Mendocino Talking: Margaret Fox

(Author’s Note: Margaret Fox, proprietor of the legendary Cafe Beaujolais in Mendocino for over 20 years, and author of two cookbooks, is now the Culinary Director of the Harvest Markets in Fort Bragg and Mendocino. Here is her story.)

I was born in Los Angeles and we moved to the East Bay when I was seven and went to school there. I always liked to cook and grew up in a family that really appreciated food— long before the hullabaloo about food. My mom was a fantastic cook and liked to try all kinds of things. She had recipes accepted by Sunset Magazine and was really into it. My dad’s parents were from Hungary where the women cooked and baked like nobody’s business, so they both enjoyed fantastic food. So my sister and I grew up, without realizing it, in an environment of fantastic food— what goes into making it, what made it special. Although I did some data entry computer work while at school, the only thing food related was teaching a bread baking class while in high school.

margaret-foxAlthough I fully intended on going to graduate school in Psychology, after getting my undergraduate degree in 1975 from UC Santa Cruz, I decided to take some time out and catch my breath before jumping back into academia. During my senior year at UCSC I read in the Chronicle about a former baking student of mine who had gone to France and become a friend of Julia Child’s co-author Simone Beck and had started a cooking school in Napa with a friend. So I called him and said I wanted to take some time out from school and asked if I could come work at the cooking school after I graduated. He said fine, but by the time I was ready to take him up on the job, I called and his partner said there was no way to accommodate me. Suddenly, I had nothing. So while I was lamenting my possible lack of a future, my dad, out of the blue said, Why don’t you go up to Mendocino. Your mom and I have always loved going up there. It was a kinder and simpler world back then, and I just said, OK. He had an acquaintance with Bill Zacha, who started the Mendocino Art Center, and I wrote him a letter.

I knew nothing about Mendocino except that it was beautiful, but a friend drove me up here about a week before Labor Day which was the end of the tourist season at the time, unbeknownst to me. I started knocking on doors at Inns and Hotels offering to help cleaning, inn keeping, whatever. Nothing was offered, job wise. I was dejected and ended up at a place in Mendocino, The Bank House, which is now the Trillium Cafe. The fellow there told me there was a job opening for a baker at the Mendocino Hotel, which had just reopened.

So I went over and asked if they were looking for a baker, and this tough cookie, old school, older woman kitchen manager interviewed me. I had never baked commercially before and there was all this big equipment and I walked through saying, Oh, such nice convection ovens, and beautiful Hobart mixer — hoping she wouldn’t ask me anything that would reveal my complete lack of experience. They said they wanted me to bake breads, and some desserts and I said, Oh yeah, I can do that — and I got the job, for $3.25 an hour.

So I briefly came back to the Bay Area, asked a bakery to quickly train me in the equipment, and a week later I had an apartment at the Art Center and a job, which I had for nine months while I got to meet people here and know the town. Then I worked at The Cheese Shop for a few months when I heard that Cafe Beaujolais was for sale. It had been started by a family that moved up from Berkeley. For many of us in Mendocino it was hallowed ground — unique and special and well-crafted — french cuisine oriented, sort of like our own Chez Panisse — I just loved everything about it. So three friends and I bought it.

We owners were an odd assortment of people who had varying degrees of commitment. I was there every single day, doing whatever needed to be done and took lots of responsibility and finally bought them out two years later. I had no background in the food business other than as an employee, and barely that, only what I had gotten from my two previous Mendocino jobs. But I had grown up listening to my dad talking about business, and what goes into being a responsible business person and responsible worker — so I had an understanding of business ethics and hard work. Restaurants are really hard. And about that time we had the gas crisis which was really tough and sad. There were some Saturday nights where I had three people in the dining room, and I was usually one of them. But we made it through that. It’s so great when you’re young and you just blunder on through, giving the best of yourself over and over. I came to work in the dark walked home in the dark. I was exhausted working a million hours, but I thought it was a good idea and had a great feel, my parents and sister were extremely supportive, and we had a sweet community of people who loved the food and showed up daily for breakfast and lunch.

In those early years we emphasized our breakfasts — egg dishes and french toast and wonderful waffles. Our customers liked eating breakfast out in that kind of homey environment and nice family atmosphere. Seasonal dinners in the early years included roast leg of lamb, and chicken. Julia Child and her books by that time were a big deal, and the public was getting more excited about the world of food, so our French/American-style cuisine really worked. Then Ruth Reichl, who was writing for California Magazine, came to the restaurant for breakfast unbeknownst to me. She was writing a monthly “Best of California” spread who did a “Best Breakfast in California” with a picture of me flipping eggs in spring of 1983. That blew us out of the water. Suddenly there is this infusion of business, and cash flow, and attention.

In 1984 we got a resume from a person who had worked in France and was a really good chef — his name was Chris Kump, the son of the noted New York cooking school teacher Peter Kump. In 1987 we were married, and 1997 we had a daughter, Celeste.

I wrote a book, Cafe Beaujolais, in 1984 and rewrote and republished it in 2006. Another book, Morning Food, came out in 1990.

In 1995, Chris wound up inheriting a castle in Austria, which his grandfather had bought in the 50s, after the war. He was an architect who had wanted to turn this amazing structure into a private hotel, so had made a lot of changes, like installing a bathroom  in every bedroom. So we turned it into a B&B and we lived a bi-continental life for five years, living part of the year in Austria and part of it in Mendocino. It was really crazy and kooky and super fun — and eventually too much. In 2000, I sold the restaurant and in 2001, we got divorced.

I had owned Cafe Beaujolais 23 years, 2 months and a day. I took some time off with my daughter, did a little food and business consulting, and in 2004 Tom Honer, owner of the Harvest Markets approached me to be the Culinary Director, a new position, which I’ve now been doing almost 10 years.

If there is one thread that runs through from the Cafe to the Harvest Markets, “Know Your Supplier” has always been part of my public food life. At both the Cafe and here at the stores, we work with as many local producers as we can. Even 30 years ago we had the names of our suppliers on our menu. Here, we have most of the best things to eat from our local area. That’s just always the best way to do food.

(Coming up: Charles Martin, Renegade Farmer, and Christie Olson Day, Proprietor of Mendocino’s Gallery Bookshop.)

4 Responses to "Mendocino Talking: Margaret Fox"

  1. Charlotte Saunders   October 5, 2014 at 9:32 am

    Thank you Margaret and for all that you do.

    Reply
  2. Helen Shane   May 19, 2015 at 10:40 pm

    Hi Margaret:

    What is the name of that wonderful spicy no flour flat cake you made in the 80’s.

    My husband and I discovered it while visiting in Mendocino; we liked it so much we ordered several to take with us on our two person sailboat trip to New Zealand between 1984 and 1986.

    I cut the cakes into small portions, sealed them, then tucked them around the boat in little niches in our wooden boat “Amigo” so that we would come across them at odd times and rejoice for the vibrant flavors and textures. I’d like to find them again.
    Can you help?

    Reply

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