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The 2011 Best Chef Awards
Four risk-taking talents who are making this the best time ever to eat in the Bay Area.
Jan Newberry | Photos: Cody Pickens | July 28, 2011
Best Chef / SaiSon
Why: By melding primitive techniques with a modern sensibility, he turned a former horse stable into one of the city’s most exciting places to eat.
Got my Start: My first job was washing dishes in a Japanese restaurant in Jacksonville, Florida, where I grew up. Later, I moved to Boston, where one day, while riding a bus, I picked up a brochure for the French Culinary Institute and decided to move to New York City to go to culinary school.
Early on At SaiSon: Sunday was the only time we could get into the space, so we started out cooking just one night a week. People called it a pop-up, but we never thought of it that way. There wasn’t a plan; we just threw it together. We bought some pots and some pans, some food and some plates.Everything else was already in place. We just took it from there.
What i’m hunting for: I’m always on the search for purity, trying to find the most genuine point of flavor in any given thing. How can I make a cucumber taste most like what it is? I try to whittle away everything I don’t need.
Creating my own style: I want to respect the traditions of my fine-dining training and keep that same refinement, but I don’t want to serve precious little things.
Fueled by fire: I’ve always been interested in cooking with fire. It’s about real depth of flavor.Fire is uneven by nature. When I’m working, I can’t help but stare into the embers.
Whole animals, whole vegetables: We cook primal cuts of protein whole and on the bone. And when we cook with vegetables, we like to use the entire plant—the leaves, the stems, the buds, the roots, the seeds, and the flowers. There are so many textures and flavors in any given thing. We try to exploit that.
Going forward: I don’t ever want to own a highend restaurant that I don’t cook in because cooking is what I love to do.
Rising Star Chef / Mission Chinese Food
Why: He’s a Korean-born, Oklahoma-raised World Pesto Champion whose groundbreaking Chinese-restaurant-inside-a- Chinese-restaurant is helping to reinvent the industry.
Got my Start: Working beside my mother in the kitchen. She always cooked for our family—nothing fancy, lots of Hamburger Helper. I was very sociable and I saw food as a way to bring people together.Cooking for me has always been more about the people than it is about the food.
Early on: I enrolled in culinary school, but I never went to class very much. Later I realized I needed to immerse myself in cooking. I moved to New York and spent a year working in a kitchen where I earned $5 an hour. I would buy a sack of potatoes and some eggs, and that’s what I ate every day.It’s amazing that I still like potatoes and eggs, but I do.
Turning point: I burned out on fine dining and was ready to quit restaurants when Anthony Myint, who started Mission Street Food and is a co-owner of Commonwealth, the restaurant next door, offered me this job.I said, ‘Let’s just cook what we want instead of trying to satisfy people on Yelp.’ Hopefully it will resonate.
Lost in translation: At Mission Chinese Food, the cooks don’t speak English, and the servers don’t speak Chinese. We end up using a lot of sign language. It’s very primitive, but we’re just cooking. It’s not rocket science.
Staff relations: Most cooks are assholes, but not the ones I work with. Cooking is just a job for these guys. They don’t think of it as anything more. No one here ever says, ‘That’s not my job.’ No one stands around talking about what they did the night before. It’s the most gratifying work relationship I’ve ever had. It humbles me.
Going forward: I’m on a quest to learn and experience more all the time.We opened a year ago with 9 items on our menu; now we have 25. My goal is to cook like an Asian grandmother.
Best Pastry Chef / The Absinthe Group
Why: Because he can turn the elements of a tired beet-and–goat cheese salad into a crave-worthy dessert.
Got my start: After the video store I was working at closed, a friend got me a job washing dishes in a restaurant. I was completely disorganized and floundered for hours, thinking I would get fired, but then I figured it out and started having fun. I enjoyed the teamwork and the rush of service. It was a team of misfits, as most kitchens are. We blasted heavy metal and punk rock. I realized then that cooking was what I wanted to do.
Early on: I worked with Sam Mason at WD-50 in New York. I felt totally out of my league there, like I was walking into rock star camp and everyone was better than I was. But Sam was a brilliant teacher, and I ended up learning a lot about creativity from him.
The way I cook: I once made a porcini s’more.Most people don’t want mushrooms for dessert, but they’re more likely to try a strange flavor when it’s presented in a familiar package.
It drives me nuts when: Pastry chefs use savory flavors for shock value. I’m not going to use crazy flavors just to satisfy my ego. An ingredient has got to fit comfortably into the concept of dessert.
How being a vegan made me a better pastry chef: I’m not a vegan anymore, but I was for a long time.It taught me to think on my feet and helped me understand the importance of providing a good experience to diners with dietary restrictions. It feels much better to give a vegan a real dessert than to offer something I haven’t thought much about.
Going forward: In the end, it’s about what the guests want to eat, not what I want to cook.
Wine Director / Cotogna and Quince
Why: In a city where so many sommeliers are burgundy-heads, he’s turning us on to the tastes of Piedmont.
Got his start: One of my first jobs out of college was writing for an industry publication called Cheers. It just so happened to be a beverage magazine. I got into the wine thing completely by accident.
Early on: My college roommate was Joe Bastianich. We were both living in New York, where I was writing about wine and Joe was opening restaurants with Mario Batali.He asked if I wanted to work with him on the book Vino Italiano: The Regional Wines of Italy, and we spent a year in Italy doing research.
The turning point: I’ve been very lucky. I got to start at the top. My first restaurant job was running the wine program at Babbo, in New York.
How he's changed: I was the classic East Coast Europhilic wine snob who believed that American wines sucked. When I took the job at Quince, I thought, “What am I going to do when I have to put American wines on my list?” The first revelation was how much I liked California chardonnay.Now I’d like to write a book about California wines.
At work: My job on the floor is to give life to the wine list, an otherwise boring, lifeless document. I like interacting with people who enjoy the experience.
Going forward: I’d love to be the guy who redefines the fine-dining wine list. I’m in the midst of a radical change in my thinking about what the list should look like. How long does it really need to be? Are we moving into an era when we’ll sell more menu pairings and fewer bottles? If so, do we really need this huge list? My mission now is to figure out how to be nimble.