At Home, and in the Kitchen, with San Francisco’s Sean and Reneé Baker
I’ve spent a fair bit of time in San Francisco over the past year, researching the chefs of the 70s and 80s. But I’ve also been very much in the present, in part thanks to Sean and Reneé Baker, who have graciously hosted me in the guest room of their Noe Valley home on my last few visits.
As Toqueland readers may know, Sean is a partner in both Gather restaurant in Berkeley, and Verbena, which opened on Polk Street in December, and where he is the chef. Reneé is a private chef who works for a Bay Area family, cooking for them at home and on the road when they travel.
I first met Sean and Reneé during the Chef’s Holidays program at The Ahwahnee in Yosemite National Park two years ago. Over a beer in the pub, we talked about the pluses and minuses of being a two-chef couple. They met in the kitchen at Millennium restaurant in 2004, then cooked together at Google before their professional paths diverged, Reneé finding her current gig when a desired change of pace led her to perusing the possibilities on Craig’s List.
My assumption was that living in a two-toque household must have helped their relationship endure because chefs’ spouses (they were married in 2011) often feel that they come in a distant second to their partner’s work.
Reneé concurred: “If I wasn’t in the industry, I might not understand why he isn’t home for fifteen hours every day,” she said. “Women not in the industry might not get it, or stick around.”
Of course, when both members of a couple work at night, evenings come up short no matter how you slice them: “There’s time,” said Sean, “But it’s not like you get home every night and have four or five hours with your spouse. It’s more like an hour.”
I’ve seen those hours. Sean and Reneé’s home is a charming, two-bedroom affair just a hop-skip from Omnivore Books, one of the nation’s premier culinary book shops, a frequent stop for both of them. Sean usually gets home around midnight, if not later, and often Reneé, not long back from her own professional cooking duties, will rustle up a simple snack for him. The two sit at the kitchen table discussing their days and even talking a little shop.
In this couple’s case, where culinary leanings are concerned, opposites attract. Reneé became a vegetarian at age 22 and shifted to veganism around the time she started working at Millennium. If you know anything about Sean’s cooking style, he loves vegetables and has cultivated deep relationships with several local farms, most especially Lindencroft Farms in Ben Lomond, California, pictures of which are part of Verbena’s décor. But he also enjoys meats and butchery, which is a personal passion of his, and has an abiding interest in modernist techniques where Reneé favors her food in its pure, natural state. She has a degree in nutrition and her focus when cooking and eating at home is often first and foremost founded on that.
Reneé’s work is a fascinating variety of chef-dom that I’d only heard about in bits and pieces from chefs who made their living in the private realm early in their career. In truth, I haven’t learned all that much about it from Reneé because she’s super-cautious about maintaining her client-family’s privacy, but she has shared a little: She’s been working for the same family for almost eight years which has enabled her to function more or less autonomously: “I have come to know their likes and dislikes very well,” she says. “Based on that, I plan menus that will please everyone’s tastes. Once in a while I will ask if they have any requests, but most of the time it’s up to me.”
Reneé does all of the shopping for the meals she prepares, usually basing menus on a particular type of cuisine. While some private chefs leave meals for their clients to heat and eat, she cooks, serves, and cleans for her family Monday through Friday, with an occasional weekend thrown in. Because she doesn’t live with the family, she does a lot of prep work such as soaking beans, grains and nuts, making doughs, fermenting and sprouting, in her own home kitchen.
The job allows Reneé to grow to explore food in a way that restaurant chefs—bound by the dictates of their establishment’s declared style—often cannot. “I tinker and experiment a lot,” she says. “I always have some kind of project or recipe that I am working on either at work or in my home kitchen. As a private chef I have the opportunity to cook something new or different every day which keeps me and the family interested. I have taught myself a lot about different cuisines and cultures through my reading and experimenting in the kitchen.” Some of the product of her research and development has even been adopted by Sean in dishes at Verbena.
The Baker home is extraordinarily neat, especially the kitchen, with a pantry in which all bottles and cans stand at attention and in perfect formation. The bookshelves in both the living room and guest room are overflowing with tomes that speak to their different approaches to their chosen craft—Sean’s are the chef-penned cookbooks, Reneé’s focus more on nutrition and health. (Many of Sean’s books were temporarily relocated to the mezzanine at Verbena at the time of its opening, where they were displayed for guests to see.) The contents of the kitchen, like the huge bowls of fresh fruit next to the refrigerator, speak to their common ground.
Their hours together have been even more limited than usual since Sean opened Verbena in December. In fact, they were limited long before the opening because Sean and Verbena sous chef Danielle Lum, who’d been with him at Gather for years, would meet at the Berkeley restaurant at two or three in the morning and test dishes until dawn during the months before Verbena’s debut. “We’d have our whole kitchen to ourselves during those hours,” said Sean.
During a recent visit, Sean and I sat at that kitchen table and talked about Verbena and how it’s going there.
One of the defining factors at Verbena is the space. I must say that I hadn’t ever heard this expressed so directly by a chef: “We have a different space which kind of dictates what you can get away with and what you can’t get away with. It’s a smaller space, but I feel like I’m able to touch everything. There’s eight cooks at Gather during their service and at Verbena there are only four cooks, and so there’s a lot more time for direct communication, and direct mentoring, that sort of thing.”
While Verbena’s reception has been positive, some Gather veterans have told Sean they like his Berkeley restaurant more, and that’s fine by him: “They’re two different restaurants, they do two different things [both offer omnivore and vegetarian dishes; Gather is more casual, with burgers and pizzas], so at least they like one of them. The highest compliment is when people walk out of both restaurants and say, ‘I didn’t know vegetables could taste that good.’”
I’ve eaten at Gather and Verbena in the last six months and while I enjoy both, slightly favor Verbena, largely because I love the vibe there–dim lighting, clubby music, a thriving bar scene. This is not your parents’ vegetable-focused restaurant. “To have photos of Lindencroft Farm in my restaurant and to have my books and to have a menu that is vegetable‑centric in a sexy, urban space, it feels like a nice marriage,” says Sean. “I just want people to be comfortable.
When I asked him if he felt like the look and vibe of Verbena was unexpected in a vegetable-centric spot, Sean confessed a frustration with labels: “You know, it should be an owner and a chef or a chef-owner, and it should be his or her voice, how they cook and what their hospitality is like, because everybody has a different idea of hospitality as well. I don’t even feel like everybody’s on the same page with hospitality. And that’s what makes individual restaurants so unique. But then everybody starts putting labels on stuff and then people start getting in with the trends and I just feel like at some point it’s just a mess.”
When I was staying with them in the winter, I was struck at the hours, Sean was working, fourteen-plus hour days, without a day off in sight.
“I’m responsible for leading the restaurant,” he said matter-of-factly. “On the other hand, can you do quality work if you’re running yourself this hard? Not really. So there are days when I’m like, ‘You know what? I’ve got to stay in bed today for an extra two hours.’ And I’ve taken days off in the sense that I’ve only worked ten or twelve hours that day and that feels like a day off right now. And I’m sure when I do get a full day off, I’ll be working on projects for the restaurant for a new menu. So I really don’t even think that I’ll get a day off for a year or so. It’s just a long process of trying to make sure everybody knows the expectation every day is getting better.”
Even with two restaurants, and all that entails, Sean harbors yet another dream concept: He’d love to someday have a restaurant where the ratios tip toward vegetables even when there’s meat on the plate: “My goal is to have a restaurant where it says ‘turnip’ and it’s a dish that really has many different expressions of a turnip but there might be duck on the dish. But instead of duck, the focus is turnips and how they can sing in different ways, with different ingredients: Maybe a turnip broth with turnips, turnip greens, dehydrated turnip, and there might be duck crackling as part of the composition.”
While their working patterns and hours probably seem very different, there is a similarity: “I think most people really don’t understand how challenging and stressful a private chef gig can be,” says Reneé. “You have be very organized and have good time management. You also have to be open and flexible to changes that can occur at a moment’s notice. Having a properly stocked kitchen for those last minute changes is essential. There is not much room for error. I am always ‘on,’ thinking about what I will be cooking next.”
Reneé says that she likes cooking alone, but also sometimes enjoys a quick hit of restaurant work, so occasionally helps Sean at private events at farms and wineries. When they do get an occasional mutual day off, Sean and Reneé like to go exploring up in Mendocino, down in Santa Cruz, or heading out for oysters in Point Reyes.
“We’re always looking for new adventures,” says Reneé.