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Cafe Beaujolais founder finds a delicious new calling

September 27, 2006|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

Mendocino, Calif. — WHAT is Margaret Fox, the most famous chef ever to cook in Mendocino County, doing working at a grocery store in Fort Bragg?

Technically she's the culinary director, which she says means "basically anything having to do with cooking." But in truth, Fox may be doing more to introduce the region's residents to good food at the market than she ever did running a destination restaurant.

Not long ago, breakfast at Fox's Cafe Beaujolais was the highlight of every foodie's Mendocino pilgrimage. Here on Northern California's often-chilly, wind-swept coast, tourists have the time and the need for a serious meal at the beginning of the day.

Fox's breakfasts were homey and delicious -- the best in the state, according to one high-powered restaurant critic.

Her buttermilk and cinnamon coffee cake is iconic, as is her black bean chili. Seemingly simple, they have a surprising complexity of flavor. Toss in an egg dish and you're set for whatever the day might bring you.

Though few great restaurants deign to even serve breakfast, Beaujolais -- a bit of an odd place, as befits the area -- built its reputation around it.

Cafe Beaujolais, running without Fox since 2000, is still going strong, though these days serving dinner only, bowing to competition from the area's many bed-and-breakfast inns. And after a tumultuous decade, Fox has moved on. But to a grocery store?

Well, in the first place, the Harvest Market isn't just any grocery store. It is nothing less than a compendium of most of the best things to eat from the area. Golden Gravensteins and fresh-pressed juice from the Philo Apple Farm; colorful cherry tomatoes from Comptche Creek; cheese from local Yerba Santa and Elk Creamery dairies as well as Northern California favorites Cypress Grove, Andante, Redwood Hill Farm and Cowgirl Creamery; salmon, albacore, rex and petrale sole and ling cod from Noyo Harbor not half a mile away; and grass-fed beef from Potter Valley's Mac Magruder. Not to mention the wine department.

So it's understandable that when the market's owner Tom Honer approached Fox, she accepted. "It sounded like a complete blast," she says.

Fox first came to the Mendocino coast in 1975. Fresh out of college (developmental psychology at UC Santa Cruz), she'd had a job fall through in the Napa Valley and she was desperate for something to do. "I said to my dad, 'What am I going to do?' He said, why don't you go to Mendocino? You like to bake, and I'll bet they have a bakery up there. So I came up. I started in Elk, knocking on doors and asking people for jobs. I figured I'd wind up a hotel maid."

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A novice baker

SHE finally got a job at the historic Mendocino Hotel, but there was only one problem: She'd never worked in a bakery before. "I was 23 years old," she says. "So the first thing I did was call the co-op and ask them if I could come in and work in their bakery for a couple of days. I said, 'Hi, you don't know me, but I'm going to be a baker and I think I'd better learn how.' "

She and three partners bought Cafe Beaujolais in 1977; she became sole owner in 1979. It was not the most auspicious moment to be buying a restaurant in a remote location.

"That was right when the gas crisis hit and nobody came to Mendocino for a whole year," she says. "That was a really difficult time. In retrospect, I'm really glad I was young and stupid. But I couldn't stand the idea of failure, so I stuck with it and my family was so supportive."

The restaurant turned the corner in the early 1980s when Ruth Reichl, then restaurant critic for California magazine, singled it out for serving the best breakfast in the state. "That was just magic," she says. "We started to get really, really busy."

In 1984 she hired a new dinner cook, Chris Kump, the son of noted New York cooking school teacher Peter Kump. In 1987 they were married. In 1997 they had a daughter, Celeste. For several "bi-continental" years, they tried to make a go of turning a Kump family castle in Austria into a successful bed and breakfast.

But running two businesses in different countries was just too much. In 2000, she and Kump sold the restaurant and in 2001, they divorced -- and it was as nasty and public as a high-profile breakup in a small town can be.

At first after the divorce, Fox worked as a consultant. Then two years ago, Honer came calling. Fox's first major goal was to modernize the store's catering department, bringing it up to the level of the store's wine and cheese departments.

That's been an introduction to a Mendocino she hadn't really encountered as the revered owner of a high-end restaurant. "We get everything -- vegetarian, free-range, vegan, regional, organic -- every version and sub-version of everything you can even think of," she says. "At first it made me a little nuts, but it's been fun to cook those kinds of things."

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