There are numerous ways to pronounce the luscious laminated pastry kouign-amann from Brittany. But after eating one, everyone speaks the same language: a deeply satisfied, bit-ashamed-for-liking-something-so-much groan. You can only get these buttery caramelized delights in one place in Santa Barbara, and that’s the newly, finally(!) expanded C’est Cheese, four times its old size and about to be a full-fledged café, marketplace, and extended catering service.
The two-year-long process owners Michael and Kathryn Graham endured upon taking over the former homes of Thrasher Books and Our Daily Bread has not been easy. “This was the 20-year step that most people would have done in two steps,” explained Kathryn. “Even when we opened 10 years ago,” explained Michael, “we never wanted to stop improving and growing, so this is a step.” To which Kathryn laughed, “You think? It’s a leap.” And then Michael countered, “I’m from the Midwest: I understate things.”
That the couple still have their senses of humor after increasing their staffing threefold, going to a seven-day-a-week schedule, and still being about five weeks out from the cheese/market section of the shop being refurbished is a kind of miracle. And the growth won’t stop there. “In the next couple of months, we’ll have wine and beer on tap,” promised Michael. “And we’re really excited to add dinner, once we get to the point where we won’t be the ones washing dishes at midnight.” While they think people want their regular faves for breakfast and lunch — and there’s lots of grilled cheese goodness for both, of course, even with a gluten-free bread option — Michael asserted, “You can do more with dinner, have more creativity and variety.”
Much of that creativity will be driven by house-made products. “Even when we started, we were driven by that statistic that 98 percent of the produce in Santa Barbara is exported and what we consume is 98 percent imported,” said Michael. “I looked about the shop at all the goods we sell and import from France and Italy, and yes, they’re delicious and in cute packaging, but why can’t we make our own products like that?”
So C’est Cheese is now baking, making its own pâtés, crème fraîche, sour cream, and yogurt and roasting its own meats for sandwiches. Leading that pack is a roast beef made from Snake River Farms wagyu, the kind that will reawaken the sense of what roast beef can be — moist, meaty, lovely. “It tastes like a French dip sandwich you’ve already dipped, but not overcooked like those usually are,” said Michael. They actually grill the rest of the sandwich and then add the beef, so as not to have it cook even the teensiest bit more.
The Grahams are particularly happy this expansion gives better career opportunities to a talented staff, including Chef Jamie Libardi, Sous Chef Gereamy Cater, and Pastry Chef Jocelyn Kuzminski. Plus, all three functions of the establishment — market, café, and catering — feed each other. For example, Michael explained, “The leftover nubs of prosciutto from the market that don’t cut well can be used for stocks in the café.” As for that dangerously addictive kouign-amann, the kitchen has turned the scraps from its baking into a bread pudding that C’est Cheese is almost afraid to put on the menu, it’s so rich and crave-making.
“When we opened 10 years ago, it was crazy sparse and bare, and we filled it up over time,” said Michael. “Now we’re going to do it again.” Added Kathryn, “People get to be part of that evolution and influence it, be part of the fun.”
C’est Cheese is located at 825 Santa Barbara Street. Call (805) 965-0318 or see cestcheese.com.