Opening ceremony: Mayor Edwin M. Lee (third from right) and a host of chefs and dignitaries cut into a cake, constructed by Gary Rulli of Ristobar, in commemoration of SF Chefs’ fifth anniversary.
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Bay Area Standouts Stand Up

Carolyn Jung - October 2013

San Francisco culinary pros show their mettle and speak their minds during the Food Arts Industry Day at SF Chefs 2013.

To say that the Bay Area has not taken kindly to the way chefs from elsewhere characterize the dining scene here of late would be an understatement. In short, they come, they eat, they bash. Then sparks fly. Joyce Goldstein, a petite powerhouse who has been cooking professionally for more than four decades in San Francisco and remains as feisty as ever at age 77, has only one retort for such detractors: “You hear East Coast chefs saying, ‘F--king figs on a plate’ when they come here. That’s just produce envy.”

At the Food Arts Industry Day, held on August 2 as part of SF Chefs 2013 in San Francisco, the city’s chefs gathered not necessarily to defend but to celebrate and demonstrate just what makes the Bay Area a true culinary powerhouse. Certainly, its stellar produce plays a prominent role, as does its long-fostered independent spirit. Part of the fifth annual SF Chefs extravaganza, the all-day event was sponsored by Food Arts.

Momofuku kingpin David Chang set off a firestorm with that fig remark a few years back, and Chicago Mex master Rick Bayless ruffled toques again earlier this year when he took San Francisco restaurants to task for drowning in pasta and pizza. Locals groused that his remarks were short-sighted, to say the least.

“I think Rick was just jealous,” Mourad Lahlou of Aziza told a crowd of about 80 gathered inside a conference room at The Westin St. Francis hotel for a panel entitled “Making Sense of Northern California Cuisine,” moderated by Jim Poris of Food Arts. “The Bay Area is one of the most dynamic places on the planet.” And this from a chef who had done nothing more dynamically exciting than having just jetted across on the country on a red-eye from Washington, D.C., after cooking for President Obama and Hillary Clinton.

The opening session proved Lahlou’s point, as a trio of San Francisco chefs gave away some of the trucs used for their most popular dishes in a session called “How Did You Do That?” No lone fruit plopped on a plate or tired Italian standards were in sight, either. Instead, what was on display was pure ingenuity and imagination.

William Werner of Craftsman and Wolves, the edgy pastry shop in the Mission, had wanted to create a savory cake. But it didn’t sell well until he added a whole egg hidden inside. It was supposed to be hard-boiled, but he mistakenly took the egg out of the water too soon, leaving it with an oozy yolk instead. After anointing it with an irresistibly subversive name, The Rebel Within, inspired by a Hank Williams III punk-country album, it became an instant hit. Studded with scallions and Boccalone sausage, it’s an all-in-one breakfast. Werner makes only 75 each morning and sells out by 11:30 a.m. It’s become such a sensation, he says, that food bloggers around the world have become obsessed with figuring out the recipe for it.

Evan Rich of Rich Table knows exactly how something can take on a life of its own. At the Hayes Valley restaurant that he operates with his wife, Sarah, there’s only one item on the menu that has never been taken off: sardine chips—slices of russets fried until crisp with a whole sardine woven through strategically placed slits. They’re so intricate to make that for every six chips, one or two potatoes break or bend, rendering them unserveable. Rich Table makes 600 of them a day. They’re fried to order, too, not an easy proposition, given that Evan regrettably got rid of the fryer in the restaurant before opening and now has to rely on two FryDaddys bought on Amazon to get the job done.

“It’s one guy with really small hands and a lot of patience making these,” he joked. “I would have taken them off the menu after the second day if it were up to me.”

To further dispel any notions that food in the Bay Area is overly simplistic or made by rote, one needs only to look at one of Dominique Crenn’s dishes. The chef/owner of Atelier Crenn puts so much thought, care, and emotion into her cooking that every time she writes a menu, she also crafts an accompanying poem. Her flavors of Brittany, with bone marrow “gnocchi,” pork belly, plankton gel, sea grapes, and tomato foam evoke the French seascape from her childhood.

Meanwhile, five of the city’s top mixologists held forth on how to create a buzzworthy bar program at “Mixmasters’ Jam,” a panel moderated by Food Arts’ Beverly Stephen. Jon Gasparini of Rye set a festive mood by serving the Prosecco-based Negroni Sbagliato. Panelists Kate Bolton (Maven), Joe Cleveland (Coque­ta), Jeff Hollinger (Comstock), and Scott Baird (Trick Dog) concurred that their biggest challenge beyond creating well balanced, flavorful cocktails customers now expect is serving them without a 15 minute wait. “Pre-batching, putting things on draft, and advance prep work” help speed things up, Bolton noted. “We’ve become more like prep cooks.” They’re also working more closely with chefs to match drinks to specific dishes.

Chefs and mixologists alike have cherished the bounty that grows here, sometimes to the point of their own detriment. For a time, some dared not deviate from the ingredients-on-a-plate philosophy of Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley. But now, chefs say, there’s greater freedom to stretch beyond that, partly because diners have grown so sophisticated.

“California has always liked rebels and entrepreneurs, rather than being focused on Europe like the East Coast,” says Goldstein, whose new book, Inside the California Food Revolution, tells the story of how the Golden State rose to culinary prominence. “The customer base here knows where the chefs shop. They know from looking at a berry where it came from. People in the Bay Area will eat anything, try anything, and encourage you to do more. It is our passion and our industry.”

What also sets the Bay Area apart, Goldstein added, is its camaraderie. “We share information. We want to tell you where we get everything so you can use them, too, and help keep them in business. There’s a real generosity of spirit.”

That was no more evident than during an afternoon cooking demonstration that featured friends and colleagues Daniel Patterson of Coi in San Francisco and Sean Brock of McCrady’s and Husk, both in Charleston, South Carolina (Brock recently unveiled a more vegetable-focused Husk in Nashville). Brock showed how he roasts beach sand–cured carrots in hot sand in the oven, leaving their flavor intensified with just a hint of saltiness from the sand. Patterson recounted how he had done something similar, roasting a whole kohlrabi in a mixture of sand, dirt, tobacco, and egg white for four hours until impossibly tender. After hearing that, Brock was so inspired he vowed he was going to mix egg whites into his sand from then on. The two were so in synch that they did an on-the-spot experiment of cooking a live spot prawn in hot sand. Even if it didn’t go quite as expected, it left them—and the audience—chuckling.

For all the praise heaped on the local culinary scene, though, there were concerns that it may be headed for trouble in the future simply because it is so expensive to live and conduct business in the Bay Area. “We’re basically in the nonprofit business,” said Laurence Jossel, chef/owner of Nopa and two Nopalito outposts. “Cooks can’t afford to live here. Our talent is limited. It’s impressive that we can do what we do, given that.” Jason Fox of Commonwealth backed him up, saying that in his nearly 20 years of working in the Bay Area he’s never experienced such a dearth of line cooks, as many have moved to more affordable cities such as Houston and Bellingham, Washington. As a result, they noted, diners should expect to pay more for food in the future, as restaurants will have to raise prices in order to pay cooks wages that will allow them to put down roots here.

“The system is broken. It needs to be fixed,” said Lahlou. “We need to talk about more than just sustainable food. We need to talk about sustainable labor.”