A Touch of Paris in San Francisco: A Chat with Chez Julien
- Jacqueline Raposo
- 3 Min Read
Parisians somehow make everyday meals ooze with the romance of a Renoir painting. A little nub of hard cheese, a few slices of crusty bread, some luscious figs, and coffee on the side? Perfection. Salads entice with a handful of roughly chopped fresh herbs and sweetly caramelized nuts. Wine is savored. Chocolate is essential. Heck, according to Eater, French public school lunches include a cheese course!
Thanks to Julien Chang of Chez Julien, San Franciscans dine like Parisians without flying toward the Seine River.
Since 2014, Chez Julien in San Francisco has made fresh soups, quiches, sandwiches, and salads daily on premise. But Chang promises there’s ooh-la-la in every bite of his California-cross-French cuisine. We had a chat to find out exactly how he makes that happen.
You’ve studied, worked, and lived in both China and Paris. Why San Francisco? What about the city made you want to open Chez Julien here?
I was born and grew up in Paris, where food culture is present in our education and we learn from a young age about ingredients and food balance. I spent two years in China working for a French company that specialized in wholesale bakery products, pastries, chocolate, and macaroons dedicated to five-stars hotels, high-end restaurants, and upscale cafés. After I left my job in China, I was traveling in the US and could feel that San Francisco has very diverse food scene. I felt that the city is very innovative in term of taste. That’s the reason I wanted to open my café here.
How do Californian and French cuisine come together on your menu at Chez Julien?
When we started, we mainly offered traditional French dishes: quiche, croque-madame, lentil salad, and so on. Then we added a twist of Californian inspiration, such as breakfast burritos. We want to bring simple but tasty food to our customers. This is also a part of French cuisine—how to make tasty food with very simple ingredients. We also have sandwiches that come on excellent bread—and I know good bread!
Ooh, describe good bread, please!
A good baguette has to be crunchy on top with a kind of creamy flavor in the center. Our bread is supplied by Acme Bread Company, in Berkeley, and they’re doing very good bread. We looked through many before we chose them, and they’re the best bread I’ve tried here.
San Francisco catering customers are looking for healthy, international cuisine. But what do you find they’re not willing to sacrifice in the name of healthy food, and how do you best create that at Chez Julien?
“Healthy” does not only mean eating salad or bland food. I often have customers say that we have real food and fresh food. Everything at Chez Julien is made in Chez Julien, from the stock for our soups, the spreads on our sandwiches, the dressings on our salad bar; we cook our own meat and fish; everything we prep is homemade. We use no additives. Not sacrificing quality and freshness is half of the win.
What Chez Julien menu item stands out with your unique touch, compared to a similar menu item from another restaurant?
The Celine Salad is the perfect dish. It has kale, roasted butternut squash, cranberries, feta cheese, and candied walnuts with a gluten-free, vegan Meyer lemon dressing. It’s flavorful, beautiful, and healthy. And of course, my favorite salad, The Julien (with mixed greens, arugula, beets, quinoa, walnuts, green apples, feta, and cilantro-caper vinaigrette), because I love candied walnuts and quinoa!
Are there unique needs with catering orders that you consider when crafting catering menu items for Chez Julien in San Francisco?
There are food quality constraints when we bring food out of our premises. We ensure the food stays long enough so that the customer is not disappointed eating an hour after we’ve prepped it. For example, instead of tossing salads like we do in the café, we keep everything apart and have the customer toss themselves. Breakfast burritos usually come with pico de gallo in the center; for catering, we put it on the side and just have eggs and cheese in the tortilla. Fresh tomatoes make hot food soggy—we don’t want that to happen when the customer is eating a half an hour or an hour later. We pay a lot of attention to that.
How have you most grown as an entrepreneur? What is far easier today than when you first started?
Being an entrepreneur is an ongoing learning process, and I’m glad I took that step. I’ve grown in maturity, and in leading people. I am a shy person by nature, and being an entrepreneur forced me to face obstacles with more self-confidence. In this position, you have to get out of your comfort zone and do whatever you have to do. That’s different from my nature. Having the café has helped me grow as a person—helped me to see things from a different point of view. Owning your own business is a lot of responsibility. It’s like having a kid!
How do you advise others to do the same, regarding that kind of growth?
I think making mistakes is a good starting point! It’s important to learn from mistakes, so not to make them again.
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