Executive Chef Ron Siegel, who sits at the helm at The Dining Room at The Ritz-Carlton, San Francisco, first garnered international fame when he became the first American chef to defeat an Iron Chef champion in 1998. Now as the head chef at the exclusive Ritz-Carlton, Siegel talks about battling the Iron Chef, veering away from his French roots and his favorite summer ingredients.
I was trained in classic French style, and for a long time I wasn’t really open to anything different. At the time [of Iron Chef] I was working my first executive chef job at Charles Nob [Hill] in San Francisco. Working there was a big change for me because I went from working at a restaurant that was extremely busy and extremely successful to a restaurant that had struggled for a while. After I went to Japan [for Iron Chef,] things really turned around for the restaurant and for me. Being on Iron Chef not only gained a lot of publicity for me and for the restaurant, but exposed me to Japanese cuisine, as well.
I use a lot of French techniques, but I also use a lot of Asian ingredients and different spices.
I returned to [Japan to] visit several times a year over the next few years. Those visits gave me an opportunity to learn new techniques, new tastes and new ingredients; I really gained an appreciation for the food culture and was finally able to admit to myself that there was more out there. Before being on Iron Chef, I was very caught up in French cuisine. Now I would say my style is contemporary American with kind of a worldly influence. I use a lot of French techniques, but I also use a lot of Asian ingredients and different spices.
When creating dishes, I don’t like to limit myself to certain ingredients. I use only what’s fresh and what feels right at the time. At The Dining Room, I focus on creating menus with flavors and ingredients that are in season. Right now I’m working a lot with sugar snap peas, green beans, purple beans, sweet corn, different types of peppers and summer squash. I grow a lot of the produce and herbs we use in my own garden at home, so what I use is always fresh and in season. We’re also using a lot of stone fruit right now, and within a few weeks we’ll have a lot of tomatoes and eggplant. One of our current specialty items that I like working with is the Aiyu, a river fish we import from Japan.
I think people really love our tomatoes, squash, and eggplant not only because they’re delicious and homegrown but because as ingredients, they fit in perfectly with the season.