William Werner of Craftsman and Wolves – Behind The Fades
I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect when I first heard the name “Craftsman and Wolves”. It sounded like a socially conscious metal band that dismisses the notion that metal bands need to dress a certain way but at the same time, it could’ve also been a restaurant with an intimidating prix fixe menu where everything sounds amazing and foreign at the same time. I would’ve just been satisfied with submitting one of the two guesses as my final answer if it weren’t for the fact that I was looking at a dark pastry box with “Craftsman and Wolves” written in a sleek font (“wolves” was intentionally printed upside down).
This was in 2012 and I was celebrating my 27th birthday with a few friends who had brought the box with them and they were particularly excited about it. Inside was a cake in the shape of a cube that was perfectly formed, minimally decorated, and aesthetically matched the packaging it came in. It was nothing like the birthday cakes I was used to getting and almost looked too good to eat. Almost. We finished it in one sitting and for me, it became the cake against which I measured all other cakes.
A couple months and many cakes and pastries later, I was pretty hooked and had developed a delicious habit of making trips to Craftsman and Wolves on a weekly basis. In my mind, William Werner, the founder and head chef, was a wizard whom I pictured as a tall bald man with wireframe glasses dressed as though he exclusively only wore clothing from Rick Owens. My first time actually seeing and meeting William wasn’t at his shop on Valencia in San Francisco’s Mission district but instead just a couple doors down at Self Edge.
Instead of the magical mod baker I had imagined, here he was standing in the store wearing a pair of well worn 3sixteen jeans and a heavy Flat Head flannel enthusiastically talking about how much he loved Pallbearer, the band playing over the speakers inside the store. I was 0 for 2 when it came to knowing what to expect with Craftsman and Wolves and I began to realize that a lot of what William does regularly goes against expectations.
The Rebel Within
Take for example his signature item, “The Rebel Within”, which looks like an unassuming small muffin until you cut it open and you find a soft boiled egg in the middle surrounded by sausage, cheese, and green onion or their Cashew Curry Cookie which might sound more adventurous than you’d want to get with a cookie but then you bite into and you realize that “you know what? More cookies need to have this hint of curry in them”.
This isn’t necessarily the goal when he comes up with recipes for new items and rather it’s more of a side effect of his strong vision of combining ingredients in a way that is at the same time familiar and new. Inside Outfit Generic, the kitchen where all the pastries are made, there are plenty more of still-in-development pastries that are aimed to try different ingredient combinations and baking techniques to get unique textures and tastes. Many of these, like the Rye cookie and his take on a Taiwanese pineapple cake, don’t make it to the storefront for various reasons but they all add to the flavor knowledge bank that serves as a base for future experiments.
It’s an obvious statement that developing this kind of knowledge is important for anyone in the food industry, but it’s especially important for William since he only uses seasonal ingredients. What that means is that there is a constant rotation in their menu based on what is available and that certain products that are customer favorites–like their Blueberry Muffin–aren’t available year-round. This presents a welcome challenge that they need to consistently develop items that are on the same deliciousness level but use ingredients that sometimes might be foreign to customers. For their regular customers, it creates a more unique experience every time they go into the store and in a way, it allows the customer to grow with them as they experiment. At the same time, regulars have something to look forward to as different seasons come around.
The CAW Experience
When it comes to the Craftsman and Wolves” experience, the storefront is another big part of what elevates them from just another good pastry shop to a brand. The design and decor is minimalist with an intentional use of mostly gray and black wood counters, tables, and chairs so that the attention is immediately drawn to the cakes, cookies, breads, and other pastries on display.
Against the darker muted backdrop, the presentation and the colors of the pastries look even more vivid. It’s not uncommon to hear comments on how good everything looks as people look inside the cases and then see their surprise as they discover that the perfectly shaped pastries in front of them aren’t just the display models. They all look like that.
Every item that comes out of the kitchen echoes the clear statement that presentation is very important and every part of it is definitely intentional. William has a distinct style where he balances being refined and rustic depending on the ingredients used and often times the presentation serves a functional purpose in the eating experience. While some may scoff at comparing cakes to art, there is an element of artistry that aims to create a specific reaction from people when they see it for the first time.
William is humble but confident about his work and rightfully so. In just a few years, he went from working at Quince to running his pop up pastry outfit Tell Tale around San Francisco where he refined some of the items he’s known for now to opening Craftsman and Wolves in 2012 and getting nominated for a James Beard award in 2014. When talking about his accomplishments, William has a way of acknowledging their importance and then quickly switching to something else that he’s working on and excited about. It’s something I notice about him over time; he’s constantly looking forward and focused on building upon what he’s learned to develop new ideas.
That kind of focus on development isn’t just limited to the kitchen; in the next year, there will be new locations, guest appearances at events across the country, and add-ons to their existing operation so those lofty ideas he has can finally come to fruition. It’s no exaggeration to say that William does more in one year than I do in five. If you need a way to visualize exactly how much he can do in a year, just look at his jeans. Even with his constant rotation of several pairs of jeans, each looks very well worn in with the same kind of holes, rips, and wear marks across all his jeans. It’s funny how when you’re working nonstop in a kitchen, building out stores, manning pop up locations, and traveling around the world, the denim naturally starts to reflect the work that you do.
As we finish up the interview and we shoot a few more photographs, a walking tour group of about 20 people comes in. These tours have become increasingly popular these days in San Francisco and Craftsman and Wolves has recently become a regular stop. I take that as a cue to end the interview and as we are walking out, we hear the guide talk about Craftman and Wolves while people take out their cameras and phones, nod their heads with each rehearsed explanation, and let out “oohs” and “aahs” as they look inside the display cases.
It’s surreal seeing people inside of a patisserie acting as though they’re at a museum, but the scene quickly changes back as the goods are brought out, people take their first bites, and they talk excitedly about the deliciousness they’ve just experienced. In the end it’s all about this moment where the presentation, ingredients, and countless hours spent come together in that first bite and for William, he’s on the never ending search of recreating that moment over and over again.
Craftsmen and Wolves is located at 746 Valencia St. in San Francisco. You can find more information on their website.
All photos by Taylor Reyes of TylerShoot.