Pastry to Cry For
Guy Birenbaum makes the melt-in-the-mouth pastry for his brioches and chicken pies from four ingredients: unbleached organic flour, cream cheese, butter and salt. It sounds simple—but as with any good chef, there is a secret ingredient. Experience. And Birenbaum’s craft has illustrious roots. It’s hard to miss him at his Grand Lake Farmers Market stand on any Saturday because—does he pay them or is it chance?—as you walk by, you can expect to hear the declaration “Have you tried these? You must!” from someone waiting for a piping-hot spinach-pesto-with-feta brioche (my favorite); buying frozen Madeira mushroom brioches to go; or nibbling on a caramelized-onion brioche.
When you stop, be sure to ask Birenbaum where he trained as a chef. Chances are, he will tell you that as “a shy little guy crying every day,” he apprenticed from 1966 to 1969 with famous French chef Paul Bocuse in Bocuse’s hometown of Collonges au Mont d’Or, near Lyon, which is where Birenbaum grew up.
You might guess from his accent that the man came to the United States maybe last week. In fact he’s been here 30 years, cooking in restaurants and then, for nine years, for a private San Francisco family with residences on Venice’s Grand Canal and in Paris, France. Five years ago, wanting “to get back down to earth,” he launched his business, Le Fleur de Lyon, and started selling brioches from a camping table outside the Berkeley Bowl. The rest is history. He has made it into a number of Bay Area stores and has faithful online clientele who buy through www.diamondorganics.com and www.planetorganics.com. And since late last year, he has been at three farmers markets: Oakland on Saturday, Montclair on Sunday and Marin on Wednesday. He makes an interesting frozen pesto-to-go that has no pine nuts; just basil, watercress, scallions, parsley and olive oil—and enough garlic to make you tear up with delight.
—By Wanda Hennig