Loosening the Ties

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Around here everything seems to be common knowledge. There are so many blogs covering just about every angle of cuisine, it’s hard to say anything that hasn’t been covered. But in the coming months I’ll do my best.

I started working in the culinary industry when I was about 17. I was born back East, but we moved a bunch-California, Atlanta, all over. My anchor was food, so I always gravitated towards the industry. When I was in high school I knew that was what I was going to do for my education. I liked using a knife, I liked the atmosphere, and I liked the people. It was different back then than it is today, but I was drawn to the camaraderie. I could have been a butcher the rest of my life, cutting up meat and being completely happy with it. But one thing led to another, and I kept plugging away in the business, and I found myself in a restaurant, and I kept going forward, and all of a sudden I woke up one day on Nob Hill, executive chef of the Dining Room at the Ritz Carlton [ed. note: the city’s only Mobil AAA Five-Diamond hotel and restaurant], making quail eggs with cedar smoke and caviar, served at 64 degrees. This is my life. I wouldn’t want to be anyone or anywhere else.

I’ve been a chef in the city for about 13 years. I still think there’s no better place to be than San Francisco. I love the weather, the way people are-conscientious, recycling, supporting small businesses-and I love the way that you can grow whatever you want here. The variety of meat and produce in this region is the best. The fish isn’t quite as abundant as on the East Coast or Japan, but we do have local spiny lobster, spot prawns, crabs, salmon, and West Coast oysters. We get all of our produce locally. From the Golden Gate Bridge to Napa, wild fennel and mustard flowers grow all over the place. It’s pretty spectacular and very special. We go to the market twice a week to get all the produce for the restaurant and thus create our menu from what is available, which is nice and convenient. The market really shrinks from November to February, but there’s still great stuff like our famous citrus, sunchokes, char, and kale.

If it’s not at the market we’re not going to have it in the restaurant. We won’t put asparagus on the menu unless it’s March, April, or May. But it’s hard because we live in such a small world now; everything’s shipped all the time. That’s the difference between California and New York. In New York, if people want to eat it every day, if the demand is there, they don’t care where it comes from. That’s just not how we do it, and that’s not to say to say there’s a right or a wrong way. It’s just our way. Public transportation and the 49ers are not very good (I’m eternally hopeful they’re on the verge of turning the corner), but other than that, you really can’t beat the region.

A big reason we do it that way out here is that the Bay Area really likes good food; people are extremely interested in fine cuisine. In a way it helps make us better. And people are not really into gimmicky food. They don’t necessarily want it to be a magic show. Our customers are busy; they want to get in, have a meal that tastes good, and get out. They don’t want to sit for four hours everyday, although many of our customers do, because we are a kind of a special-occasion restaurant. But all the business people that dine with us helps balance that out; business people definitely don’t want to sit for a few hours. They need to get on their way.

Lately, I have noticed a downshift from the high profile to the low-key, and high-end dining literally has loosened its tie. Fussiness is out. Customers want to eat great food and they don’t want to feel that they have to get dressed up for it all. Period. They want to feel comfortable, more relaxed. More casual, less sceney. Not in a bad way, casual doesn’t mean fast and loose. But diners don’t want to be in a place where you can hear a pin drop. Rather, the idea behind this is a return to traditional and civilized manners. This new casual has transformed the social environment of the restaurant into more friendly, community-spirited places-fueled also by friendlier prices.

On that front, at the end of January we will launch a brand-new concept in our bar area: a half-bottle selection. We’ve chosen about 140 great wines, including six Champagnes, that range from $18 to $340 (82 are under $100). The corresponding menu will consist of smaller bites, all under $10, that pair with the wines. Our sommelier Stephane Lacroix has been really adamant about giving people the chance to expand their wine horizons. Maybe there’s a $400 bottle you’ve been dying to test. You want it, but your Visa doesn’t. Maybe you’re on business and you have some meetings; you want a few glasses, just not a whole bottle. Maybe you want to test the waters on a first date. Maybe you’re alone and you don’t want to feel awkward with a big bottle in front of you. Maybe you’re driving into the city with your significant other for a celebration, and instead of buying two bottles you have a half of a Volngy Les Mitans burgundy and an Opus One cab. It’s a little safer, and it’s a nice way to enjoy having some top-notch beverages without feeling that you’re overindulging. There’s a lot of good that comes out of a half bottle, and it’s my pleasure to offer it to my favorite people in my favorite city.

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