Although she had been cooking since she was a little girl, Pamela Burns needed some time before she felt comfortable referring to herself as a chef.
“Chef means master,” Burns explained. “I wouldn’t call myself a chef until I felt I was ready.”
Devoted customers of the Wild Plum Cafe, Bistro and Bakery would more than likely encourage Burns to wear the title proudly. As the owner and head chef of the popular Monterey breakfast and lunch spot, Burns, 56, has not only built a reputation as both a talented chef and pastry chef, but also as a keen businesswoman with high standards and a flair for design.
Established in 1999, the Wild Plum occupies a little more than 1,400 square feet on Munras Avenue. Breakfast and lunch are served daily, and the restaurant will begin serving dinner Wednesdays through Sundays in April. Burns estimated that between 70 and 90 percent of the menu is organic with plenty of both gluten-free and vegan options available.
“Everything is made here and made fresh,” said Burns, a Monterey resident. “Nothing comes out of a box, and very little comes out of a can. I like to say we make every single thing here, except for the mustard and the ketchup. We make all the condiments, breads and jams.
“I describe the Wild Plum Cafe as an organic urban eatery,” Burns continued. “I call us a ‘European-American fusion’ restaurant. We definitely have a very Californian flair. We really take advantage of everything available on the Central Coast.”
In the summertime, Burns is a regular at three of the Monterey Bay Certified Farmers Markets. She estimated that she spends between $500 and $800 a week at Carmel, Del Monte and MPC.
“I get all of my stone fruit and most of my nuts from Minazzoli Farm,” said Burns, a 1973 Watsonville High graduate. “I get potatoes and other kinds of vegetables from Foster Ranch (Pinnacle). I love the berries I get from Vasquez Farm. I just adore the people at T & L Coke Farm and I get apples from Silva Orchards, Prevedelli Farms and Mello-Dy Ranch. I get flowers from Thomas Farm; their tulips and dahlias are gorgeous.
“When Corralitos Market is there, I get bacon and sausage from them,” Burns continued. “I get chickens from Fogline Farm, and they’ll do ground pork for me so we can make chorizo.”
After Burns first began working as an apprentice to a pastry chef when she was 24, her culinary journey has taken her in a number of directions. She founded the Monterey Pasta Company in 1983 and was involved until the 1990s when she sold her interest in the company, now known as Monterey Gourmet Foods.
She then began working as a chef at the 6th Avenue Grill while simultaneously becoming a partner in a wholesale baking operation known as the Baker’s Wife, which Burns said sold its baked goods to Peet’s Coffee and Teas and Andronico’s Markets.
“We were making the Mercedes-Benz of baked goods,” Burns said. “In 1994, we were making a vegan, whole-grain muffin that was to die for. When we were unable to renew our lease, I decided I wanted to do retail and get back to my roots and open up an American bakery. I wanted to combine all my loves, and baking is my first love. I absolutely love baking.
“Even with everything I’ve done, I feel like I’m still a beginner, although I’m finally ready to cook with someone I could call a master,” Burns continued. “I like the feeling of having a beginner’s mind and believe that you can learn from everyone you work with.
“I believe that the culinary journey is a journey of a lifetime, and mine isn’t over yet.”