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The Smartest Cooks in the Kitchen

Eleven Bay Area food-world luminaries who are revolutionizing the way we eat.


Read more from the Power Issue here

1 The Modernist In the culinary world, complexity is often wrongly taken for sophistication. Layer foam on fish, and soon you’re being hailed as a genius. Then there’s David Kinch. The bookish 56-year-old behind three-Michelin-starred Manresa, in Los Gatos, has a different way of showing his smarts: “The better I’ve become at what I do, the more simplicity has become my goal,” he says. “The idea is to keep removing things from the plate until there’s nothing left you can take away.” That approach has established Kinch as a pioneer of California modernism, a cooking style that marries high technique with unvarnished seasonality. Take a Manresa signature like Tidal Pool, an artful play on surf and turf that Kinch prepares on the PBS series The Mind of a Chef. While walking through the steps on camera, he describes the inspiration behind each addition. “A little bit of shiitake gel,” Kinch says, squeezing a few drops into a bowl of warm dashi, “gives it little places of light and shadow.” This much is clear: Not all thinking in the kitchen runs so deep. —Josh Sens

2 The Dad Scientist An MIT degree might be an easy ticket to a lucrative gig as an engineer, but J. Kenji López-Alt decided to use those STEM chops for gastronomy. The James Beard Award–winning cookbook author is best known for his Serious Eats column, The Food Lab, for which he meticulously calculates the ingredient proportions for In-N-Out’s burger spread and demystifies sous vide steak cookery. López-Alt takes conventional wisdom and puts it through the wringer: His recipes, some of the best in the business, are just delicious by-products. Soon, the proud father of a nine-month-old will bring his tinkerer’s mentrist tality to Wursthall, the family-friendly sausage pub he’s helping to open in his adopted hometown of San Mateo. While the kitchen won’t have the capacity to make frankfurters in-house, López- Alt has tasted hundreds to curate a scientifically optimized list—each sausage with just the right fat and salt content to yield the ideal “tight, springy texture,” he says. Dad’s cooking never tasted better. Gwendolyn A. Wu

3 The Seed Whisperer When Kristyn Leach first grew Korean Early Silver Line melons for San Francisco’s Namu Gaji, they fruited abundantly, but only once, over the course of a week. Her two-person crew had to stop everything to harvest and store the melons—a logistical nightmare for her one-acre farm in Sunol. A lot of seeds, many of them bred by corporate-funded plant biologists, are like that. In response, Leach set about designing a line of seeds—mostly of Asian origin—that would work for smaller farms. She brought one such melon varietal back from Korea, and then she bred drought resistance into the seeds to make them viable for the Bay Area’s unstable climate. Her taste testers? The local Korean American community. It was just one example of Leach’s culturally empowering approach—a model for small-scale farmers who want to plan for a prosperous future while staying rooted in their ancestral foodways. —Cynthia Salaysay

4 The Cocktail Savant The flashiest bartenders often get the biggest plaudits, as if true genius corresponds directly to the ability to wield a liquid nitrogen tank. Jennifer Colliau, on the other hand, is best known for her encyclopedic knowledge of cocktail history, which she puts to use as the beverage director at the Interval, where a martini list alone has been known to span 20 drinks and 250 years of history. It’s not for nothing that when Karen Leibowitz and Anthony Myint opened their hyper-sustainable restaurant the Perennial, it was Colliau they tapped to craft a counter-conventional cocktail menu that yields almost zero ice waste. On the question of flash, Colliau simply says she’s very much in favor of “fun.” Her forthcoming Oakland bar, Here’s How, will feature all kinds of gadgetry (centrifuges, dehydrators, and the like) in an open prep area so that customers can see them in action. —Luke Tsai

5 The Archivist Since it opened in 2008, Omnivore Books has made a sleepy corner in Noe Valley an unlikely hotbed of culinary scholarship. Thanks to Celia Sack’s tireless work as a champion of both new and antiquarian titles, San Francisco has a cookbook store that has not only thrived in the age of Amazon, but in some ways outsmarted it. When Sack opened her doors, she thought, How can I be different from the getgo? Her previous career as a rare book specialist gave her a leg up—Sack recently sold a copy of Jerry Thomas’s 1862 How to Mix Drinks for $8,500— as did her ability to import foreign titles without incurring the customs fees that burden big book companies. Under Sack’s guidance, Omnivore is a coveted stop for touring cookbook authors, food journalists knee-deep in research, and anyone else who’s curious…and hungry. —Rebecca Flint Marx

6 The Food Justice Warrior If you’ve ever attended a food event MCed by Bryant Terry, you know the guy commands a room—with a few lines of poetry or a quick history lesson. The chef, activist, and author has been bringing people together for all of the 16-plus years he’s spent on the front lines of various food justice movements—work he says was first inspired by the KRS-One song “Beef,” the writings of Upton Sinclair, and the Black Panthers. But Terry is an educator at heart. Books such as his 2014 cookbook, Afro-Vegan, have been pivotal in bringing the food of the African diaspora—and its history as a health-sustaining, vegetable-centric cuisine—into the mainstream discourse. Now, as the Museum of the African Diaspora’s first chef in residence, he’s doing what he does best: bringing bright, likeminded people together in his capacity as event curator extraordinaire. —L.T.

7 The Carbonfree Rancher For Loren Poncia of Stemple Creek Ranch, tree planting is done by the hundreds, with a shovel, two hands, and a consortium of climate change scientists. Poncia plants trees on his 1,000-acre farm as a way to draw carbon dioxide from the air and transform it into leaf and wood. Once the leaves and branches fall, the carbon goes back into the soil, where it helps improve crop yield—and, more important, stays out of the atmosphere. Poncia’s enthusiasm for climate health led him to join forces with the nonprofit Marin Carbon Project to create the first carbon-farming plan in the country. If successful, it would be a miraculous feat indeed: Stemple Creek Ranch would be storing more carbon in the soil than it released into the air. In that way, a farm whose primary agricultural product is beef might actually have a net-positive effect on the environment. —C.S.

8+9 The Chefs of the Unexpected “A lot of the time, you’re told to start with what the people want,” Nicolaus Balla says. “That’s a hard place to start. For me, personally, it’s more about, What do we crave? What do we want to represent? What do we want to provide for our friends and families?” As the chefs at Bar Tartine, Motze, and, of late, Duna, Balla and Cortney Burns have provided a lot more than sustenance: They’ve given San Francisco food that is reliably and enjoyably unexpected. At Bar Tartine, Balla and Burns earned a reputation for relentless experimentation— their larder of dehydrated, fermented, and pickled ingredients was the stuff of DIY legend— and a fearlessness that has become endangered in an age when shrinking bottom lines have discouraged creative risk-taking. That doesn’t mean that Burns and Balla want experimentation to mean alienation. “At the end of the day, it has been about gaining trust,” Burns says. “If you gain trust, people will come along for the ride.” —R.F.M.

10 The Populist Among the many hats that Ali Bouzari has worn—chef, author, biochemist— the identity he embraces most avidly is that of “culinary scientist,” which he defines as someone who adds a backbone of hard science to the creativity of a chef. This kind of food science isn’t “ivory-tower beard scratching,” Bouzari stresses. It’s nothing if not practical, with a populist streak to boot. Take his book, Ingredient, an illustrated guide to the eight categories of cooking ingredients: lipids, carbohydrates, and so forth. The idea, Bouzari explains, is that once regular home cooks learn the science of how to make carbs crispy—by removing their water content and cooling them—they can riff off that technique with the ingenuity of a Michelin-starred chef. Pilot R&D, the food-tech consulting company that Bouzari cofounded, spans a similarly wide spectrum: It has worked on top-secret projects with corporate food manufacturers, helped a startup perfect its burger-making robots, and collaborated with State Bird Provisions to create a packaged snack inspired by the restaurant’s crispy quinoa. —L.T.

11 The Jerky Environmentalist As the senior director of Patagonia Provisions, Birgit Cameron spends her days thinking about how to use products like buffalo jerky and beer to make positive change in the food industry. An offshoot of Patagonia, the pioneering outdoor-apparel outfitter, the Sausalito-based business was founded in 2013 with the goal of applying its parent company’s mission— to build the best products that cause no environmental harm—to what we eat, because, as Cameron says, “food agriculture is the biggest contributor to climate change.” She uses her platform to advocate for farmers who practice organic regenerative agriculture, which promotes soil health and carbon sequestration. So, for instance, Patagonia Provisions sources its buffalo jerky from a carbonfarming rancher, while its beer uses kernza, a perennial wheat. Explaining all of this to the consumer takes skill. “It’s definitely a journey into the depths of why things are the way they are,” Cameron says. “We try to draw people in through storytelling.” —R.F.M.

 

Originally published in the December issue of San Francisco

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