[Guess what! You can read all about me and my restaurant in the Inside Scoop column of today's San Francisco Chronicle! Be forewarned, though, that the article may spoil the suspense of this post, which reveals the name of my restaurant after the jump.]
Coming up with names can be a challenge. We've all had to do it at least once or twice in our lives. Perhaps it was as simple as what to name a kitten or even a doll. Or maybe you've been blessed with the awesome responsibility of bestowing a name upon your beloved child. It's a task not to be taken lightly, and for those who have struggled with it, I empathize.
Personally, I've never felt particularly adept at coming up with names. Exhibit one: the name of my blog. Will someone please tell the Google search robots that it's not actually about sardines. The name pays homage to a plate of sardinas a la plancha I ate on a trip to Spain, a meal which was life-altering in many ways. Sardines are also a metaphor for the little guy - the tiny restaurants, small farms, and less appreciated ingredients I often write about (Ha! I bet even some of you loyal readers didn't realize that! Not exactly the hallmark of a good name, eh?). Google doesn't handle metaphors too well. Can you imagine the traffic MFK Fisher would have gotten had she lived today and named a blog after her book "How to Cook a Wolf?" Shoppers of industrial ranges, no doubt.
Exhibit two: I named my childhood dog Waggles simply because she wagged her tale a lot (in my defense, I was only 9). Suffice it to say when it came time to name my restaurant, I was feeling less than confident.
My first attempt at naming a restaurant came about two years ago when I nearly bought a spot on Irving Street. I gathered a group of my closest foodie friends and asked for their input on a half dozen names. It was helpful, yet I ended up being more confused after the process than before. My lesson was that some things shouldn't be decided by committee. It's also the reason I didn't solicit readers' opinions or start a Name that Restaurant contest on my blog, a la last year's Name that Sheep contest on Farmgirl Fare. While Susan has lots of sheep to name, I only have one restaurant.
I had several favorites for the spot on Irving, the main one being Django, after a favorite French Gypsy jazz musician. The name evoked the style of the food I intended to serve at that restaurant: the alegría of Spain mixed with the romance of jazz in wartime France. The only problem was that there was already a restaurant, a rather famous one I learned, bearing that name in Philadelphia. And another in New York. Although it may sound irrational to you, I didn't want to repeat another well-known restaurant's name. I craved something more unique and personal.
Despondent, I swore for months thereafter that, should I ever find another location, I would name that restaurant Parsnip. Surely, no one else would ever for a moment consider naming their restaurant after an underutilized, homely root vegetable. I liked the absurdity of it, especially the comic childlike voice my wife N used to pronounce it, tightening her lips to form staccato p's, with an emphasis on the "snip." Try it. Parsnip. It's fun to say. I also enjoyed the knowledge that, when asked, one of the current cadre of Chez Panisse chefs declared it her least favorite vegetable. Who would have thought an albino carrot could evoke such hatred? I grew rather fond of Parsnip as a name. Fortunately, though, I outgrew that awkward, rebellious phase.
My leading candidate for our current location was Boqueria, after Barcelona's spectacular food market with its fun kioskos serving fresh Catalan fare. It seemed so obvious. I couldn't believe that no one had thought to name their restaurant after La Boqueria before. As a restaurant name, Boqueria unified my love of all things Spanish and Catalan with my focus on farmers market inspired cooking. Literally the day I decided to register the name at City Hall - I was that serious - I read something in the New York Times Dining section that broke my heart. Click here to read it yourself.
Another candidate along those lines was BCN, the initials for Barcelona and also, coincidentally, for my wife's and my first names, with a C for Castro Street, the restaurant's location. Cute, no? Unfortunately, some actual Barcelona natives have already registered that name for their cafe on 16th Street in the Mission.
For those of you who think my restaurant's name should pay homage to my blog, I came up with Little Fish. I liked it because it also alludes to the fact that my restaurant will be a relative small fry in a sea of larger, more well-known restaurants. (What can I say? I like metaphors). Little Fish died a quick death when a friend inquired if the name was somehow a reference to the recent Cate Blanchett movie about a recovering heroin addict. Not exactly the image I hope my restaurant's name will evoke.
I also briefly flirted with Azafrán, the Spanish word for saffron. Although I don't often use the spice in my cooking, I sometimes describe my food as coming from the "saffron belt," an imaginary line drawn from Spain and Morocco, through Provence and parts of Italy, then the Middle East, finally ending in India. All these great cuisines have one spice in common: saffron. I also liked that it shares many letters with San Fran. Unfortunately, those pesky New Yorkers beat me to it again. Plus, there's already a restaurant named Saffron in Napa.
Then one day this summer, N and I stood in the back patio of our future restaurant space and looked up. Overhead, the tentacles of a neighbor's wild blackberry bramble arched towards us, just out of reach. The sight of the plump berries in the sunlight brought a smile to our faces. I know it sounds corny, but I knew at that moment that I wanted to dedicate the name of my restaurant somehow to those wild berries. After a few minutes, the word "olallie" came to me, after a favorite type of locally grown blackberry. N immediately adored it. We both enjoy the lilting, sing-song way olallie sounds when you pronounce it. Go ahead, say it. Whether you pronounce it the traditional way (oh-la-leh) or the way it's spelled (oh-la-lee), it sounds equally fun.
The more I learn about the word olallie, the more I am loving it as the name for our restaurant. I discovered that olallie was the word for any type of wild berry in the Chinook jargon of the indigenous peoples of the Pacific northwest, from huckleberries to those wild blackberries that dangled above our restaurant's back patio. In the middle of the last century, the USDA adopted it as the word for a new blackberry-like hybrid that crossed loganberries with youngberries. Almost all the relatively miniscule commercial crop of these olallieberries are grown in California, particularly northern California, so it has a very local connection. Nearly every summer N and I trek south to Pescadero to pick organic olallieberries at Swanton Berry Farm (all the photos accompanying this post were taken there in July).
Olallie connotes everything we want our restaurant to be: home-grown, sweet, juicy, and a little wild. On a personal level, it evokes childhood memories of purple-stained fingers relishing the blackberries from my neighbor’s bushes and dreams of my grandmother’s berry pies (although as a native New Englander, hers were usually blueberries, occasionally even wild ones gathered from my great grandfather's New Hampshire farm). Plus, I think the word suitably reflects the friendly, neighborly character of Noe Valley.
I know that some of you regular readers will be surprised that I didn't choose a more Spanish sounding name (although I'm pleased to point out that olallie happens to share a many letters and sounds with allioli, the Catalan sauce of garlic and oil that the French call aïoli). At some point, I consciously chose to come up with a name less associated with Spain. As a chef, I didn't want to be confined to one cuisine, to have diners expecting paella and sangria. Or, worse yet, a menu of dishes featuring saffron.
My style of cooking is really best described as "San Francisco Bay Area regional cooking." I'm a card-carrying member of Slow Food. While the spicing of each dish may vary, my dishes never fail to adhere to the "field to fork" philosophy of seasonal and sustainable cooking that is as much a hallmark of our regional cuisine as gumbo and jambalaya is of New Orleans'. I ask the farmers what's best that day, and that's what I serve. I can’t imagine cooking any other way! Call it Californian, Cal-Med, New American, whatever makes you happy.
In my next post, I will attempt to describe my vision for olallie in more detail. You can get a preview in today's Inside Scoop column. Thank you, Amanda. We'll miss you!