Hillsborough resident Bob Trahan's career trajectory is an unusual one. He worked as director of engineering at Menlo Park-based Meta, then attended culinary school, worked at a Michelin-starred restaurant in San Francisco and ran a home bakery. Now he's the owner of a new plant-based restaurant in Burlingame called Twelvemonth.
So what drove the former tech executive to change course, not just toward the culinary arts, but the vanguard of plant-based cuisine?
Part of it was getting burnt out working in tech and deciding to go to culinary school, but another facet was the joy he found from creating things that improved people's lives, first through software and then through food, he says.
"(There's) something special about making something and you give it to someone else, and they're genuinely grateful when it makes their life better," he says. "Food is that, it's just a tighter loop."
As a culinary school student at the International Culinary Center in Campbell – which had as its dean Manresa's David Kinch but shuttered in 2019 – Trahan picked up tips on nutrition, sustainability and flavor, lessons he's taken into his next step as a restaurateur.
A pivotal part of his journey toward plant-based eating happened while he was traveling in New Zealand and came across a field of happy-looking cows, he says.
While admiring how well cared for the cows seemed – a very different image than the stockyards he'd passed along Interstate 5 in central California – he was surprised to see a group of people protesting the cows' presence. He later learned that despite the humane conditions the cows lived in, their manure was seeping into the groundwater and poisoning local wells.
It was a moment that forced him to reflect on the ways that his previous diet of eating humanely raised beef may have had unintended consequences.
"To some degree, even that's unsustainable," he says. "It's hard to do these things and not harm people."
Along the way, he married a woman who is passionate about animal rights. As a gift to her, he decided to go vegan for a month, he says.
Having trained as a French chef, he initially worried about how he would cook without butter. But he decided to embrace the challenge and says he was pleasantly surprised that some dishes came out even better than the originals. He successfully modified an Alton Brown chocolate chip cookie recipe by replacing the egg with walnut oil and plant-based milk, he says.
"It made me question my assumptions, but also dive one layer deeper in and alway be thinking about, 'What was that animal product doing specifically and why?'" he says.
While his culinary program didn't often explicitly talk about sustainable cooking, he says, elements of this ethos were embedded into the best practices he learned. For instance, when learning about the business side of a restaurant, he was taught to avoid wasting food. If you can figure out how to use a whole stalk of broccoli instead of just the top half, you're getting twice as much out of your purchase, Trahan explains."You just paid for that, so you've got to turn it into something. For me it's a really fun challenge, but it's also the future of food."
From culinary school, he went on to work as a chef at AL's Place, a Michelin-starred San Francisco restaurant by chef Aaron London that closed this past August, where he found a mentor in the current Twelvemonth chef, Leo Batoyon.
The whole time, he says, "I was dreaming of having a restaurant someday."
As Trahan made his way through various kitchens, he'd stay until he felt he wasn't learning as much and then move on to the next project. "I felt like I had to understand every level to run a restaurant successfully," he says.
After AL's Place, he launched a home baking business with a cottage food operation license. As the baking business grew, he began to search in earnest for a potential restaurant location. But it was difficult to find a space, because restaurant spaces are often handed off within the private market, he says. And he was especially interested in bringing an exciting new dining option to Burlingame or San Mateo.
"It always felt like this area was a real dry spot. It just didn't make sense to me …many of the (restaurants) are fast-casual focused," he says. "I really wanted to build this physical space that would be amazing, and people would come together and have a good time, make some connections and just build more community."
On the second day of the pandemic lockdown, Trahan knocked on the door of Steelhead Brewery in Burlingame and was met with someone who said that the brewery was likely to shut down during the pandemic. Seeing if that the space could become available, Trahan tracked down a series of phone numbers from the San Mateo County Assessor's Office and just kept calling. Eventually, he was able to get in touch with the family that had controlled the property for decades and he successfully made his pitch.
Getting the owners on board was only the beginning. From there, he dealt with a series of pandemic-related construction setbacks while working to bring his vision to fruition. Contractors would catch COVID-19 and work would stop for days at a time; wood prices went through the roof – a problem while he was selecting which wood to place on the ceiling; and supply-chain delays slowed the process and led to considerable cost overruns, he says.
"It's a beautiful result…(but) this is as ugly as construction gets," he says.
Twelvemonth is now in its soft opening, offering an array of plant-based dishes intended to be shared, from the mushroom chawanmushi (a steamed custard) and celery root creme brulee to larger dishes like the "paella," made with socarrat, roasted brassicas, broccoli aioli, bravas sauce and pickled mushroom seeds, or the tagliatelle with black pepper miso, the restaurant's take on the traditional Italian cacio e pepe dish. One of the byproducts of the miso is tamari, which the restaurant hopes to use to serve a smaller number of visitors through the chef's tasting menu when it debuts.
To drink, there are a number of beer and cider options on draft, a selection of wines and several mocktails and cocktails. The 1908 cocktail is made with golden raisin bourbon, vermouth torino, amaro, pear liqueur and orange bitters, while the zero-proof Cara Cara Creamsicle has cara cara orange juice, vanilla bean, lemon stock and effervesces.
Desserts include malasadas, fried cookie dough, brownie batter, coconut rice pudding and soft serve.
Trahan isn’t done developing the space: Coming next are a bakery, private event options and tasting menus.
The restaurant is actually made up of two adjoining spaces, and one is going to become an in-house bakery called Bakehouse, which will begin to serve baked goods in the morning sometime in the second quarter of the year.
The bakery will also offer a barista station for coffee drinks alongside goods from the restaurant, including the house-made black peppercorn miso and other sauces, dressings and condiments, plus dry pasta.
In the next couple of months, the restaurant also plans to begin to offer private events with a prix fixe menu.
And in the third quarter of the year, the restaurant aims to debut an eight-course chef's tasting menu showcasing the restaurant's "vegetable-first creativity,” Trahan says.
He advises people who are skeptical about plant-based eating to first try out the bar menu, and if they like that, they can come back to experience the a la carte menu or the tasting menu.
"We're hopeful that you'll be able to get a morning coffee and a pastry, and then maybe a happy hour beer and slider, and you can come into the restaurant proper and sit down at our chef's counter for an eight-course meal. So we really have a variety of experiences all under one roof," he says.