One of the West Coast’s Rising Stars Tells Us His Ten Favorite Ingredients and Why He Chose Them
Sean Baker, executive chef of Gather restaurant in Berkeley, California, has caught a lot of people’s attention in recent years, most notably when Esquire magazine named him Chef of the Year in 2010. At Gather, omnivore, vegan, and gluten-free items peacefully coexist on the menu, in dishes that Baker dreams up largely based on treasures presented to him by area farms. Toqueland caught up with Baker in Northern California recently, and asked this thoughtful young talent to become the third chef to share a Toqueland Ten. (Our first two came from Harold Dieterle and Emily Luchetti.)
1. SEAWEED. “I cook vegan food and I can use a lot of different seaweeds. There’s so many different varietals and so many things I can do with them. It’s just a real versatile ingredient.” Some ways Baker deploys seaweed include a vegan tonnato sauce, and a smoked seaweed-fried oyster puree, which brings us to Item No. 2 . ..
2. OYSTERS. “Just because I enjoy eating them so much, with lemon or maybe some shallot. They have a lot of possibilities: They’re a great emulsifier, and I like to use them with meat dishes that need the briny acidity that some oysters possess.” By way of example, Baker offers up the (perhaps Portuguese inspired) pairings of oysters with sausage or pork belly.
3. THISTLES (artichokes, cardoons, etc.). “Bitter appeals to my palate. The more I’m thinking about thistles, the more I’m doing with them, cooking them differently. We’re brining them now (with garlic and onions) to get flavoring into the cardoons and artichokes to compliment them because they have that allium flavor. .. they’re very complex vegetables. ..”
4. SOUTHERN ITALIAN CHILE PEPPERS. A variety of peppers are grown for Baker at an area farm. “Cigariella peppers, Calabrian peppers . .. all sorts of interesting and amazing peppers that you can get from the South of Italy. Some of that food really speaks to me: the rusticity, the way they eat there.”
5. BITTER GREENS (i.e., chicories, radicchio). Wait a minute: Of his first five answers, three are categories rather than specific ingredients. That’s fine by us; our mission is to gain an understanding of how chefs think, not confine them to our box. Of bitter greens, Baker says that he uses them a lot because, “bitter flavors can amplify different flavors, just like lemon does in a lot of recipes. .. when you pair a chicory with, say, the sweetness of fennel, or a really big white bean that has creaminess. .. a bitter green brings out a lot of personality from those other ingredients.”
Another illustration: “Bitter greens with tuna is really good; the oceanic flavor kind of plays off the bitterness.” But those are just two of countless possibilities: “It really depends on how it’s used. It can be used with a lot of finesse (throw a handful of chicories in with white beans and tuna), or you can just put a little bit on a plate with lemon, or make a vinaigrette that has the stems, or make a dandelion pesto or a puree of chicory. ..”
6. PORK. “Whole animals make new dishes,” says Baker. What he means is that not all pigs are created equal, and he makes spontaneous decisions based on what each distinct specimen presents him with. “Every time, or a lot of the time, I cut a pig, I cut it differently. ‘The loin looks a little different, we should do it this way.’ I think it brings a lot to the table.”
7. EGGPLANT. “Oh, man, this is one of my all-time favorite vegetables,” says Baker. “It’s bitter. It has a real meaty texture. And it’s versatile; there are so many different things you can do with it.” Some of his favorite ways to cook eggplant up include fried, grilled, roasted, braised, confit, and sous vide. “I also like to use eggplant for its creamy texture alongside other vegetables or legumes, and to cook and marinate it for use in cold salads and appetizers.” Maybe it’d be easier to list ways he doesn’t like to use eggplant. But if we’d done it that way, we wouldn’t have discovered this vegan-inspired gem: “I put it through the meat grinder to achieve a complex and meaty ragout.”
8. TAMARI/MISO/SOY. Yet another category, or family, of ingredients, rather than a stand alone pick. The reason for this one is not hard to figure: “They help a lot when you’re cooking in the vegetarian kitchen. They add a lot of umami.”
9. WILD MUSHROOMS. ”Mushrooms are a big part of our kitchen and what we do and how we do it. We live in one of the best areas for wild mushrooms: porcini, Matsutake, chanterelles, black trumpets. The mushroom thing is huge for us now that I think about it. .. they’re a meaty presence,” he says, again underlining the special needs of a partially vegan kitchen. Considering the mushroom, Baker names Matsutake as his favorite, then elaborates on the importance of foraged ingredients in general at the restaurant so aptly named Gather: “The foraged ingredients: the pine shoots and the sorrels and the mushrooms and the nettles are a huge part of our cuisine.”
10. CITRUS. Another category from a chef who thinks in terms of them: “Category-speaking, there’s nothing else we use as much where say, ‘Oh wow, there’s this and that, and we can combine this with that to get this flavor,” says Baker of the mix-and-match potential of this family of fruits. “They’re able to do amazing things. The best way I can put it is: They help so many other ingredients to become finalized.”