This afternoon I had lunch with Peter Meehan and David Chang at the Il Cane Rosso at the Ferry Building here in San Francisco.
Now the Full Disclosure bit – Peter Meehan is a very long time family friend, he’s been dating my sister for over 15 years and is the father of my soon to be born niece. So I’m biased – very much so – he’s family.
He and David Chang have been in San Francisco for the past few days promoting their new book, Momofuku here in SF. It is a great book full of well told stories and challenging yet makable recipes. Not easy recipes but ones which you can, in fact, make in a home kitchen. But testing that is for another, future post.
This is about my lunch with Peter and David and more broadly with some thoughts I have had about food here in San Francisco over the past few days, sparked first by their event at Cafe Du Nord on Wednesday and continued over lunch conversations this afternoon.
Observation one – Chefs & professional food critics do not eat or drink like I do
This isn’t a good or a bad thing, just a statement of fact. I have never been drunk in my entire life, not once, my heaviest drinking night ever involves having had multiple glasses of wine in the course of a single, long, evening. In the course of one evening if my rough count and the stories I heard later is true, I believe that the chefs and professional food critics at the 7×7 event – both before, during and later after the event drank more than I have drunk in my entire four years of living in San Francisco. Seriously, chefs (and food critics) seem to drink quite a lot.
Anthony Bourdain makes much the same point repeatedly in his books and tv shows – and it is a point echoed many times on various cooking related reality shows – something about working as professional chefs seems to lead to a lot of heavy, if also often quite friendly, drinking.
Observation two – chefs and professional food critics, at least when really hungry, eat much faster than I do
I am a slow eater – also a big fan of Slow Food but that’s a different matter – but I eat slowly, savor most of my bites and try to enjoy my food whether a quick burrito or the fanciest of tasting menus.
However, at least on anecdotal evidence, when chefs and food critics are hungry, like say after having flown across the country before a signing or as in today having not eaten anything for many hours and just completed interviews and a mass signing, they devour their food in rapid fire fashion. They order a lot and eat it even quicker.
At lunch today, for example, I ordered a single pork sandwich (which was amazing btw). Pete and David ordered two other sandwiches, the half chicken plate and the roast pork plate. In the time it took me to finish a half sandwich they had polished off most of all four dishes (Pete and I swapped halves of sandwiches so I had a half of a brisket sandwich first then finished with the pork). I had small tastes of most of the other dishes but they were finished and enroute back to their hotel and their next signing event this afternoon in Menlo Park long before I had finished my second half of the sandwich.
Observation three – San Francisco has great food and a food culture I’m only barely a part of
I take food seriously, my friends (and strangers and blog readers) rely upon me for food recommendations on a regular basis. I’d like to think that I steer them well and that I know the local SF food scene fairly well. However as I attended the 7×7 event this past Wednesday and as I observed the discussion which unfolded at Cafe Du Nord and today as I have been following some friends via Twitter, I realize that there are huge portions of the food culture of San Francisco and the Internet which I know very little about. This weekend there appears to be a Food Blogger conference happening this weekend here in San Francisco, though somehow I hadn’t heard about it until just recently and still can’t figure out how (if) I could have participated. There is also a conference/trade show relating to food on the Design Concourse this weekend, again I had only heard about it at the very last minute. Even more, there seems to be a circuit of restaurant openings and special dinners which I only occasionally hear about and almost never attend. Furthermore I’ve yet to make it much out of San Francisco or the near East Bay (Berkeley & Oakland and those only rarely) so I’ve yet to experience any of Napa or Sonoma from the wine clubs to the fine dining.
The conversation Wednesday night which was moderated by 7×7 magazine’s food editors was sparked by David Chang’s off the cuff discussion about the food here in SF – about the trend towards “just serving a platter of figs and calling it dessert”. In the discussion multiples times there was an assumption about a uniformity of the “diners” here in the Bay Area – about what they would/wouldn’t accept from restaurants and dining experiences.
A quick sample of some of the assumptions mentioned over the course of the evening
- San Francisco diners will not pay premium prices for “ethnic” food
- There is no late night dining (or drinking)
- While the Alice Waters/Chez Panisse family tree is extensive and creates tasty food there is too much of that style and too little risk taking in recent restaurants
- A trend towards both the “beets and goat cheese salad” and “specialty pizzas and pasta”
As I listened I found myself thinking about many exceptions to these assumptions. By itself the world famous Slanted Door restaurant and their newer locations are exceptions for most. A very high end, expensive, ethnic restaurant in Slanted Door and in the case of their newest restaurant, Heaven’s Dog a high end, open until very late (1am or later) restaurant serving high end, premium Chinese food.
And Heaven’s Dog is no longer an exception, there are a bunch of newer restaurants which have opened here in San Francisco in the past year which are offering more late night dining options. In many cases offering food which is not just in the Chez Panisse family of simple, local food with mostly frensh inspired techniques but food which takes fresh, seasonal ingredients (in most cases) and combine it with a range of techniques and spices from around the globe. Radio Africa Kitchen, the twice a week nomadic restaurant here in SF for example combines spices and flavors from North Africa with techniques from throughout Europe and the best, freshest local ingredients of the season.
I write this as I sit in a great local cafe (The Cafe at Cafe du Nord), drinking local coffee (beans from Ritual Roasters) and nibbling on foods made from scratch, including a savory apple tart with apples from the chef’s own garden a few blocks away. In the past few weeks I’ve eaten many meals from local food carts and other new food businesses which have been starting up all over San Francisco – some as mobile carts, others as reinvigorated food counters and takeaway locations. I also dine frequently at inexpensive but cooked with seriousness ethnic restaurants in San Francisco and I shop and cook almost entirely locally. The SF I know has a vibrant food culture – but one which is very different from New York’s to be sure.