The Zen of Biscuits

They’re not just for breakfast anymore at The Alice Collective.


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Chef Lance Velasquez displays scallion fontina biscuits.

Lance Yamamoto

Popularized in the antebellum South, biscuits can be bumpy or smooth, fluffy or firm. At The Alice Collective, they’re the menu’s floury fulcrum.

At this downtown Oakland café/bar/event space/commissary kitchen that sports its own open-air bamboo grove, biscuits tenderly sandwich house-smoked Duroc pork sausage, ham and jam, avocado and tomatoes, and double-dipped buttermilk-fried chicken with spicy mayo and chow-chow. They’re crunchy toasted croutons crowning Caesar salad. They uphold lashings of ash butter, honey, and your choice of gravy. They even pair with cocktails.

While cooking at a historic Georgia restaurant during the 1990s, Lance Velasquez earned a place on Food & Wine magazine’s “Ten Best New American Chefs” list. And fell in love with biscuits.

“Learning to make them” — from such masters as multi-award-winning chef/author Scott Peacock — “became a quest.”

After spending the next 20-plus years accumulating accolades in California restaurants such as San Francisco’s Neo and Oakland’s The Gastropig, Velasquez soothed his nerves during a relative’s health crisis by crafting biscuits.

Experimenting with different flours, shortenings, and techniques “morphed into something I found really relaxing and Zen.”

By then, he was working at The Alice Collective, whose upstairs cafe served “basic grab-and-go coffee-bar fare,” explained founder Ted Wilson.

“But I’d wander downstairs into the commercial kitchen and find Lance making biscuits — constantly, it seemed; just perfecting these things.

“Looking at our display case, I thought: What we’re doing up here isn’t good enough. And there’s a guy downstairs with an incredible, persistent passion.”

Many taste-testy team meetings later, the biscuit menu was born.

“A common misperception is that biscuits are breakfast-only items,” Wilson said. “Lance’s challenge was: How do we keep our doors open from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. and serve biscuits all day? Can biscuits transcend into sandwiches? Can biscuits be Californian?”

And how can treats traditionally comprising flour, butter, and/or lard be adapted for vegans and people with allergies? There are endless recipes, savory and sweet, made with different flours, shortenings, and techniques.

“But, to be honest, I’m a traditionalist. I have a strong affection for keeping things as authentic as I can. Our fillings, sides, and daily specials might be more contemporary and unusual — but whether you’re in Oakland, California, or Marion, Alabama, I want you to get the same level of biscuit.”

 

The Alice Collective, 272 14th St., Oakland, 510-599-4945, TheAliceCollective.com.

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