Eat Expert: William Werner, Craftsman and Wolves
Written and Photographed By: Andrew Merritt and Anthony Rojo
You’ve probably heard of The Rebel Within already; a chive, asiago, and sausage muffin with a soft boiled egg baked into the center. The creative mind behind the Rebel and countless other innovative sweet and savory treats is William Werner, chef and partner of Craftsman and Wolves. With two new stores opening this year (in LA and Russian Hill) and a James Beard nomination for best baker, he’s only getting started. We found the former vegetarian surfer in his Bayview commissary bakery to talk waves, business and a bit of baking.
Q: The selection at Craftsman and Wolves is constantly changing. What’s the deal?
William Werner: I really wanted to bring the idea of seasonality into the bakery, because you just don’t see that. You see the place that has a blueberry muffin 12 months out of the year. So we’ll have it when there are blueberries, and they’re amazing and when they’re gone they’re gone. They’ll be back next year.
Q: How often does the menu change?
It depends on season. Right now, there are 37 menu items, so mostly monthly. And we always have the Rebel, the croissant, stack [cubic stack of croissant dough] and brownie.
Q: You must be planning far in advance. How does that blend with the seasonal element?
WW: With pastry we are able to conceptualize more. For the holidays, we can think about it from a design standpoint. Almost like fashion; what’s the new season look like. It’s two steps, conceptualizing but then tweaking when the seasons come to adjust to the taste of the ingredients.
Q: Both your store and products ooze style. How has your sense of design evolved?
WW: When I first started cooking I met a guy who worked at Stars who had a stack of Art Culinaires. For a student to be handed a stack of these magazines, it was like, I don’t even understand what I’m looking at. I didn’t understand what a sea bass nage was. I couldn’t even understand the recipe. I was getting this when I was learning how to make vegetarian food. I was looking at crazy terrines with black truffles laced down the side. It was unreal. So I looked at that and thought, I want to be doing this. I want this flow, this design, this heart, this surprise element that you’re eating with your eyes before you even taste it.
Q: What is the ideal experience of someone that walks into your shop?
WW: That’s what I hope it is, an experience. Wow them with the displays and the presentation. If we’re making that much thought into how we display things, think of how much thought we’re taking to create them. That’s something that doesn’t have to live only at fine dining. I want great customer service; I want them trained on how we make it; where we get the onions and how we make the sausage. And if they come in and they just want a coffee and a croissant, then bam; they’re in and out with their coffee and croissant.
Q: How do you go about training a staff to communicate very challenging food concepts in an environment that isn’t fine-dining?
WW: We’re still training staff. I like working in the front so I can really see what response the staff are getting and no one knows who I am. We work with them, find out what motivates and excites them. Every time we do a menu change they get a full breakdown with pictures and descriptions. I’ve taken that fine dining mentality with sending out the menu change booklets. Then when they show up to line up, they better know what they’re talking about.
Q: Are you still passionate about the simple things like a chocolate chip cookie or a croissant?
WW: Definitely. The Rebel is our gateway drug. People come in blinded. I could have gold bars for free, and they would be like “Do you have the Rebel thing?” So that helps us win people over with technique, execution and flavor. That leads to them trying something new. It’s near and dear to me that we do a great muffin or croissant.
Q: Do you get blowback when you change something?
WW: In the beginning people were really pissed off about the blueberry muffin. We endured. Dealing with staff then, when they’re like “Chef, these people keep coming in for the blueberry muffin.” I’m just like, they’ll be back when berries are back. We get them from one farm and the season will come, just hang in there. We’re going to do this really badass muffin with carrot; we’ll do something with this and with that. But when we brought it back, it was the biggest social media event ever. I hate to compare it, but like the McRib.
Q: Before the ban, you had the Demon Inside, which contained foie gras and was a hit. Will it return now that the law has changed?
WW: Yeah, I just don’t want to keep doing it. If this were in a restaurant, this thing would be $17. There are amazing products in the case that I think would put some restaurant desserts to shame. At Quince, desserts are $15 bucks a plate, and you don’t flinch. Here, people come in and see product and menu card, and you’ve got less than five seconds to sell it. If they’ve got sticker shock and you don’t get in there to tell them about it, they’re lost. To put something in there that’s $17 and tell them that its got foie gras or that it takes all this labor, they’ll just think you’re crazy. When [foie] came back, we did one round, 80 of them and just…gone. And I was like ‘That’s it, we’re done.’
Q: Do people still ask for cupcakes?
WW: No! (Laughs) For our first birthday, we made this announcement that the concept wasn’t working, and we were going to transition to artisan cupcakes. So we put all these unicorns and rainbows around the shop, and we made six different precious cupcakes that were tiny. And people came by and were like; “that’s amazing!”
Q: Whats the newest menu addition?
WW: Citrus lime tart. Lime curd wrapped in brown sugar meringue with grapefruit and Cara Cara’s.
Q: Your store and website have some non-food items as well.
WW: We designed the apron. Self Edge is three spaces down and specializes in Japanese selvage denim. I had all the girls in here trying it on and deciding where they want the sharpie, the iPhone, towel. It took us almost a year. For Christmas, we sold out of them and had to get an emergency run.
Q: Where are they made?
WW: Right here in San Francisco. One girl named Rain; she makes ’em all with an assistant. Kia sources the denim. If you work here for a year, you get one.
Q: Whats the most challenging part of perfecting a croissant?
Investment of time. The guy that makes the best chocolate is like the guy who serves the best tennis serve. It’s really about doing it every day and treating it correctly. And then there’s the bake! Our recipe is a little different. You go to Tartine or B (Patisserie), and theirs is completely different. You can really geek out on them.
Q: Are you a big wine drinker?
WW: I’m more of a bourbon guy. I like the High West Campfire.
Q: Favorite go-to comfort food?
WW: Rice porridge. Congee. I could eat it breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Q: CAW is only three years old, but growing fast. How do you fuse the creative and business aspects of your company?
WW: Its the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. I respect people that are doing something and putting food on the table for all their staff and growing a company. There are people that go and cause chaos and do some crazy concept, and it burns and fails and then say that you have to have failure. You’re like, no, you really just wrecked a bunch of shit. I’m impressed by people with business savvy. If you can push the creative envelope and make money.
Q: The balance of innovating and making a profit?
WW: Its kind of an art form. You have got to pay attention. How to stay fresh and new and interesting and edgy is key. The staff all came here because we do different shit. You can’t just make a cupcake or a cronut. If we made a cronut man, these kids (bakers) would throw down their towels and walk out! And they should.
Q: Where does a lifeguard turned pastry chef learn to run a kitchen?
WW: The Ritz-Carlton. I was at the Ritz for seven years. With [famed pastry chef] Fred Monti in Naples, we had a staff of 38 pastry cooks, Wedding cake team of three people and we had two people that did nothing but garnish and bon bon.
Q: Any other notable mentors?
WW: Xavier Salomon at the Ritz in Half Moon Bay. He’s that mentor that I would like to be. He genuinely cares what you’re doing. He pushes you in your field, so you’re not just coming in and punching the clock.
Q: You’re a Florida native and surfer. Do you make it out to the beach anymore?
WW: Of and on. I go out to Ocean [Beach]. It’s cold. It’s disheartening to me. I used to be able to take a lunch break and get to go surf. Out here, half my time is just putting on the damn monkey suit.
Q: What is your secret spot in San Francisco?
WW: My living room, a record player and a bottle of wine.