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Best Chef Awards: The Great Potluck

For almost 30 years, San Francisco has honored the chefs (and sommeliers and restaurateurs) taking the Bay Area to the next level. But why stop there? This year, we invited them all to a potluck to celebrate. Not surprisingly, there wasn’t a dollop of spinach dip, the wine pours were generous, and the conversation was as hot as the handmade ramen noodles were cold. SARA DESERAN posed the burning questions.

Christopher Kostow is late. Just because he’s earned Meadowood three Michelin stars (as many as, ahem, that other Napa Valley guy, Thomas Keller) doesn’t mean he has a driver. Or better yet, a helicopter. In this talent-saturated region, even the brightest stars have to sit in bridge traffic.

Kostow’s headed to Cookhouse in North Beach, the pristine kitchen and dining space that this magazine has commandeered for the day, where Park Tavern’s Anna Weinberg is already putting her hostess skills to use, passing around her restaurant’s now-famous deviled eggs with bacon and pickled jalapeños.

All of the guests pretty much know each other. Ravi Kapur of Liholiho Yacht Club chats with Namu Gaji Chef Dennis Lee (a dead ringer for a young, Korean-American Laurence Fishburne), while Lee assembles a slippery okra salad tossed with even more slippery mountain yam. Pouring me a taste of Scribe pinot noir, Benu sommelier Yoon Ha, the most soft-spoken of the bunch, mentions a bottle of 1983 Chave hermitage rouge that a guest shared with him not long ago. “You know when you meet someone and you go, ‘This is it’? There was nothing missing from that wine.” He sighs like he’s talking about the love of his life, which he might well be.

Kostow finally arrives, schlepping a huge slow-cooked salmon up the stairs, along with a battalion of prepped ingredients in neatly labeled plastic containers. To top the fish, the needle-nose tweezers come out, as do obscure ingredients that, until now, seemed more compost than chic: the gelatinous insides of green tomatoes, unripe peach slices, beet stems, fresh grapevines that have been blanched and “vac’d in verjus”—until his salmon, now a riot of color, looks flamboyantly delicious.

Because let’s not pretend: with pastry chef Belinda Leong’s picture-perfect raspberry-vanilla tart for dessert, and Kapur’s salad of cucumber and fermented turnips to start, this isn’t your everyday potluck. Based on the smart (and smart-ass) banter already being fueled by the first glasses of Högl grüner veltliner, it won’t be the usual dinner conversation either. It’s time to eat.

Q: You’re all an integral part of the Bay Area food scene right now. But let’s play fortune-teller. How are we going to be eating in five years?

Ravi Kapur: I think there’s a move toward more personal cooking. I think everyone can agree to that.

Dennis Lee: I define authenticity as personal cuisine. It has nothing to do with ethnicity. People come to Namu Gaji and think it’s Korean food. And it’s not, really. And Koreans come in and don’t think it’s Korean—a mentality that seems to exist only in the immigrant community.

Christopher Kostow: Yeah, people here now have the courage to go do their own thing. That, I think, is a distinctly Californian thing. We’re the most entrepreneurial place in the world. Think of all the businesses, inventions, and advancements in technology that happen in California. I think it’s very much evident in the food world, too.

Kapur: Also, I think people are going to freak out because they’re eating so much pizza.

Q: The city is famous for its restaurants, but it also makes it tough to open them. Why?

Anna Weinberg: I’d like the city to work more with restaurateurs to make it easier to run a restaurant here. It’s darn near impossible! I mean, I’m on my fourth restaurant—in fact, I’d say everyone at this table would be considered successful—but let me tell you, it’s so extraordinarily hard to make a living doing this. I’d like the city to acknowledge how important restaurants are. Food is one of the top tourism draws.

Kostow: I bet most professionals here would say the same thing. It’s not really easy to do much in San Francisco.

Weinberg: Oh, I’d say the billionaires moving into the Twitter building are pretty happy about things.

Q: You don’t have to read Yelp to know that this is a pretty opinionated group of diners here. What are they like to cook for?

Weinberg: I think the public has taken ownership of the food scene. And they believe they’ve taken ownership of your restaurant.

Kostow: They don’t put themselves in the chef ’s hands, but rather go at it with this critical eye. When you’re a kid, you collect baseball cards; here you collect restaurants—“I’ve been there, I’ve been there.” I’ve been to tables where I say, “How is everything?” And they sit back in their chair as if they’re judging Iron Chef.

Belinda Leong: Restaurants or not, San Francisco is already a righteous town. It is righteous. I mean, everyone here has a really distinct point of view, which is great, but it also makes people feel like they can walk into your restaurant and be like, “This is not what I deserve.”
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Additional Stories: More on San Francisco's Best Chefs 2012 HERE.

Kapur: Yeah, it’s always ingredients.

Weinberg: But sometimes I feel like if the server tries to educate me any more about the origin of their fucking carrot, I’m going to kill them.

Weinberg: Well, the positive side of this is when somebody adopts you and feels like they’re part of your success. I have guests who have every celebration of their life with us. They’re way more loyal than guests that I had in New York, where no matter what, they’d piss off to the next hotspot.

Q: Speaking of, this spring Thomas Keller was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “With the relatively small number of people I feed, is it really my responsibility to worry about carbon footprint?” Do you think that it’s your duty to educate your diners about the idea of sustainable and local?

Weinberg: I don’t know. I’m torn. I went home to New Zealand for my sister’s wedding, where it’s always been seasonal or local, and you can’t make margaritas because you don’t have the ingredients. I’m kind of a global economist—

Lee: It’s an individual decision. But what you don’t want to see is restaurants blowing smoke up your ass so that they can charge you more money for it.

Kostow: The follow-up to that article said that the first priority needs to be to create a sound business, because that in turn creates a network of sustained support for farmers. The one problematic thing about the whole discussion was that it was said that it’s not my job as a chef to make the world a better place. I think everyone can agree that it’s probably your job as a person.

Kapur: Oh yeah, I think that’s everybody’s job, as a human being—

Weinberg: Today, if you’re opening a restaurant and calling it market-driven and seasonal—of course you are. What else would you be? That’s not a category anymore.

Q: Chris and Dennis, your restaurants have made these ramen by hand. Do your patrons expect you to do it all?

Kostow: If you have to design every plate, raise every pig—it can become self-defeating. I no longer have to dig every hole and plant every seed, like I was doing in the beginning. But people don’t know the difference between “I have a garden,” meaning “I have a flower bed out front,” and “I have a garden,” meaning “I have three acres.” Some of it is, like, marketing bullshit.

Lee: Well, for me, it’s really just straightforward, because there are ingredients that I want that are unavailable, and that’s why we created the farm.

Kostow: And it creates a culture—like,

Weinberg: Well, that’s true. But sometimes I feel like we’re being super-indulgent by letting cooks make charcuterie at Park Tavern. It’s a waste of time, in my opinion. It’s like, you know what? I can buy better product down the street. It’s not our core strength, and it takes a lot of time.

Q: So what’s the compulsion to stay in the Bay Area?

Kapur: Because we’re suckers. But we have a passion.

Lee: For me, what I think is great about San Francisco is that it’s not difficult to make an impact. The dining community is hungry to see new things happening, whereas in L.A. or New York, there are a lot of preconceived notions. Here, if you want to do your thing, you have a good chance of doing it. Even if it’s esoteric. And then there’s the access to ingredients.

Q: OK, here’s another trend: pop-ups. Belinda, you’ve done one at Flour + Water. Ravi, you have Liholiho. What are the benefits and the risks?

Kapur: Well, part of the art of a pop-up is that you don’t want to convey to the guests, like, “Hey, this is just a pop-up!”

Leong: After working in the back of the kitchen, my pop-up let me interact with my customers for the first time.

Weinberg: I think it’s a brilliant idea because so many people open restaurants without testing their concept. Restaurateurs were never smart enough to do it before. We all just thought people would love it. Really?

Kapur: You know, there’s a lot of hardship, but it’s not as hard as running a restaurant on a daily basis, by any stretch of the imagination. Though I think I’m in a different position than some people, because I’ve been in the industry for so long. I’m getting to really enjoy the cooking side of it right now. But if you’re going to prep for 80 and 40 people show up? You just fucked yourself. You’re not even going to break even.

Leong: For a while I was working at the restaurant and doing the pop-up. I had the craziest hours. After finishing Manresa at midnight, I would start baking at, like, 1 in the morning to, like, 7 or 8, then do my delivery to Four Barrel in San Francisco. Then drive to Los Gatos by noon. I slept, like, two hours a night. Ask anyone at Manresa—it was the craziest three months ever. But I had to do it.
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Additional Stories: More on San Francisco's Best Chefs 2012 HERE.

 

Lee: When we opened Namu Gaji, every day felt like a pop-up.

 Kapur: I was just talking with Dennis about how I went to [his first restaurant] Namu when it opened. I’ve just seen his growth, and what people don’t realize is the day-to-day fucking hustle. To readjust, reinvent yourself, and troubleshoot as you go. Because people are probably saying, “Oh, Namu Gaji on 18th and Dolores, they must be making so much money, you know?” And you know, “The dude is busting his ass!”

Q: Trucks. Love them or hate them—if someone asked you to start one, what would you sell?

Ha: Grilled cheese sandwiches.

Weinberg: Popsicles.

Lee: I would do french fry–encrusted hot dogs. It’s like a corn dog, but instead of the batter, it’s chopped french fries. They sell them on the streets in Korea, and we made them for the SF Chefs VIP after-party last year. They are awesome.

Q: Let’s top this conversation off with a little booze. What’s your go-to drink?

Kapur: Well, it depends on where you are. But probably a Green Point. It’s, like, rye whiskey, yellow Chartreuse, and bitters.

Weinberg: Gimlet on the rocks with a splash of grapefruit juice.

Leong: A simple Hendricks and tonic.

Ha: You know, I only drink wine, but I do like a Moscow Mule.

Kostow: That’s what I was going to say! How about a Talisker scotch on the rocks?

Lee: Jameson or Bushmills. It’s like, if you’re gonna come visit me at the restaurant, you better bring a bottle.
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Additional Stories: More on San Francisco's Best Chefs 2012 HERE.