Niman

Food from the Hearth at Full of Life Flatbread

by Nancy Oster

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The first time my husband, Dave, and I drove to Full of Life Flatbread for a Saturday night dinner, we sailed right past the Los Alamos exit and ended up in Arroyo Grande before we realized we’d missed it. Fortunately the friends we were meeting had cell phones. They told us to get off the US 101 South at the first Los Alamos exit, then look quickly to the left and we’d see a well-lit saloon-style building with lots of cars parked around it. They were sitting on the porch at a table near the chalkboard that lists the evening’s special menu items.

We were lucky that our friends had arrived early because the restaurant doesn’t take reservations, and the place was packed. However, once you find a place to stand or sit, there is a wide range of local wines, beer and sodas to order while you wait, and it was a lovely night to visit on the porch. The difficult part was choosing which of the almost 100 local wines or beers to try. Even the sodas are made from local wine grapes or local citrus such as Meyer lemons or Valencia oranges.

And where do all these diners come from? Los Alamos has a population of about 1,000 potential diners, but they probably wouldn’t need to drive to the restaurant since most residents live close enough to walk. However, people do drive from Los Angeles and even San Francisco to eat here—and they bring friends. About 80 percent of the diners are locals, from Santa Barbara County and neighboring counties. The other 20 percent come much farther. On a recent Sunday night the owner welcomed guests from as far away as Florida, New York, Brazil and Germany. Some guests even come to eat twice in one weekend. Dinner choices on Sunday are different from those on the Friday/Saturday menu.

Owner Clark Staub, Chef de Cuisine Brian Collins (formerly at Chez Panisse) and Sous Chef Evan Klein (formerly at Bouchon) comb the local farmers markets and talk with local farmers and fishermen during the week to develop their weekend menus. Each menu item is made from scratch from ingredients delivered fresh from local farms. Most ingredients come from within a 300-mile radius. And most of the food is cooked on the hearth or in the coals of the wood-burning oven located in the main dining room.

The Friday/Saturday night menu features their regular flatbread pizzas, along with two weekly flatbread specials such as a Spring Garlic Flatbread with Prosciutto and Burrata Cheese or a Goat Cheese and Walnut Flatbread.

Sunday night’s menu features two Market Plates (entrees), in addition to a few flatbread specials. Salads, appetizers and desserts also change, based on the ingredients that inspire the chefs that week. One Sunday evening I chose a Wild-Nettle Cannelloni with Caramelized Cauliflower, Ricotta and Braised Fennel entree. On another visit I tried a Fava Bean Risotto with Raw-Milk Feta, Spring Onions and Garden Savory.

At this restaurant “Special” means you’d better try it tonight because it will probably never be made exactly the same way again. It’s easy to feel the passion and creative spirit that go into preparing this food, but I wanted to see it first hand and learn more about how this restaurant came to be in Los Alamos, a mile-long town with one main street and no stoplights.

Full of Life Foods began as the West Coast arm of American Flatbread, baking frozen flatbread pizzas for sale in upscale grocery stores. In spring of 2008, Full of Life Foods launched their own line of organic, locally sourced frozen pizzas. On Monday through Thursday, the restaurant is a production bakery, wood-oven par-baking over 2,000 Full of Life flatbreads per day to ship nationwide.

To get an inside look, I offered to spend a day working alongside the production staff. When I arrived at 8 a.m. on Monday, Production Manager Gary Clark got me started in packaging. He explained that employees rotate through each job during the day. Soon I was rounding weighed portions of organic vita-grain dough. The dough then goes through a 36-hour slow rise to bring out the natural wheat flavors and give the crust a chewy texture.

Next step is stretching the dough. General Manager Cindy Cripe showed me how to stretch a stack of rounds. Cripe has been working for Full of Life Foods since Staub opened in Los Alamos five years ago. She helped me spread toppings on the flatbreads and drop them into the hearth oven… now that was a challenge! I eventually moved to the kitchen to roast, peel and chop red peppers. There is no can opener in this kitchen—even sauces are made from scratch.

By 10 a.m. the dining room area was “full of life.” A group of about eight workers from the Vocational Training Center for people with disabilities were assembling boxes for the next round of packaging. More employees arrived. Most live in Los Alamos and some work in the restaurant as well. Altogether about 35 people are on staff.

Cripe took me on a field trip to the garden behind the restaurant where they grow fresh herbs and vegetables for the restaurant. I also saw the woodpile. It takes about 30 cords of red and white oak per year to feed the hearth oven. They split the wood themselves. She also showed me their mobile hearth oven, built on a trailer and decorated with colorful tiles designed by local school children.

By that time, Staub had broken away from his morning administrative tasks. He explained that he takes the traveling oven to festivals and fund-raisers. He uses it to raise awareness about the value of local farms and artisan food producers. “Local foods are not only fresher, and more flavorful,” he told me, “they are also safer and more nutritious when they travel shorter distances to your plate.” Staub believes food should nurture community as well as nourish the individual.

Staub invited me to join them at the Paso Robles Fairgrounds that Friday for a Hospice du Rhône event they were catering. This was my chance to look behind the scenes and see his catering team in action.

Even well-planned catering events have their challenges. Our first challenge that night was getting the oven up an incline onto the sidewalk by the door. We did it with a forklift and help from several strong men. The bigger challenge was preparing pizzas in the pouring rain.

Fortunately Neal Maloney was there from the Morro Bay Oyster Company to shuck the oysters he had pulled from the water for us that morning. We seasoned his freshly shucked oysters with a wine and shallot butter sauce and topped them with a parsley-breadcrumb mixture. After baking briefly, we garnished them with a fresh finely diced cucumber salsa verde. The oysters kept our diners occupied while we worked on the pizzas.

Our pizzas and salads featured buffalo milk Mozzarella from Bubalis Bubalus in Gardena and raw milk cheeses from Three Sisters Farmstead in Tulare and Rinconada Dairy in Santa Margarita. At the buffet table Marketing Assistant Kara VanCorbach and Neal Maloney told the guests about the local sources of the foods we were serving.

Meanwhile out at the oven, Clark Staub, Brandon Tankersley and Gary Clark were problem-solving the pizza dough situation. Watching the three of them work on this problem together, I understand how Staub’s restaurant can produce consistent high-quality meals with an ever-changing menu. Everyone on the staff takes responsibility and pride in the food they prepare.

My final day in the Full of Life kitchen was the following Sunday. I helped prep for the Sunday dinner. When I got there, Cristina Santos and Maria Lopez were rounding dough for production on Monday morning.

Cristina’s mom, Irma, and brother, Manuel, have worked for Full of Life Foods since the business opened. Irma arrives each production morning at 5 a.m. to build the fire in the hearth oven so that it reaches about 900 degrees by the time the first flatbreads are ready to bake. Manuel originally worked splitting wood for the oven with an ax.

Now that they have purchased a wood splitter, he works in production mixing the batches of flatbread dough.

My first job that night was to clean and carefully tear the kale greens from their stems… two boxes of kale. Brian Collins was cleaning scallops and mincing garden savory, prepping the main courses and appetizers. Evan Klein was preparing the pizza station and Gary Clark was setting up the salad station.

Laura Birshan arrived in time to clean strawberries. Staub had a new idea for a dessert. He was making a meringue with a soft interior (like a Pavlova) from a recipe he’d scribbled onto a scrap of paper. Before baking the meringues, he splashed them with strawberry syrup. Laura quartered her strawberries and soaked them in a hibiscus syrup to serve alongside the baked meringues.

Just before opening, Staub held a meeting at the front of the restaurant. He encouraged the staff to remember that dining is not just about the food, it’s also about enjoying the experience. He told them to take time with each customer to answer questions about the food and the restaurant.

Each night before the doors open the chefs taste everything to be sure that the flavors work together, then they finalize the plating. They rearrange their tools and wipe surfaces in anticipation of the first orders. As orders begin to flow in, movement becomes more efficient. One chef moves to help another, Staub and his chefs carry food to the tables when the wait staff is busy taking orders. Wait staff come in for more information for diners; diners come to see the oven and watch the cooking process.

I watch it all, feeling nourished—knowing that my food has been handled with respect from farm to plate by people who share my passion for food and the life it brings us.

When asked why he chose Los Alamos for his restaurant, Staub says, “While some people see Los Alamos as the middle of nowhere, I see it as living in the midst of plenty.” It’s true. Here, Staub is surrounded by farms, vineyards, ranches and the Pacific Ocean. In five years, he has built a network of reliable sources for fresh wild, organic, sustainable and humanely raised foods. Staub says, “Preparing food here is an act of community, not commodity.” He and his staff want to keep it that way.


Nancy Oster is a writer/baker who appreciates really good meals shared with friends. She occasionally blogs about food events and food-related experience at starlightbakery.blogspot.com. For a little whimsy, you can check out her Starlight Mouse Tales at starlightmice.blogspot.com.

Photo by Steven Brown

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Categories Summer 2009