In a jolt of culinary cognitive dissonance, John Scharffenberger is charting an unlikely course from cocoa to tofu.
The cofounder of the premium Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker initially wasnt especially fond of tofu. Then he tried a fresh, premium variety from Oaklands Hodo Soy Beanery at the Berkeley Farmers Market.
It was just absolutely delicious, says Scharffenberger, who was such a fan he began working with the beanery and now is CEO of Hodo Soy.
Scharffenberger, who still consults for his old chocolate company (now owned by Hersheys), may seem an unusual player in the artisanal tofu movement, but hes hardly alone.
In the San Francisco Bay area alone, a number of chefs are making their own tofu, including at Ozumo San Francisco, where tofu is made tableside as part of the chefs tasting menu or by special request, adding a little gastronomic theater to the meal.
We get a lot of requests for tofu and tofu-derived dishes, says Ozumo Restaurants corporate chef Michael Yakura. Customers are becoming more savvy about it.
And while most consumers still encounter tofu mostly as that mass-market white, rubbery stuff that your vegetarian friend ate in college, says Scharffenberger, the reality is that higher-end varieties can be a world apart from in terms of taste and quality. And the truth is you dont have to be a vegetarian to enjoy it, he says.
Bruce Cost, author of Asian Ingredients, remembers coming to California in the 1980s and finding, despite the states significant Asian population, that tofu was largely looked on in non-Asian communities as being a meat substitute.
Tofu does make a good vegetarian dish, but its also good with small amounts of meat. Cost likes a Szechuan dish that uses pork, chili peppers, garlic and ginger to make a spicy, savory sauce for the tofu. Cost, who has tried Hodo Soy tofu and likes it, says tofu should be viewed as a tasty food unto itself, rather than something you eat because you dont eat meat.
That seems to be happening, with increasing interest in premium tofu thats meant to be eaten fresh.
Unlike sausage, or legislation, there are no horrors in watching tofu being made.
In Hodo Soys 12,000-square-foot factory, organically grown soy beans are soaked, ground and boiled creating a rich soy milk to which the natural coagulant calcium sulfate is added. Hodo Soy, whose products are carried by Whole Foods Markets, also makes noodles out of yuba, thin sheets of that rise to the top of fresh soy milk.
Scharffenberger, who made high-end wine before he got into chocolate, sees his interest in tofu as a continuation of his pursuit of good food.
He grows much of his own produce on his property in Mendocino County, is working with Mac Macgruder of Macgruder Ranch in Northern California to produce premium Iberico ham and also is making sauerkraut.
After discovering Hodo Soy, Scharffenberger became an investor, then an advisor on the Hodo board before accepting founder Minh Tsai and CFO John Notzs offer to become CEO in June.
Tofu and chocolate, not to mention ham, might not seem to have much in common, but the approach creating simple, but delicious products from premium ingredients is the same, he says. Its fun to work with people that are making things that are so exquisite.
His goal now is to introduce more people to tofu in its many incarnations. Hodo Soy products range from silken, custardy tofus that eat like panna cotta to lightly fried cubes infused with curry spices.
Whats it like making tofu vs. chocolate?
It can be an advantage.
Recently, Scharffenberger picked up a couple of Hodo Soy products to give to someone he was meeting at a private fundraiser in San Francisco. Chocolate might have been a problem, but natural tofu was an appropriate gift for someone who famously has been streamlining his diet Bill Clinton.