Chef Profile: Clark Staub (Full of Life Flatbread)
No pizzeria is complete without an oven, and it’s hard to imagine a more impressive specimen than the one at American Flatbread. Influenced by ancient European “beehive” ovens, the dome is constructed from Vermont willow branches. The keystone is a spare step from The Getty. The exterior: Santa Barbara County clay and stone. Decorative tiles fleck the dome, including a heart surrounded by a sunburst. The long handled pizza peels are nearly as notable, made with shaved willow branches from George Schenk’s farm in Vermont. Of course, all this handcrafted equipment is useless without the right people to use it. That person is Clark Staub.
Staub spent his first 41 years in Orange County and L.A., twenty in the music business, including a stretch as VP of Marketing for Capitol Records. In the Golden State, he was influenced by the onset of farm-to table California cuisine.
On business trips, he made it his mission to find good food. Driven by a passion for baking, Staub would find hotels situated near his favorite bakeries. He said, “I’d get up at 3 a.m. to check out their ovens, watch and ask questions.” Staub was especially influenced by La Brea Bakery – “a culturally wild thing in L.A.”, Acme Bread – Steve Sullivan’s bakery in Berkeley, Amy’s Bread in New York. Boulangerie Poilane in Paris and Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, Michigan. For cheese, Staub reveres Neals Yard Dairy in London.
Thanks to his on-site study and practice baking at home, Clark felt ready to open a bakery of his own and left the music business. Staub said, “I had an assistant in the music business who was also studying to be an actor and a waiter at The Ivy. When he figured out I was opening my own food place, he tried to talk me out of it. He was looking out for the sanity of my wife and kids.”
Staub opened an organic bread bakery in Claremont, California, called Full of Life Village Baker. He said, “We had a cheese shop, wine shop and café. It’s still there, but has been sold three times and is not remotely what it was.” In 1999, he started a farmers market in Claremont, which David Karp of the LA Times called best small market in L.A.
Staub was offered an opportunity to return to corporate America in 2001 and he took it, moving to Vermont to run Global Branding for Burton Snowboards. It’s in Vermont where he encountered some serendipity. He said, “In 1999 I was visiting Pt. Reyes Station and was introduced to the book ‘The Bread Builders’ by Daniel Wing and Alan Scott. Throughout the book there are vignette chapters where the authors visit a location and do a little write up. One of these visits was to American Flatbread in Vermont. Fast forward and in 2002 I found myself in a snowstorm in Vermont and in a strange twist of fate met [American Flatbread founder] George Schenk. With my background in music distribution sales and marketing and as an artisan baker, I began consulting on an informal basis to American Flatbread with their wholesale business.” In 2003, Staub licensed the American Flatbread name and returned to California to found Food Remembers, re-igniting his passion for baking.
In launching the West Coast outpost of American Flatbread, Staub decided on northern Santa Barbara County for several reasons. He already knew the area by helping winemaking friends harvest grapes and because his wife’s parents live in nearby Paso Robles. It also helped that Los Alamos is located in the cradle of bountiful farmland and in between two major distribution hubs: Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Staub launched his small-batch wholesale bakery in May 2004, in the first new building in “downtown” Los Alamos (pop. 1000) in twenty years. The building was intended to be a winery, but the wine bust ensured that it was never used for original purpose. He built on the success of the bakery in September 2004 by launching a weekend-only restaurant in the building.
Staub clarified that his focus is on flatbread, and not pizza. “It’s a flat bread, and I’m not Italian.” He said, “Pizza is a perfect food for providing nourishment, since you don’t need a lot of ingredients, so we can spend more money on individual ingredients, which ends up making a better meal.”
Toward that end, Staub uses local, organic and sustainable ingredients whenever possible. He readily uses foraged and wild foods. Staub said, “The pleasure for us is where we’re located. We’re in and amongst a lot of farms so we can get really incredible stuff, fresh.” He’s managed to build a reliable network of farmers within a 300-square-mile radius. Staub said, “On Mondays and Tuesdays, I start to get e-mails from farmers. Farmers tell me what’s going into season. We also ask people to plant things for us.” Staub also shops at local farmers markets up to four times a week, waiting until Wednesday to write his menu, after he gets a first-hand look at the week’s best available ingredients. At the beginning, Clark limited the restaurant to flatbread. Now they also offer seasonal salads and elaborate desserts.
American Flatbread’s isolated location has posed staffing challenges, but Staub is happy with his crew. He said, “Most of our employees come from Los Alamos and all are from here and the surrounding community. What we have been able to do is hire some very dedicated people who we train to work with fire and food. Baking in the factory and in the restaurant obviously require different skill sets but the two operations allow for our bakers to become more intimate with the oven, knowing each spot in the oven and which spaces will work best for each pizza.”
When asked to describe the importance of wine and beer to what he’s doing at American Flatbread, Staub said, “We’re in wine country, so we don’t want to negate the importance. We have 90 wines on our list, all from Santa Barbara County. We stress the variety of grapes and types of wine made here in the county. Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah and Sangiovese. A lot of smaller lot production, a lot that you won’t see outside the tasting rooms. We’re a restaurant, not a bar, but we try to rotate wine and beer seasonally.” Staub changes the by-the-glass list every month or two. Last year, American Flatbread even made its initial foray into winemaking, working with legendary Au Bon Climate winemaker Jim Clendenon on a house Pinot Noir.
When asked why good pizza is so hard to come by (my theory), Staub said, “I read somewhere that of all the franchises in America, pizza franchises are one of the most prominent. It’s a relative low threshold of training required to produce something edible. You don’t need a lot of ingredients to make a tasty meal. Some of the chains can buy lesser ingredients and hope sauce and cheese can produce something at least filling. Here, we want every individual ingredient to taste superb. If we get the recipe right, the combination produces an outstanding meal.” Staub also posited that pizza is forced to share focus at many restaurants. He said, “In some restaurants, the pizza station is only one transit point for that chef. That’s been an ongoing issue with renowned restaurants. Do serious chefs aspire to make a pizza? A lot of them don’t.”
In the spring of 2008 Food Remembers will be changing its company name to Full of Life Foods and introducing a new line of Certified Organic Locally-Sourced Frozen Pizzas. Staub said, “Our pizzas are all hand-made in our own facility and will focus on local sources for our ingredients – in this way our carbon footprint is reduced, our food’s security is increased (due to our relationship with real farmers, artisans, and cheese makers), and our product provides a good neighbor by being a vital community service in rural California.” Staub and his crew will continue to produce American Flatbread pizzas as well.
In the future, Staub would like to open another restaurant, and has been looking “all over the place” for possible locations. He said, “It’s a matter of manpower and can we maintain quality and freshness.”