For Brian and Julie Gordon, the inspiration for Wooden Spoons, their gourmet food business specializing in rillettes, came from years of entertaining family and friends with French-inspired meals.
“Rillettes are something we’ve been making for many years,” explained Julie. “We do a lot of canning, and rillettes lends itself really well to that. It’s long been our friends’ and family’s favorite thing for us to pull off the shelf when we entertain.”
Rillettes (prounounced “ree-yets”) are a French specialty consisting of meat marinated and simmered slowly in fat and spices and then shredded until it reaches a spreadable consistency. Unlike paté, Julie says, rillettes is traditionally shred by hand whereas paté is mixed until it is a very fine consistency then baked and sliced.
“It’s a real treat that can be made with many ingredients,” Julie said.
Although cooking has been a central part of the Gordons’ relationship and Brian had toyed with the idea of becoming a professional chef at one time, Julie says there hadn’t been a good time for them to think about building a business out of their shared love of cooking and food until recently. Between Julie’s job as a landscape designer, Brian’s work as a freelance copywriter and raising their two sons, “it’s never been the right time,” Julie said.
After their eldest son went to college, Brian and Julie started thinking more about how they could take the focus on food in their personal lives to the next level as well as spend more time together.
“We started the business because we found ourselves at a time in our lives where we wanted to be spending time doing more of what we love…being in the food world made the most sense,” Julie said.
Although neither Julie nor Brian have formal culinary training, they both worked in restaurants while they were young, and Brian worked as a butcher at one point in his career. Rillettes seemed like a natural direction for them because after many years of making it for friends they’d seen the reaction they would get when it was served. Plus, they’d been perfecting their recipes for 15 years.
“The idea of having an already prepared, delicious, nutritious appetizer at hand has always been appealing,” Julie said. “Taking a jar of rillette off the shelf when people come by is a great concept, one that we saw first hand as something that there would be a good demand for.”
Julie and Brian feature a variety of different rillette products. Duck, rabbit and pork rillettes are regularly featured, and a salmon rillette is available when in season. They have also recently started to make vegetable-based vegan rillettes after people began asking for it. They currently feature a mushroom cardoon (artichoke thistle) rillette.
“That’s been a lot of fun to move into that world, and it’s not a traditional rillette of course but we’ve had some amount of demand for vegan treats and really it’s the same kind of concept. It’s something to have in the fridge for a rainy day and serve as a delicious appetizer. And we’ve been excited to be able to put the mushroom rillette in all kinds of things at home, in omelets and pasta,” Julie said.
According to Julie, duck, rabbit and pork are the most rillette-friendly meats because they are easy to shred when cooked. Pork and duck, in particular, also tend to stay more moist when canned. Rabbit can dry out, she said, so working with that has been a bit more of a challenge. Although they have experimented with other meats, such as chicken, they haven’t come up with something as flavorful or moist as the others, she said.
Due to USDA regulations, the rillettes that Wooden Spoons sells do have a shelf life. To preserve the meat, a thin layer of duck fat is put on top of each jar and then they are refrigerated. Olive oil is used for the vegetable-based rillettes and clarified butter is used for the salmon.
Wooden Spoons’ rillettes are currently sold through Good Eggs and regularly at the Bluxome Street Winery’s monthly Meet Market, as well as through Williams Sonoma artisan markets and various pop up markets. The couple currently work out of the Kitchener Oakland kitchen.
What drew you to food?
A life-long love of cooking and eating out and experimenting with new and exciting ingredients. I think we’ve long wanted to share what we love to do with our friends and families. It was a natural transition to infiltrating it as part of our work lives.
The idea for Wooden Spoons was born after many an evening at the kitchen table talking about our lives moving forward, how we like to spend our time, what’s meaningful. Just like so many others, we’ve long found great joy in cooking and serving good food, particularly Brian, and we treasure the many magical hours in the kitchen when our kids or family and friends are talking and laughing, helping or hanging out as we prepare meals. Because rillettes have long been a favorite appetizer at our house and because our canning parties with my brother-in-law and his wife leave us with a well-stocked shelf of it, it’s often an important part of the scene.
Although he had dabbled in it now and then, Brian has often dreamed of getting into the food business in earnest. When the kids were little, at one point he quit his day job to work in the world of high-end prepared foods, but mainly because of the irregular hours and the financial realities he decided to focus on cooking for lucky us instead! Clearly the idea never died and here we are building a business that we love and doing it together.
Where does your food inspiration come from?
Mine comes from my husband. Beyond our ridiculously large collection of cookbooks and the custom shelves we had made for them, Brian spent his junior year of college abroad in France and his brother is married to a French woman. I’m going to speak for him a bit. A lot of his cooking inspiration has come from his older brother Greg, who has a fairly rich history in the food industry.
Really, my own inspiration comes from Brian. We met when we were really young. Also living in the Bay Area, spending so much time at Berkeley Bowl and farmer’s markets and eating out at so many wonderful restaurants. Brian’s usually been influenced hugely by France. He spent that year there, but he’s also spent a lot of time there since then and doing French cooking.
What’s the best piece of advice that you’ve gotten along the way in building your business? What advice would you have for others?
We were told to take a lot of notes, to keep track of everything. Start slow, put yourself out there a lot, meet as many people and network as much as you can.
I would tell people to remember to always have fun and always believe in what you do. Never forget why you got into this because it can be a lot of hard work.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced thus far?
I would say production challenges—being able to predict how much product is needed and not to under- or over produce. We’ve learned a lot, and I think another really big challenge is how do we take this to the next level without going the co-packing route and giving up our control and the high quality we currently have.
What is the best thing about what you’re doing?
Spending time together and being a part of the food world from this perspective has been really interesting, and we’ve met so many great people—so many great people doing wonderful things with their lives and with food.
What’s your favorite item on your menu?
Right now I’m really loving the rabbit rillette. It varies. I like them all. When the salmon comes in, it’s really exciting, and I can’t get enough of that.
What other local food artisans do you admire? Why?
I love True Family Foods and what they’re doing and so many others. I think what I really admire is when I see people putting their heart and soul into what they love in the food business and in other parts of life. There are lots of chefs that we admire, but really it’s people who are focusing on local, organic foods and spinning them into things that they love to serve for themselves and their families.
If you had to choose your last meal, what would it be?
Brian’s grilled shrimp, a platter of Cheese Board‘s finest, a perfectly dressed green salad. And some rillettes of course, on La Farine’s rustic baguette with a glass of nice glass of wine. Some just-picked perfectly ripe apricots if it’s June.
Favorite Bay Area food/resto/chef?
I really love the Cheese Board in Berkeley. I read their business model and they have been doing it for many, many years and they really know their cheese and their service is admirable, the way that they run their business. I love everything about it.
There are a lot of accomplished Bay Area chefs that we’re all familiar with—Alice Waters, Thomas Keller—who grow their own food, people who have built solid relationships with people who source their meats and produce. And there are a lot of people who have learned under them and now have their own careers. I have a huge amount of admiration for that path.
Photos courtesy of Julie and Brian Gordon, Wooden Spoons and Colin Price, GoodEggs.