Why San Francisco is America's Gastronomic Paradise
Ingredients, ingredients, ingredients. Those are the first words every chef shouts out loud and clear when asked what makes San Francisco a gastronomic paradise. Small wonder the city has more restaurants per capita than any other U.S. city—some 5,000 establishments providing 62,000 jobs. The little gem lettuce, the peaches, the tomatoes, the persimmons, the green walnuts, the edible ice plant, and anything else one of their beloved farmers might grow or even be thinking about growing elicit glowing admiration. Some other factors also come into play: a well-educated dining public, a strong sense of community, cultural diversity, top talent in the kitchen. We’ll get to those in a minute.
It’s not unusual for a chef to hit a farmers market four or five times a week or to seek out farmers who don’t even go to the markets. “I work with about 80 different small farmers throughout the year,” Laurence Jossel says while roasting a speckled houndstooth squash shortly before service at his restaurant Nopa (named for its north of the Panhandle location). “For my menu, ingredients are everything.”
“Our farmers have become so extraordinary at providing us with incredible ingredients,” says cookbook author and former restaurateur Joyce Goldstein. “In years past, you just went to the market. But our farmers realized how dedicated the chefs are, and now they’re constantly introducing new ingredients. San Francisco will always be a leader. Our produce can’t be matched anywhere else.”
Nor can “the commitment our farmers, ranchers, and purveyors have to providing us with the best ingredients,” notes Michael Mina, founder of the ever-expanding Mina Group, which has restaurants across the country.
The Tech Effect
In San Francisco slow food meets fast tech. And sometimes clashes. On the plus side, tech has provided investment for some restaurants. Twitter’s Jack Dorsey is an investor in Chef Joshua Skenes’ Saison. Tech has also fueled the feeding frenzy by creating a moneyed class that gives disposable income new meaning. Techie largesse helps finance the creative urges of chefs in the Michelin star firmament—such as Josh Skenes and Dominique Crenn—whose restaurants offer rarefied multi-course tasting menus that can set a couple back $1,000 for a dinner. A diner might enjoy a tiny but tasty morsel such as Skenes’ signature sea urchin on lightly grilled sesame sourdough. “The audience for that stuff is small, and none of those restaurants are that big,” says restaurant consultant Clark Wolf. However, the top-tier chefs set the gold standard, and a trickle-down effect raises the bar at all levels.
What San Francisco excels at, in Wolf’s opinion, is “the delicious middle.” Stuart Brioza, chef/owner of State Bird Provisions, where small plates—such as a Hog Island oyster with kohlrabi kraut and sesame—are served dim sum–style, concurs. “What plays a huge role in the mid-range restaurant is the personality attached to the cuisine,” says Brioza, whose own style was influenced by growing up in California with many Asian friends. When we spoke, he had just finished a pork broth flavored with seaweed and clams that he intended to serve in a Japanese clay pot. In other words, this is a city of talented chefs marching to their own drummer and creating imaginative dishes that are still relatively affordable. (Apps tend to be priced in the teens; mains usually hover in the high $20s to low $30s.) While prices might be a little steeper than in some other cities, San Francisco enjoys a sizable dining public with well-educated palates and wallets to support them. “People in San Francisco are used to spending more of their disposable income on food,” Wolf says.
Not only are they willing to spend generously, “the dining public here is really open to trying anything,” says Sarah Rich, who, with her husband, Evan, owns Rich Table, where a signature potato chip–encased sardine continues to enchant. “There is overwhelming support from the community.”
On the downside, tech money has led to the stratospheric rents that make it impossible to live in the city itself on a cook’s wages and therefore increasingly difficult to staff restaurants. Tech giants such as Twitter, Apple, Google, and Air BnB that boast vast foodservice programs are also enticing cooks away from traditional restaurant jobs. “They’re offering our cooks a 9-to-5 gig during the week, plus a lot more benefits than a small restaurant can provide,” Jossel says.
“I’m glad I’m not in the restaurant business today,” Goldstein says. “When I opened Square One in 1984, if I needed a cook I would get 20 applicants. Now if they walk in and stand and breathe and can hold a knife, they hire them.”
Ambitious young cooks, some even from Europe or Asia, still want to build their résumés by working in prestigious San Francisco restaurants, but they may not stay for the long term. “Rents have gone through the roof, and wages have not kept up,” says Moroccan chef Mourad Lahlou. “People from somewhere else will spend six months to a year here and go back.”
“We used to think ‘Oh man, I should go to France,’” recalls SPQR’s executive chef Matt Accarrino. “But now I have cooks from Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, and a lesser number from Europe, who want to build their résumés here and then they go home. I just had a cook from Taiwan, but when her visa was up, she left.”
Operators are struggling to retain staff and keep the doors open,” says Jason Berthold, executive chef of Monsieur Benjamin.
Goldstein notes that 62 restaurants closed last year. The most recent casualty was the much loved North Beach fixture Rose Pistola, whose website says: “After 21 years we have decided that due to rising costs it is no longer feasible to continue to operate.”
Berthold points out the effect on kitchens: “It has meant that chefs have to nurture their staffs differently and become more of a teacher in their kitchens.”
Brandon Jew, of the recently opened Mister Jiu’s, “sees the kitchen more and more as a place of education” and has devised new systems to motivate his cooks. “I created a spreadsheet of every single skill you could learn, from butchering a whole pig to wrapping wontons and dumplings. For every new skill, you come in on your own the first two times and the third time I pay you. When you get through half the skills, I will automatically give you a raise. When you finish all of them, you will get another raise. I have one cook who’s close to finishing. It’s exciting that he’s gone through the list.”
Fortunately, San Francisco chefs foster a strong sense of community and stick together to promote the wonders of their larder. In 2009 San Francisco created its own food festival to rival those held in Aspen or South Beach, but held true to its focus on celebrating local chefs, vintners, and producers. Gigantic tents were spread over Union Square, and the first year 5,000 attended. Crowds swelled each year, and in 2014 the event was rebranded as Eat Drink SF and moved to the sprawling Festival Pavilion in Fort Mason.
Whether it’s protesting a foie gras ban, protecting immigrants by raising funds for the ACLU, or promoting sustainable fishing practices, it’s not unusual for chefs to band together and speak up for a cause. Currently Chef Lahlou wants to “create a movement to tackle banking.” He will urge chefs not to “bank with institutions that have no regard for the environment or for supporting small farmers.” He marvels, “Where else in the world would anybody be able to talk about banks when it comes to food?”
And then there are the women. “San Francisco restaurants draw from a bigger talent pool,” Wolf notes. “Women have a pretty darn equal chance here.” Goldstein herself was a pioneer in the California food revolution, as was Alice Waters, Cecilia Chiang, the late Barbara Tropp, and the late Judy Rodgers. Today, Dominique Crenn’s Atelier Crenn has garnered two Michelin stars and the chef/owner is America’s highest-ranking female chef. Melissa Perello holds a Michelin star at her restaurant Frances. And yet Goldstein worries that the heyday may be over and sees women entering other fields now. “If you’re a chef/owner you can make it work, but not so much as a line cook. I see tons of women photographers, stylists, and caterers, running small companies.”
Going back to the perfect produce: It’s about more than just having the most pristine lettuce for a salad. The eminent kitchen designer Mark Stech-Novak posits that “the breadbasket climate drove immigration and brought the multi-cultured communities that ultimately bred the exchange of ideas, mores, and tolerant attitudes.”
“In looking back on my own formative years as a San Francisco–based chef in the 1970s,” he continues, “I would balance my apprenticeship in France equally with all that I learned from the chefs around me from Japan and Korea and China, most all of whom were second- or third-generation American.”
Gwyneth Borden, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, reminds us, “San Francisco has a rich culinary heritage dating back to the Gold Rush period when Italian immigrants and Chinese dockworkers came.”
There was always an abundance of ethnic eateries. The difference today is that a talented cadre of chefs are intermarrying Northern California ingredients with a United Nations of cuisines that yields a unique San Francisco style.
Chef Accarrino learned to forage when he worked in Rome as a young cook. “Now I’m bringing some of that foraging mind-set into a semi-domesticated state by bringing seeds for something like wild fennel and asking a farmer to grow it.”
He’s cooking his Italian-inflected dishes with foods sourced locally. An example is his farmed abalone Alfredo pasta. “I make the pasta with Meyer lemon zest in the dough and enrich it with abalone liver butter. So I get a lemony, buttery, garlicky pasta that ends up feeling very Italian, but in reality is a California dish.” He also makes a unique wild rice budino di pane topped with “lemony and crunchy” edible ice plant, wild oregano, and a dusting of dried fennel.
For Chef Jew, acquiring local squid, Dungeness crab, sea urchin, or black cod is as important as the perfect bok choy or tatsoi, although he dreams of getting farmers to grow more Chinese vegetables.
“I want people to understand where we came from,” he says, explaining that by re-interpreting Chinese American cuisine he intends to pay homage to his immigrant grandparents. “But I hope to distinguish our menu as something you can only get here because of ingredients or technique.”
Jew says he wanted to create a symbol that represents Chinatown to the locals and not just to tourists. To accomplish that, he moved the entrance of his restaurant from the well-traveled Grant Avenue around to Waverly Place, one of Chinatown’s short alleys with a long history.
No one expresses the cross-pollination more poetically than Moroccan-born Lahlou, who originally came to San Francisco to study economics and ended up being one of the most prominent chef/restaurateurs in the city. What began as a palliative for his initial homesickness was transformed into a tour de force of culinary creations.
At his new namesake restaurant Mourad and at Aziza, the only Michelin-starred Moroccan restaurant in the country, he’s breathing new life into his childhood memories with Northern California ingredients and modern techniques. “In Morocco, we cooked lamb with so much honey as a way to preserve without refrigeration,” he explains. “So I cut down on honey and added dates or figs.”
Or take the custom of cooking a lamb shoulder—sealed in a pot with preserved lemons, butter, and the North African spice mix Ras el hanout—overnight in the embers of a Turkish bath. ”I don’t have a Turkish bath,” he says. “The only way I can duplicate this process is to use sous vide.”
Bread and Pastry
Even San Franciscans do not live by lettuce alone. But they probably could live by the bread from Tartine Bakery alone. Founder Chad Robertson is widely regarded as the best baker in America. Lines wind around the block daily for his basic country loaf. At his recently opened mega Tartine Manufactory, which also offers casual dining, a rotation of his favorite breads is available, in addition to the renowned country loaf.
In the pastry department, local fresh berries and stone fruits are seasonal stars, but in the words of Craftsman and Wolves owner William Werner: “We are pretty up-front about being the church of sugar, flour, and butter.” His best-selling Rebel Within, a runny egg cleverly concealed inside a muffin, has a cult following at his shops and at his stand in the Ferry Plaza Market.
At b. patisserie, Belinda Leong, who trained with French über pastry chef Pierre Hermé, and her partner, Michel Suas, founder of the San Francisco Baking Institute, turn out such addictive pastries as their signature kouign amann, a wonder of sugar-sprinkled laminated dough. Even more wondrous are Leong’s verrines—heavenly crispy, crunchy, creamy desserts layered in a glass. San Francisco does indeed have sweet endings.