Behind an antique two-pump gas station on the seaward side of Highway 1, up a path of stone steps laden with native plants and the fog-driven ghosts of Henry Miller and Anais Nin, before a stretch of enormous redwoods, sits a 1930s wooden farmhouse that for the last five years has been home to Big Sur Bakery & Restaurant.
You watch condors wheel through the lower atmosphere and hear the deep symphonies of surf somewhere, below layers of earthbound clouds, and think -- who wouldn’t come here if they could? Exchange the hot clutter of city life for perfect air, a wild ocean? Quit your job to paint in a grotto, write sonnets under a redwood, play a piano in the back of a flatbed truck like Jack Nicholson in “Five Easy Pieces.”
Five years ago, Michelle Rizzolo, Philip Wojtowicz and Michael Gilson did just that: quit Los Angeles to move up to Big Sur to open a restaurant. No plan, no ownership experience. Just the high romanticism of youth and maybe that thought: Who wouldn’t come here if they could?
Dodge a school of parked motorcycles, a listing RV, a pair of pristine BMW convertibles, and you’ll hear the espresso machine and smell the asiago bread before you see the restaurant’s cozy, cabin-like interior. Through an open doorway into the kitchen, you can glimpse pizzas going into the enormous wood-burning oven. As the servers prepare for the dinner crowd -- a mix of devoted locals, passers-by surprised by the exquisite menu and the BMW-owning set referred by the nearby resorts. White tablecloths flutter in the breeze rising off the coast. A waiter, one of the kids who comes up for the summer to surf or paint on his days off, lights candles. Wild quail scatter before approaching weekend cars. Mount Manuel looms to the east, through wild blackberry bushes and the broken shards of old-growth forest.
You have a palpable sense of discovery, like you’ve stumbled upon a sudden clearing in a tangled world.
Inside the restaurant, Rizzolo, a tiny brunette with wide blue eyes, arranges the bread she bakes every morning on wooden trays for the tables while chef Wojtowicz, an intense man with a surf-burnt face and Rizzolo’s husband of a year, partner for over 10, starts dinner service. The old building hums with conversation and the music of glassware and cutlery; the rising smells of roasting vegetables and simmering sauces roll in from the kitchen like scarves of evening fog rolling in from the Pacific. It seems like an idea of dinner more than dinner, the way Big Sur often seems like a Platonic ideal of place, too refracted through the cathedral of sky and branches to be real.
But the food is real: a marriage of local ingredients and serious technique. Wood-grilled wild King salmon or Niman Ranch rib-eye are paired with mix-and-match vegetables -- roasted carrots, baby beets and fennel; fingerling potatoes with fresh garbanzos, peppers, onions and arugula. A pair of quail roasted in the wood oven leans into a succotash of favas, green beans, corn, peas and dried cranberries. Grilled fat sardines, fresh from Monterey Bay, top herbed frisee and cherry tomatoes.
And then there’s the pizza -- large pies with beautiful crisp crusts that are paper-thin in the middle, and thick and blistery on the edge. One, with a bright, golden sauce made from summer squash, is topped with zucchini, prosciutto and sage. Campers and bikers tend to go for the house-sliced pepperoni, sometimes raising eyebrows at the $14.50 price tag.
The gas station makes it real too, as do the his-and-hers wooden outhouses. The first few months after Rizzolo, Wojtowicz and Gilson moved up here, the floor was very real -- that’s where they slept until they could find housing. Two Culinary Institute of America-trained chefs who had moved to California from their native New Jersey to work in some of L.A.'s top restaurants -- Melisse, Joe’s in Venice, the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, and then Campanile when Mark Peel and Nancy Silverton both ran the kitchens. And their friend from Joe’s, a long-time server with dreams and, now, the means to open a place of his own. Who wouldn’t if they could?
At the time, the decision hadn’t seemed so momentous: Rizzolo and Wojtowicz had been driving a loaner car (theirs had just been stolen outside of Campanile) when they saw Gilson standing on a Venice corner, in overalls from his day job as a landscaper, holding two chain saws. He’d just quit the landscaping job to move north and open his own place; did they want to come? Imagine: the landscape, the sea, the miles of opportunity. The three of them ate dinner that night at Campanile (it was Thursday, grilled cheese night), drove to Big Sur over the weekend. Rizzolo and Wojtowicz gave notice at Campanile two days later.
They had no idea what they were doing, really, sleeping on the floor of the old building Gilson had leased, half house, half-abandoned pizzeria. Until that afternoon on a Venice street, Rizzolo had never even heard of Big Sur; Wojtowicz only knew of it from reading Kerouac. Gilson, a sandy-haired, wind-burnt man from Manhattan Beach, had been going up there to surf for 20 years (“it was my own New Zealand”), but he’d never cooked, never owned a restaurant. Nonetheless, six weeks later, they opened for business.
“We felt so disconnected,” says Rizzolo. After all the camaraderie from chefs in Los Angeles, they’d escaped, they thought, maybe too far. They began in a kind of vacuum, with no one to give them advice or feedback, working around the clock to open so that they could make rent on the property. “You start with bread,” says Rizzolo, a pastry chef and baker, “it’s flour and water.” And you start with fire. In their case, a massive Alan Scott wood oven, which the previous tenant, the pizzeria owner, had had built for $14,000. The first thing they put on their nascent menu, after the morning breads, was pizza.
That initial year was difficult, between learning the ropes and trying to strike a balance between the locals, sometimes a hard sell, and the inexact science of gauging the appetites and frequency of tourists. Staffing was difficult, so many would come and go, lured by the seasons. But they learned while they cooked, baking pastries for the morning crowd and burnished pizzas for the campers and tourists, and evolving a sophisticated dinner menu for resort-goers and local patrons with deep wine cellars.
Still, they wondered, especially in the winter, which “can get kind of crazy and weird,” after weeks of rains, no cell service, the power suddenly out, the winding highway impenetrable. “The road,” says Gilson, “is a big issue. It collapses every once in a while and no one can get through.” Such isolation can drive you a little nuts -- think Jack Nicholson with a repeating typewriter instead of a beautiful piano.
“Who would know,” Rizzolo asks rhetorically, “if we were cooking bad food? We’re in the middle of nowhere.” This feeling of playing to an empty room repeats when you talk to the trio for awhile, and you can feel a tension just below the surface, like a current under slow waves.
It’s the flip side of the vacation ideal, of the beautiful notion of a great escape -- the sudden unsettling thought that you’re off the radar, your boat possibly adrift. “You really can’t get away from yourself,” observes Gilson. “It’s a myth that a lot of people have.”
And you can’t get away from your food either, at least if you’re a driven chef with a lot of ambition and not much distraction besides coastal weather and the occasional electrical blackout. Far from trends and direct competition, with the urban world pursuing questionably high-minded notions of cuisine, Rizzolo and Wojtowicz have cooked. And gotten comfortable in their own kitchen. “It makes you really confident,” says Rizzolo, “in a roasted chicken.”
Roasted, that is, in the wood-burning oven and served with a garlic gravy and mashed potatoes with sauteed salsify, mushrooms and wilted greens.
Or in the candied ginger scones that locals line up for in the morning at the bakery counter. Or the pains au chocolat. Or citrus sticky buns. Or the potato-herb frittata that’s put out in an enormous cast iron skillet and sold by the slice for breakfast.
None of this is cheap -- dinner for two can easily run $125 without wine. But that’s par for the neighborhood, where the competition is Nepenthe, Ventana and Post Ranch Inn.
When not riding the surf or playing in his rock band at open-mike night at the Miller library, Wojtowicz is most at home above his wood-fired grill. And he’s got plenty of local bounty to play with: “Everybody has fruit trees,” he says. “In season, people will come by with 20 pounds of chanterelles, or we’ll get a call from the wharf from somebody with a boatload of salmon.”
Rizzolo likes to play too, roasting apricots for a rich sorbet and including hazelnuts in a deeply-flavored flan. The food seems to show intense concentration, in both the flavors themselves and in the chef’s notion of what the dish is in the first place.
As if someone had a lot of time and space to think -- maybe in a pre-dawn kitchen, the ocean fog breathing on the windows, the trees and sky bearing down -- of what they were doing and why they were there. If they had gone too far off the map. If it had been worth it. Or if they hadn’t gone far enough.