my perfectionist side that drove me into the madness of the pastry world.
JT: Jennifer, where are you from?
Jennifer: I grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, and I moved to Chicago when I was in my early twenties. At that point I was selling Crest toothpaste for a living. [laughs]
Jennifer: I was a sales manager at Procter and Gamble. I was recruited right out of college and worked there for six and a half years, knowing the whole time it wasn't my calling. I spent a long time figuring out what I really wanted to do with my life. I took the lead from my father - he was a golf pro and really loved his work. A lot of people who try professional cooking as a second career think being a chef is really glamorous. But it's very physical and draining. It takes over your life. So you have to be completely committed.
Elizabeth: When Jennifer and I met I could tell that she was just as passionate about food as I was. She used to work for Barbara Tropp who is legendary in San Francisco for her beautiful little restaurant called China Moon.
Jt: Do you find that people respond differently to you when they find out you are chefs?
Jennifer: People do try to take advantage sometimes, especially people who are interested in the world of food. It's similar to..
Jt: Being in a band. Chefs are like rock stars now.
Jennifer: Exactly. The minute you walk into the dining room in a white coat with your name on it, you are someone to everyone in that room. When I go in to say hello to a friend, all the other customers will watch and want to know how that person knows the chef. They'll stop eating and look over. It's kind of a big deal to a lot of people.
JT: Where does the name "Citizen Cake" come from?
Jennifer: Elizabeth named the restaurant after Citizen Kane. We have an item on the menu called Rosebud Creme Brulee. There is a hint of rosewater in it, and it's served with two shortbread cookies with rose petals on the plate.
JT: San Francisco is known for its amazing fruits and vegetables. I love going to the Embarcadero Farmer's Market.
Jennifer: Our menu is very seasonal. Lots of people claim to have seasonal menus, but they'll serve strawberries from Chile. We truly focus on what's available in California and the Pacific Northwest. For example, spring is coming a little late this year, so we're just getting into asparagus and baby artichokes. Then, in the winter, there's a very long period when everything's about root vegetables and warm hearty stews. We also have a mission to get food from people we know. We get our bacon and salami from Hobbs Smoked Meat Company. The guy who runs it started smoking bacon out of his garage twenty-five years ago.
JT: There are so many great purveyors and farms in the area, but a lot of farmers can't afford to get their food certified as organic.
Jennifer: I don't really pay attention to the certification. Farmers are pretty straight shooters. If they tell me they're growing their stuff organically, I'll almost always believe them.
Jt: Will you describe some of the dishes on the savory side of the menu?
Jennifer: We prepare a naturally raised Beeler ranch pork from Iowa. First we take pork stock and reduce it. Then we add a caramelization, which is finished with vinegar. The sauce is sort of sweet but in a savory way because of the acid from the vinegar. I love combining fruit with savory foods. In the summertime we do a strawberry salad that has become a signature. It's fresh watercress, balsamic vinaigrette, toasted almonds, fromage blanc cheese, and strawberries. And we always serve moderate portions so that people will still want to order dessert.
Elizabeth: Nobody should sit down and eat a whole cake, but we do think dessert should be a part of everyone's daily experience.
JT: What's your most popular dessert?
Elizabeth: The After Midnight Devil's Food Cake. Whether we make it as an individual form or as a wedding cake, it's a big seller.
JT: It's a high-end ding-dong!
Elizabeth: It is definitely high-end „ the mousse in that cake is Scharfenberger chocolate, which is made in Berkeley. Another popular cake is called a Retro-Tropical Shag. That's made with a light genoise cake soaked in a little vanilla rum syrup. The other ingredients are passion fruit mousse, coconut, and butter cream.
Jt: During these uncertain times, do you find that people order more desserts and comfort foods?
Elizabeth: After September 11th, we sat down and said, "Are we going to continue to do what we are doing?" We concluded that we were already doing what we do best and that it would confuse customers if we said, "Okay, we're going to serve meatloaf every day, and that's it."
Jennifer: At that time, every restaurant had the same interpretation of Mom's cooking. But I didn't want to dictate what comfort means to our diners. In a country that's as ethnically diverse as ours, mac and cheese is not everybody's comfort food.