By Deborah O’Neil MA ’09 | Photos by Eduardo Merille ’96, MBA ’00
Nestled along the northern reaches of California’s Pacific Coast Highway is the hamlet of Bodega, a curious mix of rural charm, American pop culture and majestic coastline.
Ansel Adams came here in 1953 to photograph the iconic St. Teresa de Avila church that still sits in the center of town. Alfred Hitchcock filmed The Birds with Tippi Hedren in the early ’60s here as well. The 140-year-old Potter School featured in the movie stands just behind the church.
It is here that Miami natives and college friends Michael Fahmie ’02 and Michael Faulk ’05 landed after college and decided to start a business.
A real country store
A trained chef, Fahmie bought the historic Bodega Country Store in the center of town and, with help from Faulk, began restoring it as a proper country store – a place where you can buy home-cooked food, local produce and Patty’s homemade goat cheese, batteries and matches, California wine and books by local authors. His website sums it up: “A nice store in a small town.”
“I have a real working country store,” Fahmie said. “People find it to be a bit of a novelty these days. Bodega Country Store represents a sort of lost Americana. I’m really proud of what we have done here.”
Fahmie has kept intact the store’s original kitchen, situated right next to the checkout counter. He and his staff prepare food throughout the day – fresh-baked cinnamon rolls, chicken salad, crab macaroni and cheese – using a Burton induction burner and two small convection ovens, a microwave and four tabletop warmers. Fahmie, who worked at the Mandarin Oriental and as a private chef to, among others, FIU President Emeritus Modesto A. Maidique, has no desire to modernize his historic kitchen.
“You embrace what you have. That’s what I have learned as someone who came from a place where you can get what you want, when you want it,” he said. “As a chef in Texas, I flew in caviar from Russia and salmon from Alaska. But the sign of a really good chef is taking something ordinary and making it extraordinary. I make crab macaroni and cheese, and I can’t keep it on the shelves.”
Visitors to Bodega Country Store are greeted with a life-sized Hitchcock outside and inside, Fahmie may well have one of the world’s largest collections of Hitchcock memorabilia. A couple of times a year, Tippi Hedren drops by the store to sign autographs.
You can, of course, pick up a copy of The Birds. You can also say hello to Zeka, the store’s real bird. Zeka, by the way, was Zek until “he” laid an egg.
Fahmie caters to two crowds. The locals are pretty well birded out and just want supplies and good food. Tourists, on the other hand, come from all over the world to visit the sites Hitchcock made famous and to recreate Ansel Adams’ black and white steeple image. They too want good food and supplies, but they also want to chat with someone who knows the town’s history, and they get a warm welcome at the Bodega Country Store.
‘Proof that God loves us’
Fahmie and Faulk met while they were culinary arts students at Johnson & Wales. After graduating, both went to FIU. Says Fahmie, “I had a lot of industry experience, but I wasn’t getting promoted because I didn’t have a bachelor’s degree.” They worked alongside FIU chef instructor Michael Moran ’86, MS ’03 at the Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival for two years. Both were mentored by FIU hospitality instructor and wine expert Chip Cassidy ’75.
“I started taking the hospitality program so I could be more well rounded,” said Faulk, who also has worked as a chef and now manages restaurants. “Chip was a major influence on me wanting to learn about wine.”
While in college, the two did internships as chefs at Doe Bay Resort on Orcas Island in Washington. The beauty of the west coast awed them. “I just wanted to be in wine country in the Pacific Northwest,” Faulk said.
Fahmie spent the next decade working as a private chef before deciding to “step back and take a breath.” He took a year-and-a-half off to travel and author Eat. Drink. Be Merry: Vagabonding in the Americas, a photo book of his journey.
There are photos of pine forests and rocky beaches, tomatoes and wine grapes, and Fahmie canoeing and camping. Alongside pictures of vineyards in California, Fahmie wrote, “Wine is constant proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”
A sweet gig
Fahmie has family in Sonoma County, so he had been visiting the area for years. He had stopped at the Bodega Country Store several times and recognized its potential. One of Bodega’s pioneering families, the McCaughey brothers, built the store in 1856. But it was run down and operated as a cheap convenience store.
“It was such a historic building in a historic place and you come out to the coast and all you could get was a beer and maybe a frozen burrito,” Fahmie said.
In 2008, a business broker mentioned to Fahmie an old country store on the coast that was for sale. Fahmie knew exactly where it was. He decided he would be the one to bring back the Bodega Country Store. “I decided to do it my way,” he says.
He wanted the store to claim its role as the center of town life, the spot where every passerby and local stops for food, information and conversation. His culinary skills would be central – he saw an opportunity to create a menu of gourmet grab-and-go items for visitors headed to the breathtaking coastline just a few miles away. He also wanted to have fun with the village’s storied past.
He called on his longtime friend Faulk to help him out. Faulk had already settled in California, running restaurants around Napa and Sonoma, meeting winemakers and winery owners throughout the region. He also began experimenting with winemaking at home as a hobby.
Faulk left LaSalette, a fine Portuguese restaurant in downtown Sonoma, to help Fahmie get the Bodega business off the ground. The historic building had been neglected and needed some TLC. In the beginning as they worked on the building, the two catered weddings and held oyster barbecues on the weekends in the center of Bodega. “It was a sweet gig,” Faulk says.
It took a couple of months to get the store ready for opening. Faulk eventually returned to the restaurant industry and is now the general manager of Wildfox, about 40 minutes north of San Francisco. And Fahmie now offers FIU students the opportunity to intern at Bodega Country Store and learn about California’s wine country.
Eat. Drink. Be Merry.
For the last five years, Faulk has been making small-batch wine at home. He calls it Engracia, named for his Cuban grandmother, Engracia Perez Hernandez, who fled Cuba in 1960. The label is designed with the island of Cuba. Dominos designate the vintage.
He works with California growers to get his grapes and makes a merlot, pinot noir and a chardonnay. Fittingly, the making of Engracia is a social event and Faulk’s friends help him out. Every year, he has a bottling party and hosts private tastings at his house.
Faulk also welcomes FIU alumni and students to join them. Anyone interested in helping with harvest, bottling or just in tasting some wine is welcome to contact him. He can be reached through engraciawines.com.
“We have a great time throughout harvest season,” Faulk said. “I get a group of my friends to help me pick the grapes, then we crush and press. When it’s ready to bottle I call on my group of friends and we bottle and label. We eat good food, drink great wine, get our hands dirty and have fun doing it. It’s basically a party, but we work first, then party. You get this great sense of accomplishment and it is indescribable.”
Where the winemaking will go, Faulk isn’t sure but he’s developed a philosophy for Engracia.
“A person does not make wine, rather they simply guide it along during the natural process in order to ensure that the finished product is one of great quality,” he said. “I prefer the term ‘Wine Father’ or ‘Wine Mother’ or perhaps ‘Wine Parent’ rather than ‘Wine Maker.’ ”
The two friends still hold their summer oyster barbecue across the street from the store. And they will be happy to tell you all about Bodega’s quirky history over a bottle or two of Engracia. ♦