BERKELEY, Calif. — 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 wasn’t especially fond of tofu. Then he tried a fresh, premium variety from Oakland’s Hodo Soy Beanery at the Berkeley Farmer’s 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 Hershey’s), may seem an unusual player in the artisanal tofu movement, but he’s 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 chef’s tasting menu or by special request, adding a little gastronomic theatre 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 don’t 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 state’s 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 it’s also good with small amounts of meat. Cost likes a Szechuan dish that uses pork, chili peppers, garlic and ginger to make a spicy, savoury 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 don’t eat meat.”
That seems to be happening, with increasing interest in premium tofu that’s meant to be eaten fresh.
Unlike sausage, or legislation, there are no horrors in watching tofu being made.
In Hodo Soy’s 1,115-square-metre factory, organically grown soy beans are soaked, ground and boiled creating a rich soy milk to which the natural coagulant calcium sulphate 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 adviser on the Hodo board before accepting founder Minh Tsai and CFO John Notz’s 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. “It’s 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.
What’s it like making tofu versus 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.