When a scientist cooks breakfast, he's calculating the temperature at which eggs coagulate (between 144 and 158 degrees Fahrenheit) and contemplating the carbon dioxide that whitens their whites. Slicing cheese, he admires its microbes.
When that scientist is an ecologist, he's also gauging the sustainability of heirloom garlic grown at Brentwood's Brookside Farms, heirloom squash grown at Sunol's Baia Nicchia Farm, peppers grown at Santa Rosa's Quetzal Farms, and hormone-free, completely grass-fed beef from Bill Niman's BN Ranch.
When that scientist is also a mycologist — a fungi expert — he pops chanterelles (which he knows as Cantharellus cibarius) into eggs Benedict when winter finds those fluted yellow potassium-packed caps massed under pine needles and fallen leaves on East Bay slopes.
Aaron French is all three. A farm-bred, scientifically trained, self-described "Eco-Chef" who has lectured about his blended careers at the Oakland Museum of California and the San Francisco Fungus Fair, French spent years studying fragile landscapes worldwide. Having taken up professional cooking while earning an ecology degree at UC San Diego, he used the concepts of multivariate analysis to create what he calls the "Pancake Pyramid," by which recipes can be processed and plotted according to texture, density, and other qualities.
He also helms the kitchens at Solano Avenue's seven-year-old Sunny Side Café and the new Sunny Side Café that opened across the street from UC Berkeley's West Gate last fall. Both locations are intensely eco-friendly. Thanks to the efforts of owner Paul Revenaugh, the Solano spot was Albany's first Certified Green restaurant. At both Sunny Sides, all food scraps are composted and all paper, cans, and bottles are recycled. Water is served only upon request. Low-energy fluorescent lighting provides all illumination. Organic ingredients are used whenever possible. Menus denote "low-carbon-emission options," based on French's calculations of the miles each ingredient traveled before reaching his countertop.
Both cafes serve only breakfast, brunch, and lunch. At local farmers' markets and a wide range of nearby farms, French ponders how each local, seasonal item he sees might be used in morning and midday fare. "Crazy items catch my eye," he said. "If it's a crazy fruit or herb, I'm thinking: 'How can I put this into pancake batter, and what could I wrap in that pancake?'"
Persimmons find their way into fluffy flapjacks, along with dulce de leche for a smooth, almost smoky finish. Blood oranges brighten baguette-based French toast. Dried cranberries spike chicken salad. Whole fresh blueberries pock house-baked, perfectly not-too-sweet muffins. Crimini and porcini mushrooms — wild-foraged in Berkeley — flavor an earthy cream sauce swathing plump Italian-sausage pigs-in-blankets.
The Sunny Side's signature dish, French's own extravagant invention, is the Alameda: ham or other savory fillings sandwiched between two French-toast slices, topped with two over-easy eggs, house-made Hollandaise sauce, and a balsamic reduction. Changing seasons spawn endless variations.
One day this winter, "I was thinking of how my daughter Pearl likes to go out and select the perfect leaf while at the park," French said. "I thought: Why don't I create a special based on the colors of the leaves she selects?" This led to an Alameda stuffed with russet porcinis, golden yams, butternut squash, and rainbow chard — "all locally sourced, but also invoking the color of the fallen leaves around Berkeley."
Elegantly over-the-top, the Alameda was born "as kind of a joke. We don't have a deep-fryer here, because I don't want to serve fried food," French explained. Yet he yearned to riff on classic batter-dipped, powdered-sugar-topped, Monte Cristo ham-and-cheese sandwiches.
"I wondered: How can I make this fun thing without a fryer? By using French toast. And hey, I'll put some eggs on top — and some sauce, because that's how we do things here. After a while, people were always coming in and asking for 'that big sandwich.'"
It's arguably too big for one diner to polish off in one go. That's true, too, for the generous eggs Benedict, drenched in Hollandaise and served with enough crispy-outside, rosemary-flecked home fries to fill a bowling shoe. The Tilden Benedict features assertive mushrooms and melt-in-your mouth tomatoes — but it's just one of many Benedicts, including an unagi Benedict featuring fresh eel that also infuses the Hollandaise. French has even invented a carbonated Hollandaise by putting the requisite lemon juice, egg yolks, and butter through the same process that seltzerizes water.
From the sunny yellow sauce to the sunny yellow eggs and fresh butter to the sunny yellow walls and golden hardwood floor, the cozy new Berkeley restaurant basks in a French-farmhouse ambience: Order at the counter, then wander upstairs or outdoors, where dishes and drinks (such as indulgent cream-topped hot chocolate) are delivered briskly by attentive servers. It's fun in the way that filling daytime food can be, but it's also dead serious: "We're the only restaurant I know of that calculates and prints the food miles for all its produce," French avowed. "It forces me to put my money where my mouth is." In summer, the average is about fifty miles; in midwinter, it's over twice that — "which is still pretty respectable, all things considered. I hope my customers see those numbers and that it sparks them to have conversations."
The restaurant's many meatless items include veggie burgers, curried-tofu sandwiches, and breakfast burritos, but French goes one step farther by maintaining separate grills "so that our meat never touches our pancake and potato grills. I train all my staff to use separate spatulas and utensils as well. ... At most brunch restaurants, vegetarians end up eating potatoes cooked in bacon and burger grease." But not here.
Consider your consciousness raised.