Photograph by Michael Amsler
Britt Galler spreads the word, one Acre at a time
By Marina Wolf
LIKE MOST restaurants, Acre Cafe comes alive at night. The fireplace casts its glow across the room and on the couples courting on the green velvet couch, a spot that chef-owner Britt Galler calls “the most romantic seat in town.”
During the day, though, this former bagel shop, one block off the main plaza in Healdsburg, is less inviting. The room is chilly, the fireplace exudes only a smell of stale smoke, and the couch loses its evening glamour to become just another piece of stiff furniture. It creaks slightly as Galler sits down with a sigh. The 30-year-old chef is still getting used to the non-stop pace of her first restaurant. She tugs at the wrists of her wool cardigan, the same color as the couch. But on this cool winter afternoon, the only source of warmth in the room is in Galler’s hazel eyes when she speaks of her home in Healdsburg and her experiments in community.
She lives on some property outside of town with her boyfriend and business partner, Steve DeCosse, and some chickens. Her best friend and other business partner, Marci Ellison, lives next door. While the garden there doesn’t supply all or even most of the produce for the seasonally inspired menus at Acre, just getting out to the farmers’ market and talking to the local farmers is more than enough.
“Even though I don’t have the luxury of stepping outside and harvesting our own produce, I do get to support our local farmers and create community there, which was one of the main reasons I got involved in the restaurant business,” says Galler earnestly.
“Restaurants are integral to community. You’re supporting the community and feeding it at the same time.”
THE ROOT of Galler’s obsession with community and good food is fairly close to the surface. Raised an only child by her divorced mother, she was encouraged to choose her own food at an early age.
“I started off with grilled cheese sandwiches and canned soup, but I was always interested in serving,” recalls Galler. “I invited my girlfriend over and I served that soup.”
The food/feeding motif continued to play out through her years at Reed College in Portland, Ore., where the young Galler cooked in collective households and provided under-the-table baked goods to the student cafe. After ditching the rigid academia at Reed, Galler proceeded to eat her way around Asia, went to cooking school in Portland, and landed a few prime cafe gigs in San Francisco.
But her interest bloomed into full-blown love during an apprenticeship at the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems at UC Santa Cruz, where Galler and 34 other residents worked the 20-some-acre farm and lived in tents for six months.
“I really got off on that,” she says, a slight grin quirking the corners of her mouth. “We did everything together, whether cooking or cleaning the bathroom. I found that to be a really gratifying experience.”
After completing the program in 1994, Galler opened an all-vegetarian, all-organic catering business and dinner-delivery service in Santa Cruz. The market there was welcoming of vegetarian offerings, but after three years, Galler found other reasons to get out. For starters, there wasn’t a lot of money among the large student population, which put a ceiling on which menus–and price ranges–would fly.
There were personal factors as well. “I like the fine things. I like good wine and nice clothes, though you can’t tell today,” she says with a rueful glance at her Sunday casual clothes. “Anyway, I have a taste for those things, and it wasn’t a supportive place for that.”
So Galler took to traveling again. She apprenticed at a restaurant in Oaxaca, Mexico, for five months and went farther south–to Chile–to cook for river-rafting expeditions for a while. But something about moving on all the time wore her down. “I got tired of feeling that I wasn’t committed to anything,” she explains.
At that point, Marci, a friend from “the Farm,” invited her to come and check out Healdsburg. “I fell in love with it,” Galler says simply. “It’s just the right size. . . . Living in a small town is much more appealing to me than living in a city, primarily because people are really accountable for their behavior in a small community. You can’t cut someone off when you’re driving, because you’re going to see them at the bakery later.”
Or at the restaurant.
BY GALLER’S figuring, the restaurant is a repository for several communities: the workers, the suppliers, and the customers. The three owners are planning more community-building events, such as dinners with winemakers and farmers, where diners can meet the folks who produced their meal. Galler is particularly looking forward to hosting community dinners this month, when they’ll push all the tables together.
“So many people already know each other, so it should be fun.”
Other equally dramatic innovations will hit Acre in mid-January, when the restaurant will close for a month for a complete remodeling of the bagel-era kitchen, which has two electric burners and two ovens, but no gas burners–“It’s a testament to our abilities that people don’t realize that,” Galler says.
She’s excited about the new culinary possibilities the remodeling will open, but to her the community and ecology of the place are even more important. “For me, the restaurant is a vehicle toward the larger goal of educating people about sustainable food,” says this enthusiastic young woman whose inspiration is, fittingly, seasonal-food guru Alice Waters.
“I don’t think people are having epiphanies here. But if people are having a really good meal and they’re cognizant of the fact that it’s organic, local, seasonal, and they feel good after they eat it, which I think they do, then that’s an accomplishment.”
The first community dinners at Acre Cafe will be held on Monday, Dec. 20, and Monday, Dec. 27, with seatings at 6 and 8 p.m. both nights. The prix fixe menu will cost $20 per person. For reservations, call 431-1302.
From the December 16-22, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
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