May 31, 2016 – First and foremost Daniel Gallegos is an artist. The fuel that drives Gallegos is illustration, installations, mixed media, a collaborative project called Artpologist that fuses art and anthropology in cities around the globe. But after a thirteen year stretch working at Chez Panisse, he is driven by good food as well. Call it an occupational hazard, but there’s really no turning back once you’ve had the best of the best.
“I was kind of like everything in that place,” says Gallegos on his longer-than-average career at the iconic Berkeley restaurant. He held all positions at some point, from wine to picking up produce to working in the kitchen upstairs, “but mainly I was a waiter downstairs, and the great thing was that we got to taste everything.”
“There was love, romance, beautiful lighting, and we were like the best fed people,” he reflects.
But Chez Panisse is just part of this story. Throw in a fateful meeting in 2005 during a Russian-themed dinner party on the Stanford campus and we now know Zhanara, Gallegos’ wife, who was so impressed by the authenticity of the traditional dish he brought that she said to herself, “This is why I came to California (from Kazakhstan), to meet Daniel.” Next came a move to New York City where Zhanara was teaching at Columbia and the realization that we are all pretty spoiled here on the West Coast. And then came a stint in Connecticut and the birth of Askar, the couple’s young son. That is when they decided to move back to where Gallegos grew up, and to where his mom has lived for 30 years on a small property off Empire Grade in Bonny Doon.
This timeline of urban art, academic pursuits and travel may seem far from the rural reality of the Santa Cruz Mountains. But this is where we finally come to the point of this narrative. And the secret I’m about to let out to you all reading this. Empire Grade Purveyors is the culmination of this couple’s life so far, the meeting point of art, family, community and luckily for us neighbors, amazing bread.
“I could have gone to work or maybe opened a restaurant or something, but our goal was just to stay home, raise Askar and make a new life for us in Santa Cruz. The best way to do that was through food,” says Gallegos. Empire Grade Purveyors is “kind of a mixture of art and food, a community art project that is not about capitalizing but about connecting,” he muses. It started with the age old barter system, in which he would make a tart in exchange for produce foraged from neighbors nearby. Then word got out, which it tends to do in Bonny Doon, and the loose network of folks trading fruit for pie grew into where we find the couple today.
A hand built wood oven out back is burning most of the week, turning out loaves of Normandy-inspired sourdough bread, seasonal tarts and the occasional pizza if you are lucky. Most of this is available by subscription, similar to a CSA model, and they have a varied level of patrons: yearly; monthly; and the way I discovered them, a random pick up in their driveway. “We decided it was a good idea to make a few extra loaves of bread to have for people driving by.” Very smart.
The main thing Gallegos took away from his time at Chez Panisse is the unfussy simplicity of good food, how to let it be first, to let the ingredients within the prime of their season shine. And this philosophy is obvious when tasting his craft. The demand to fill orders is growing, and my suspicion is that this is not the last time we will hear about them. In a moment of calm after pulling out a flurry of special orders on a recent Wednesday afternoon, Gallegos says, “This is the base, this is just the beginning.”