2016 San Francisco Rising Star Chef John Blevins of Clove & Hoof

2016 San Francisco Rising Star Chef John Blevins of Clove & Hoof
May 2016

At 14, John Blevins was working (begrudgingly) in the dirt, on a farm in Georgia near where he grew up. It was his first foray into the food industry. Off the land and into the kitchen, by 18
Blevins was working in the kitchen of a pizzaria where he learned to appreciate very simple,
very good food from an angry Italian man.

Years later, after high-intensity seasonal work and stages across the country, transforming himself from line cook to head chef, Blevins finally landed in California working under two 2013 Rising Stars. First with Sean Baker at Gather, then with Ryan Farr at 4505 Meats in San Francisco, both formative experiences that left him yearning to learn more about butchery and charcuterie. Blevins took to Europe for inspiration. He found himself back on a farm—this time by choice—in France with wife and business partner Analiesa Gosnell. For months, Blevins learned to break down hogs with the acclaimed Chapolard family, then toured Spain and Italy to learn more. Ultimately, he brought his knowledge back to Oakland, where he and Gosnell opened passion project Clove & Hoof.

Supplying and fulfilling a much-needed East Bay niche, Blevins focuses on responsible sourcing
with the highest regard for animal husbandry. Clove & Hoof is not only a butcher shop; it’s also a restaurant with a supremely unpretentious menu—think chicken and waffles and cheese steaks—a nod to his humble, back roads beginning in the food industry.

Interview with San Francisco Rising Star John Blevins of Clove & Hoof

Sean Kenniff: How did you get your start?
John Blevins:
My first job was on a farm in northeast Georgia when I was 14 years old—a farm at the end of the road, picking green beans and squash. It was awful because of my fear of dirt—that awful feeling from when you get dirt on your hands and it dries, like the cotton ball in an aspirin bottle. Then I worked at a pizza place for a couple years, and learned the love of food from an angry Italian man—very good, very simple food. I started bouncing around and doing a lot of seasonal work, I got to travel. I went to Alaska, Las Vegas for a while, then I came to California. This old lady had a bed and breakfast and a restaurant in Lake Tahoe and offered it to me for $300 a month, with a liquor license. We did something similar to this, but produce driven. In 2007, we moved to Oakland and I started working at Gather with Sean Baker. It was just luck that I ended up there, and I was there for about 3 years. Then I took a job as chef at a smaller restaurant in Berkeley called Lalime’s. 

The more you cook the more you want to know about where your food comes from. You evolve as a cook, and you want to learn butchery and charcuterie. My wife set up a trip to Europe for us, for four months. We went to France and worked on a pig farm, it was a super romantic notion. 

SK: How was that experience? 
It was a family of six men, and their wives, growing food for the pigs they’re were raising. We’d break down the pigs and take the charcuterie to the market. We worked from 9am to 12pm, then drink wine at the house for a few hours. It was the most dangerous work facility; no cutting boards, 15-degree angled, sloping floors for drainage. You’d take the skin from the pig and use it as a cutting board. Then my wife and I went back to California and I worked with Ryan Farr at 4505 Meats.

SK: Who’s your mentor?
Sean is an incredible cook. It’s the most efficient kitchen I have ever seen, it was a beast, and I emulate that moving forward in my career. His vegetable cookery is second to none, and with Ryan at 4504, I got all meat and vegetable education.

SK: What’s the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
The constant evolution of trying to find a more sustainable way to run this business. As sustainable as we are, I don’t make any money. The profit margin is so low on whole animal. There’s no way to run a butcher shop without a restaurant attached to it. The meat doesn’t stop coming. We get two animals a week.

SK: What’s your five year plan?
Ideally I would like to make it profitable enough to sell it and do something different. As much as I like this type of food, I love fish, too, and handwritten menus and fine dining.

SK: How are you handling the labor shortage?
Kids come here to work for free because they want the skill set, so it’s not a problem for us. 

SK: How would you describe Clove & Hoof?
Casual fine dining on a sandwich. It’s a whole animal butcher shop. The food should be familiar and friendly. I put Velveeta on shit [e.g. the Philly Cheesesteak] because it reminds me of my childhood. The prices here are unapologetically here to stay; this is quality and big portions. 

SK: And I see you like cocktail wieners?
I’m from Georgia, we throw ‘em in crock pot with BBQ sauce and grape jelly.  

SK: What advice would you give to your younger self?
Probably to not think too much about all of the worries, just do it, and if something happens, say sorry later.