A Perfect Note: The Soufflés of Café Jacqueline
For more than 40 years, on an old back street in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood, Jacqueline Margulis’ culinary obsession has made her little French restaurant the only one in the U.S. focused entirely (and exquisitely) on soufflés.
A CRAFTSMANSHIP mini-doc.
Film by PHOEBE RUBIN
Story by TODD OPPENHEIMER
Editor’s Note: This story and short film first appeared in our Summer 2019 issue. They are being republished in their original form, without new reporting.
Sometimes the best ideas come from chance encounters. Your opportunity to watch this film, for example, arose from a conversation I fell into recently with my neighbor and now friend, Phoebe Rubin, while walking our dogs in our local park.
I had long known that Phoebe was a filmmaker of some kind, and that she’d been working on a project about an unusual San Francisco chef who specializes in soufflés. The chef’s restaurant, eponymously called Café Jacqueline, was somewhat known locally as an unusually charming and tasty restaurant, but that’s common in a city that’s long been famous for its food. On this particular day, however, Phoebe told me that Café Jacqueline was the only restaurant in the United States with a menu made up of nothing but soufflés, which Jacqueline has been making herself, five nights a week, for decades. (Yes, I have now eaten there; and yes, the soufflés — which are served for main courses as well as dessert — are exquisite.)
As we talked further, I learned that Phoebe had turned this project into a bite-sized, 13-minute documentary, and had gotten the film accepted for a showing at the 2018 Napa Valley Film Festival, but it had been languishing in obscurity ever since. “It sounds like it might be a perfect story about craftsmanship in food,” I said. And indeed it is, as you can see below. But now I’m getting ahead of my story.
It turned out that Phoebe’s own discovery of Café Jacqueline was just as serendipitous as my own.
In the late 1990s, Phoebe and her husband, Neil, were living in North Beach, just around the corner from Café Jacqueline. As most locals know, North Beach has long been one of San Francisco’s most storied neighborhoods — initially defined, in the late 19th century, by the city’s lawless Barbary Coast; then settled and lent character by the early 20th century’s wave of Italian immigrants and their irresistible restaurants (baseball legend Joe DiMaggio, also Italian and a restauranteur on the side, lived here with his equally legendary wife, Marilyn Monroe); and finally, in the late 1950s, as the main gathering spot for the Beat Generation and its own legends: avant-garde writers like Jack Kerouac, and the poets Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. One of the great fixtures of that time still stands and thrives: City Lights Bookstore, co-founded in 1953 by Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who also still stands, at the age of 100.
One New Years eve, Phoebe and her husband invited some friends to dinner, and they made reservations at Café Jacqueline. “It was so different from any place in San Francisco,” she says. “I immediately fell in love with her tiny restaurant.” In the following weeks, Phoebe started nosing around to learn what she could about this woman, Jacqueline Margulis, now in her 80s, who had made soufflés her life-long passion. She talked to the café’s longtime waiter, Matthew Weimer (who still reads aloud to Jacqueline each night after the restaurant closes); and to neighboring businesses. “I was able to piece together enough to know that I had to tell her story.”
A few months later, Phoebe returned to the café for dinner. “I introduced myself, told her how much I loved her restaurant and what a North Beach treasure she was, and that I would truly love to tell her story. She blushed and said, ‘Oh no, I’m much too bashful.’”
As the years passed, Phoebe kept returning to the café with the same approach. “Each time she sweetly refused,” Phoebe says. Then, five years ago, Jacqueline finally relented. Because the restaurant and Jacqueline herself move at their own leisurely pace, it took six months to shoot what Phoebe needed for a mere 13 minutes of final footage.
It’s no surprise, however, that Phoebe stuck with this project; from all indications, she knows when she’s found a subject with soul. Trained as a psychotherapist, Phoebe started using film about 20 years ago, as a way to teach inner city kids to express themselves through autobiographical performances. She went on to make documentary shorts for a variety of nonprofits, and is now working on a feature-length film — about women over 70 who are still working.
As for Jacqueline? While she was plenty happy with the film, Phoebe says, “she remains shy and doesn’t talk about it much.” And future of the café? While Jacqueline has children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, none have shown any interest in running this tiny, gastronomic rarity. Whenever she decides to close her doors, Phoebe says, “that will be the end of an exquisite era in dining.”