In a city that hails chefs as celebrities, Jennifer Puccio has become one haute household name. The restaurateur and executive chef stands alongside Anna Weinberg and husband James Nicholas as co-owner of three of San Francisco’s hottest restaurants: casual bistro Marlowe, upscale American tavern, Park Tavern, and British-inspired brasserie, The Cavalier. Here, Puccio defines each of her eateries, discusses her favorite dishes, and reveals why cooking an impromptu meal for Thomas Keller may just have been the most terrifying moment of her life.
How did you end up partnering with Anna Weinberg to create Marlowe, Park Tavern and The Cavalier?
She was a mutual friend through Craig Demko, who sells wine. He had some inside info that she was shutting down South [Weinberg’s former restaurant succeeded by Marlowe], so he hooked the two of us up. She had been making plans to shut down, but she wasn’t quite ready, and the chef she had at the time was moving on. So she decided to bring in the new chef – which was me. We hit it off. I stayed on and decided to develop the menu at Marlowe, and it went on from there.
Why did you decide to become a business partner, versus just being the executive chef?
Anna and I were working very well together, and we were starting to get really good press at Marlowe. She and one of her investors took me aside and wanted me to be a partner in the business, and of course I said yes. He’s the one who we ended up opening Park Tavern with.
How do you differentiate your cuisine between all three restaurants?
Some of it is defined by the space. Marlowe is a small restaurant where we can fit 50 tops, and the kitchen is equally small. We knew that we wanted a neighborhood restaurant that is American focused. So we went with relatively classic but interesting bistro food. The space in Park Tavern was much bigger and much more grand, and the kitchen was just amazing, so we built upon what we were able to do. It is not quite as rustic as Marlowe: the plating is more precise and just slightly more elevated. As far as The Cavalier goes, we went on a trip to London and we just fell in love. The concepts all stem from the type of food I’d want to eat on my day off.
What is your favorite dish from each restaurant?
Marlowe is tough because I have a few favorites, but whenever I can go in for dinner, I get the Baked Oysters, Tartar and Bone Marrow, which have all been on the menu since opening. At Park Tavern, I’m really in love with the Deviled Eggs, and the Lemon Chips are fun. At Cavalier, I love the Cavalier Salad. Beef Dripping Chips are amazing, so are the Fish and Chips, and of course, the Dutch Scotch Egg.
Have you cooked for any celebs?
Yes, I have. At Marlowe, Thomas Keller came in and we got to cook for him. Ashton Kutcher came in to Marlowe – or maybe it was the Park Tavern – which was kind of cool. Edward Norton came into Park Tavern, which was great. I loved that guy. Park Tavern gets a lot of celebrities.
Do you remember what dishes they liked?
Thomas Keller had me cook for him, which was probably one of the most terrifying things ever. He didn’t order from the menu; he just wanted me to send things out. Aside from that, the celebrities tended to eat relatively simply.
What’s the secret to get people coming back for your food?
Consistency is the number one most important thing. As far as how dishes are developed, my food tends to be bold, bright flavors, with good use of acidity, and on the “lighter” side of heavy. If it’s going to be on the menu for more than a month, then it has to be exactly the same every single time.
What was it like working with Ken Fulk on the design of The Cavalier?
As far as the menu and the space go, Ken did an incredible design; it’s a British pub to the power of ten, really. So I definitely wanted to make sure that the food was going to stand up to the beautiful ambiance.
What’s next for you in 2014?
We don’t necessarily have anything solid, but if another opportunity comes along, we will take into consideration. We’re just continuing to improve on the three properties and making them better and busier.