For Chefs on the Road, Every Meal Means Something More
SAN FRANCISCO, CA — A meal is never just a meal for chefs on the road. Every trip is a mission to try places they’ve read about, or that are owned by friends and acquaintances; explore movements; and seek inspiration. Those factors drive every dining decision, from where to eat breakfast or grab a slice of pizza to what table to book for Saturday night dinner. Meals aren’t just nourishment; they are research and development.
It’s the same for the writers who cover them. A few days away from home is an opportunity to actually taste all those Twitter teases and, of course, to meet the chefs behind them.
We are in California, New York chefs Jimmy Bradley (of The Red Cat and The Harrison), Harold Dieterle (of Perilla, Kin Shop, and The Marrow), and I. We have just returned from a few days of cooking demonstrations at Chefs’ Holidays at The Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park, and now we are in San Francisco for the weekend.
Here’s how a typical food-obsessed day, a Saturday, goes: Harold and I dive in early. We are staying at the Hotel Vitale, on the Embarcadero. By 8:30am, we’re crossing the street, glorying in our surroundings: the Bay Bridge over our shoulders, the Ferry Building across the street, and the cerulean sky overhead. Our destination, the bi-weekly Farmers Market that wraps around the Ferry Building is already throbbing. We walk the stalls: citrus, herbs, aromatics, and just about anything else a cook might desire are piled high on tables or artfully displayed in baskets and bins.
“Back East, it’s apples and onions,” Harold says, evoking the tundra we left behind last weekend.
“Squash,” I add. “And gourds.”
In the small-world department, we bump into NOPA’s chef and co-owner Laurence Jossell who was up at the Ahwahnee with us just a few days ago. Laurence has a rolling cart in tow. He’s calling one of his restaurant kitchens to tell them he’s got grapes. Harold and I both taste one from the crate, sweet and juicy.
We buzz through the Ferry Building, our eyes catching on a display of mushrooms, their colors as diverse as a box of Crayolas; I’m especially drawn to the pink oyster ‘shrooms, which I’ve never seen before. We also ogle a nearby selection of the filled Italian doughnuts bomboloni. Completing our lap, we decide it’s time for breakfast: Harold scores a porchetta and greens sandwich from Roli Roti, I get a breakfast sausage sandwich from 4505 Meats and an order of Gamja fries from Namu Street Food–crispy fries topped with kimchee, kewpie mayo, and a graffiti of additional condiments. We take a bench alongside the bay and chow down, then its New Orleans-style iced coffees from the least jammed of the three Blue Bottle Coffee stations, and a dip back inside the Ferry Building for one of those bomboloni.
Another small-world moment: A woman walks by. She looks familiar. I think it’s Sue Conley from Cowgirl Creamery. We’ve never met, but I’ve been brushing up for an interview we have scheduled for Monday, so recognize her from her photo. Her red tote, Fromagerie, stenciled up the side, is a dead giveaway. I introduce myself. “What are you doing today?” she asks. I gesture around the market. Food is what I’m doing. That’s it. It seems a bit ridiculous to be so one-track in a city as robust as San Francisco, but there you go.
We connect with Jimmy and take a walk. Even the conversation is food-centric: He’s been reading California Dish, Jeremiah Tower’s no-holds-barred account of his years atop the food world. Jimmy mentions to Harold that there’s a technique described in the book where Tower debones and trusses a duck before roasting it. There’s nothing unique about the cooking technique, but he’s intrigued by the butchery.
“I want to try it,” says Jimmy.”
“For the Red Cat?” asks Harold.
“No, I just want to learn how to do it.”
I mention the pink oyster mushrooms from the market but Jimmy waves me off: “Ah, the pink pleurotes,” he says.” They look beautiful, but then you cook them and they turn grey, like all other mushrooms.”
Back home in New York, I probably wouldn’t have eaten again until dinner after that decadent breakfast, and most chefs confine themselves to one well-timed meal per day when operating out of their home base. But we’re on the road with only so many meal periods available. And so, it’s time to eat again. We decide to hit NOPA for brunch. Jimmy and I love it from previous visits; Harold’s never been. There’s Laurence again, now in uniform. Like Harold, he prefers a kitchen shirt to starched whites.
Chefs know that they want. Exactly what they want: Harold orders a Bloody Mary, minus the olives. “It also comes with pickled beets,” says the waiter. “I’ll take those,” Harold says without hesitation, “But no other garnish.” The lunch orders are similarly specific: Jimmy opens with a cheddar biscuit and a side of bacon, and requests something special: a sidecar of maple syrup. “Yes, please,” gushes our waiter, imagining the juxtaposition. When the runner brings it, he proclaims the order the “Combination of the Day.”
As for lunch, Harold has the wood-grilled sausage; Jimmy goes with the house-smoked trout and homemade bagel; I have the custard French toast and a side order of bacon. I’m the only one who opts for dessert – the guys aren’t pastry chefs – chocolate pot de creme with lavender creme anglaise. We all taste and agree that the lavender lightens things up just enough.
“Oh, that’s brilliant,” Jimmy says. He’s noticed the back bar, and how the liquor bottles are arranged on shelves suspended in front of each window. It’s not just food that’s of interest: it’s the design, the service, the organization of the menu – anything that’s relevant to what they do is fair game for commentary, discussion, and a place in one’s mental database.
We are positively stuffed, but after a brief respite at the Vitale, it’s back into the ring for another round: Our next destination is State Bird Provisions. We are meeting the Chefs Feed crew – founder Jared Rivera, director of content and chef relations Jennifer Olsen (also Jared’s fiancee), director of video production Roxanne Weber, and videographer/editor Blake Smith. The restaurant knows we’re coming. The chef-proprietors are out of the house, but have sent a bottle of bubbly in their stead, a chef-on-chef choice of sparkling Riesling, which none of us have had before. We don’t order. State Bird usually combines items from the printed menu with impromptu selections from a rolling, dim-sum-like cart, but large groups are treated to the full roster. Little menus forecast the journey ahead: a symphony of about 20 mostly family-style dishes spread across four movements.
It’s an outrageous amount of food, almost all of it a home run. A number of elements conjure recipes in the book Harold and I have just finished writing: kimchee, Brussels sprouts, garlic bread, and hearts of palm. It’s a fascinating point of contrast, seeing what this other kitchen does with the same ingredients; for example, where Harold’s roti are cooked silver-dollar size, State Bird’s come in a ribbon-like tangle that’s great fun to pull apart and wrap around food. We eagerly eat, compare notes, catch each other up on the chit-chat in our respective cities.
The Chefs Feed gang Uber up an SUV. Harold sits shotgun, commandeering the radio. We drop in briefly to Marianne’s, the speakeasy-ish bar tucked behind The Cavalier, empty at the early hour of 11pm, then somebody suggests the Tonga Room, the famous tiki bar in the Fairmont Hotel. We hit it, drinking Zombies and Mai Tais, dancing to Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough, reveling in the retro grandness of it all.
The band, performing from a boat stationed in a mammoth central pool, takes a break. There’s a drought on in San Francisco, but that doesn’t stop the showers from coming: as the boat retreats to the shore, it begins drizzling over the indoor pool, the water unleashed from perforated pipes overhead. “It’s raining!” cry the uninitiated. The band returns for a final set. “This is for everybody out there who’s trying to get lucky,” says the frontman, before launching into the Daft Punk hit. The modern music leaves us cold, house lights can’t be far off. We navigate the Fairmont’s grand hallways, tumble out onto a side street, into a cab, and down Nob Hill. We hit the bottom and minutes later are back at our hotel. The bar is closed, so we call it a night. When the elevator arrives at one of our floors, we say goodbye, then catch the doors before they close. We forgot something: What time is breakfast?