Down the Aisle:Chris Kronner

Owner and Head Chef at Kronnerburger Interview and Images by Aimee Brodeur

Sometimes things work out better than you would have expected. I was talking to another chef when I mentioned I was headed to SF for the weekend. With out much hesitation he said, "You have to meet with my friend Chris Kronner." 5 days later, Chris and I were walking around Oakland and talking about everything from the real cost of a cheeseburger to the vast cultural and economic shifts that have taken place in the Bay Area in recent years and their effects on the restaurant industry. As an ex-resident of the Bay Area, this interview hit especially close to home. Chris isn't one to sugar coat his words, but he does shed light on the complexities of both serving quality food to a changing community and building a sustainable business within the changing food culture of the Bay Area.


How did working in restaurants as a chef spur the idea of opening up Kronnerburger?

Before working at Bar Tartine, I was a cook at a place called The Slow Club, which was kind of the perfect San Francisco neighborhood restaurant.  It was just sold after 23 years.  In the mid 90’s it was there for the beginning of the whole “California Tapas” thing, and then it evolved into California Mediterranean, and then into what I consider quintessential northern California food.  Things like fresh pasta, Caesar salad, and a good burger. The burger was wildly popular.

Was it your burger?

It was a burger I inherited. They had already been open for 15 years.  We just made some slight changes to it.  The burger is just this infinitely adjustable thing.  We opened another restaurant called Serpentine, did a burger there, and that burger was popular, and then eventually the burger at Bar Tartine, which is probably the closest burger to the one I currently serve at Kronnerburger.   After I left Bar Tartine, I worked privately for a man from Uruguay that had a ranch up in Northern California. He raised every type of animal you could eat.  I started each morning by building a fire that would last all day long and would be used to cook all of our meals.  We recreate that at Kronnerburger in a way- cooking our beef over a wood fire.  It’s an irreplicable flavor profile.  We also started dry aging the burger, which I was doing at Bar Tartine. I have gone through 7 different ranches since we started.  It sounds simple…But it’s not simple.

Do you source your meat from ranches in the Bay Area? 

The burger we make now is a combination of beef from retired dairy animals that’s mixed with young Angus beef, and that’s mainly a texture thing.  The dairy cows come from the Central Valley.

Why dairy cows?

Sustainability, mostly.  It’s super resource intensive to raise cattle for beef, and it’s less resource intensive to raise dairy cattle for beef.  Dairy cows produce food for us every day of their life, so the overall negative impact at the end of that animal’s life is less than with a typical cow.  They live a natural life. The animals we use are between 5-12 years old. They are certified organic, pasture raised, and certified humanely slaughtered.  Everything is done well, and they have a good, stress free life.  The person we buy them from is very selective in what he chooses in terms of the quality of the animal.  The way we do our burger is a gateway into eating meat in a sustainable way.  Also, because they are working animals and they are older there is really serious flavor development, and they take really well to dry aging.  Personally I believe that if you just take that meat right off the animal and grind it, it’s not going to be great.  It really should be aged.

So what is your favorite memory or first memory of having a burger that really stands out to you?

Before I worked at the Slow Club, I went there and had their burger.  I definitely have childhood burger memories but nothing that stood out to me as the greatest burger.  So the burger at Slow Club made me think- “Whoa, this is a whole different thing”. And I think that is what started this obsession with making a great burger.

chris-6-of-15

chris-5-of-15


“Dairy cows produce food for us every day of their life, so the overall negative impact at the end of that animal’s life is less than with a typical cow… Also, because they are working animals and they are older, there is really serious flavor development, and they take really well to dry aging.”

 

What is an ingredient that you have recently discovered or just love using in many of your dishes?

Purslane. It’s a weed and grows everywhere. It’s one of the most nutrient dense wild vegetables that exists. When I worked up north we had these huge gardens and it grew everywhere in between all of the vegetables, and I started serving it to people at these dinner parties we would host and they all looked at us like, “Why are we eating the weeds?”   It’s because they are delicious!  I put it in everything salad related.  It goes in the smoky pureed eggplant salad that we have at the restaurant.  I’d also say I’m pretty obsessed with using herbs.  Everything at the restaurant other than the burger has a ton of herbs in it.  We use around 5 types of basil, shiso, cilantro, tarragon, dill, parsley, and chervil.

So obviously you are known for your burgers, but is that what you like cooking when you’re home?

Generally when I cook at home its very simple, and it’s mostly all vegetables.  The thing that I make at home often and repeatedly is Pho. And that is partly because- this is going to sound really shitty- there are not a lot of places to get Pho around here that we like…Although there is one in Alameda called Side Street that is really good.  During normal weeks I’d say we cook around 4 nights a week. Lately my girlfriend Ashley has been cooking since I have been getting home so late. I’ve been trying to make her meals to take to work for lunches, and I just eat whatever I can at the restaurant for lunches. My mornings are really simple, if I eat anything at all it tends to be eggs and roasted squash or something quick and simple.  Having the time to cook at home totally depends on where I’m at work wise.

 

Guiltiest food pleasure:

Takeout Sichuan Chinese food.

So you and your girlfriend ran the restaurant together but now she is doing something different, where is she at?

The Future Perfect.

Very awesome, I love that store.  If only I could buy all of the dreamy chairs.  Was that a conscious decision for her move away from the restaurant, so that each of you had different projects?

When we were working together, there was no separation between work life and our life. Every time we went out to eat somewhere, we couldn’t help but talk about work.  We would be comparing the service, what is looks like, the food… It was never ending.  It’s nice now for us to come together and have different things to talk about in our lives that affect us both but are very different.

Is this your usual market of choice?

This is a great market, but I usually go to the Berkeley Farmers Market.  When I can’t make it to a farmer’s market, I go to Monterey Market for produce.  It’s amazing, and their pricing is almost equivalent to wholesale.  But also a lot of what I eat comes from the restaurant, like produce.  I’ve lived here for 15 years, and I’ve had relationships with these guys and have been buying their food for years, so that produce makes it into our house pretty often.  If I’m in the city I’ll go to Rainbow, but unfortunately the pricing has shot up there recently.

 

chris-4-of-15

chris-9-of-15


“If you want real sustainability, and to pay a living wage for the people producing and cooking your food, you have to pay for it.  It’s like…a hamburger should not cost $6.00.  If it does, there is something fucking wrong with it.”

 

Rainbow was my spot when I lived in SF.  It’s what bulk buying dreams are made of.  I don’t remember the pricing being crazy though, but that was 4 years ago…

I mean, it has always been expensive.  A lot of it has to do with the wages that they pay- and rightly so. I mean it’ a co-op, and I’m sure their rent is not cheap, and certainly is not getting any cheaper, so that’s just how it is.  It’s also a higher minimum wage- though part of my concern with a higher wage is that that will affect the same people that are now making a higher wage, because your burrito is going to cost $20 dollars. You know it begs the question from that point on- do we also move to tip free?  Then my $18 dollars burger is going to be a $23 dollar burger.

And then you won’t hear the end of that… It doesn’t seem like an easy business to be in right now.

It’s definitely getting harder and harder.  Andrew Tarlow is a really good friend of mine, and they moved to tip free at Reynard and Romans, and they have been getting a ton of push back because now it’s really expensive, or SEEMINGLY really expensive.  It’s not really expensive when you break it down.  If you want to use good products and pay your staff a decent wage, then your salads will cost $18.00.  If you want real sustainability, and to pay a living wage for the people producing and cooking your food, you have to pay for it.  It’s like…a hamburger should not cost $6.00.  If it does, there is something fucking wrong with it.

On so many levels…

So many. And it’s the same with sushi. You shouldn’t be able to go and buy sushi for $6 bucks. There’s something wrong with that too.

As someone in the restaurant industry, how are do you see wage increases affecting you?

The wage increase is about to affect everyone. That $8 dollar bag of tomatoes that I just paid for is going to cost $15 dollars, and I worry that it is just going to continue this cycle of making it more and more difficult for lower income families to have access to good food. So it’s like- what side do you choose?  Do you continue to not pay people enough, in a place where it costs 2k for a studio like in West Oakland?  And then what do you end up with? When no one can afford to live here?

chris-13-of-15

 

 

The cost of living is obviously also a huge topic, and it brings up another thing that has really changed. I mean, I know it must be cool to be 25 and just out of school and making 160k, but if you pay 3k to rent a room, you still don’t have any more money to spend eating out at restaurants.  You’re not part of the greater community, and you aren’t contributing. And if you work at a place where you have access to food 3 times a day and come to expect that as a given…You’re bused to work, you’re fed at work, I mean they might as well add 10 more stories and put bunk beds in.  Half the time that’s also the person who is bitching about the cost of a hamburger.

It’s happening in a lot of places- the bleed over from the tech industry and it’s affect on overall housing prices. In Los Angeles and in Portland we are seeing it.

Totally, but it all stems from here. Housing in those areas are going up because everyone ran from the Bay area.  Google built a place for themselves in Santa Monica- and that blew up the West Side.

chris-10-of-15


“We still had a lot great customers… But then there were customers who would show up and wouldn’t even interact with the people serving them. They were on their phone, on Yelp, basically, pointing at items, and reading off of a site.  It was totally consumptive, there was no seeming engagement in what was happening or any recognition of what it was that they were consuming or why.  It was just this thing on a list, on the fucking internet, that they were supposed to eat.”

 

Has your clientele shifted over the past few years living and cooking here in the Bay Area? With the influx of tech salaries, I can only assume you have seen a shift in who is dining in your restaurants.

It hadn’t shifted yet when I was working at the Slow Club and Bar Tartine. That was what I would call an ideal clientele.  They may have been people who made money in the first dot-com boom, but for the most part it was people who lived in the building, or lived two blocks away, and they came all the time.

I felt a shift when I came back from working upstate and did the pop up shop on Mission Street at Bruno’s. We still had a lot great customers, and people who came and supported us.  People that I generally knew.  But then there were customers who would show up and wouldn’t even interact with the people serving them. They were on their phone, on Yelp, basically, pointing at items, and reading off of a site. It was totally consumptive, there was no seeming engagement in what was happening or any recognition of what it was that they were consuming or why.  It was just this thing on a list, on the fucking internet, that they were supposed to eat.  Then they would go complain about it, or not. But that’s when I noticed this different shift in dining.  I got really turned off by the Mission, and I had lived in the Mission for 12 years.  It’s weird, it breaks my heart. I mean San Francisco used to be…

Now I just sound like some old person who has lived in this city for too long.  But…when I moved to San Francisco, it was weird and fucked up, cheap, and dirty, and you’d go out and you felt like things were happening.  All these people around you were going to do something great. And now all of those people are gone.  They have moved to LA, New York, Portland, or Oakland.  I left SF because I felt it had changed so significantly, and I think that may have been a little short sighted feeling.  It was so hard to find a space, and pay 300,000 for a liquor license, and spend 2 million in building out a restaurant.  I mean, man, how am I going to make any of this money back selling $14 dollar hamburgers?

At the restaurant we get a lot of push back about price.  Ultimately I’m charging 3 dollars more for this burger than the burger I made at Slow Club 10 years ago.  In the meantime, the price of beef has more than doubled.  We used to pay 40 cents per bun, now we pay 70 cents.  Labor was $10 an hour but is now $15 dollar an hour.  Taxes are higher.  Everything about doing business here- all of the prices have increased.  So I came over here to Oakland, and I have lived here and worked here now for over 4 years, Ashley has lived here her entire life, but now half of the people see us as gentrifiers, and we’re on Piedmont Avenue which is one of the wealthiest zip codes in the U.S.  I mean… it’s bizarro.

chris-3-of-15

 

Take-aways:

  1. KronnerburgerOakland, CAhttp://kronnerburger.com/salty
  2. Monterey MarketOakland, CAhttp://www.montereymarket.com
  3. Rainbow Co-OpSan Francisco, CAhttp://www.rainbow.coop
  4. Side Street PhoOakland, CAhttp://www.sidestreetpho.com