metrosantacruz.com
News, music, movies, events & restaurants in Santa Cruz, California from Metro Santa Cruz weekly

Restaurants
March 14-20, 2007

home | metro silicon valley index | silicon valley restaurants | profile

On the Menu Spring 2007:
Top chefs | Cult wine | Local produce


Top chefs

The State of the Art

Six questions for six top chefs

By Stett Holbrook


FOR THE past 21 years, the world's most talented chefs and winemakers have been convening in Carmel Highlands for a long, sybaritic weekend of culinary bliss.

What started as a small event with just a few chefs grew into arguably the premier culinary event in the country. Past participants read like a who's who of culinary talent: Jacques Pepin, Julia Child, Alice Waters, Paul Bocuse, Lidia Bastianich, Nobo Matsuhisa, Jerimiah Tower, Charlie Trotter, Alain Passard, Thomas Keller. The list goes on.

For attendees of the event, held at the Park Hyatt Carmel's rustic but luxurious Highlands Inn overlooking million-dollar ocean views, the annual food orgy offered a chance to eat and drink some of the best food and wine the world has to offer. With chefs having achieved rock star status, the Masters was like a series of private concerts with a dozen or so of the world's most talented chefs. For the chefs, the event offered a chance to work and hang out with their peers in a stunning setting—and drink lots of really good wine at rowdy afterparties.

Last month's 21st annual Masters was the last, at least in Carmel. The event will continue but it will be held at different locations around the world.

But before the Masters folded its tent for the last time, I tracked down a diverse group of six chefs who turned out for the swan song event and asked them about their work and the state of the culinary arts in America.

David Kinch

David Kinch | Manresa | Los Gatos

David Kinch first came to prominence at Sent Sovi in Saratoga and he continues to hone his eclectic, innovative style at Manresa. The restaurant is now one of California's top dining destinations. Last year Manresa was one of just four Bay Area restaurants to receive two Michelin stars. Today Kinch is most excited about his partnership with Ben Lomond's Love Apple Farm, a biodynamic farm where he grows most of his produce and nurtures his imagination for new dishes.

Why is this an exciting time to be a chef?
Every year customers become more savvy. They become more appreciative, more discriminating and more knowledgeable about the wines of the world, dining traditions and really what quality is all about. As the public becomes more discerning and sophisticated, restaurants respond to that. It could be worse. The great thing about California is that we have very discerning clientele. That makes our job a little bit easier. It's always feels good to cook for people who are very appreciative. What makes us happy is when customers are happy. The chef that just cooks for himself will be a chef that goes out of business.

What food trends excite and/or irritate you?
The older I'm getting, the more time I spend in the business, what I find excites me now are not necessarily trends that come and go, but ingredients. We planted this garden [Love Apple Farm in Ben Lomond] a year, year and a half ago, and that is the single most exciting thing that has happened to me professionally in 15 years. We're growing 40 to 50 percent of everything we use right now, and next year I hope to get up to 80 percent, and the restaurant is becoming more vegetable-centric. That's what I find incredibly satisfying right now. ... It really takes something to make a carrot really, really special.

What effect have the Food Network and the rise of celebrity chefs had on the industry?
Not much. I don't watch [the Food Network]. I don't actively seek out publicity. Manresa is more about Manresa than it is about me. I want it to be bigger than me. I want it to keep moving on after I'm gone. I'm trying to create an institution down there because we bought the land, we bought the building. I hope it's there for a long time. I tend to try not to think about the PR and the celebrity stuff. I think it tends to be the byproduct of a quality job really well done. If you do that, then the celebrity stuff comes, but I think the minute you start to actively seek it out, then I think it's a mistake.

What one thing would you change about the way Americans eat?
Portion control. Moderation. I think Americans tend to snack too much. I think the nation's collective health is not about fad diets or not eating this or not eating that. I think if people eat in moderation and they eat three meals a day and wouldn't snack I think the nation's collective health will get better. I think this all-you-can-eat, the big pile of food, which is really bad for you regardless of how well it's prepared, I think it's ingrained into the American psyche and I think that has to change.

What's the social value of what you do?
Not much. We're in the business of making people happy. There's certainly a theatrical element now. People don't go to restaurants now for just food, they go for the entire experience. People want to go out for three hours and they want to escape their frantic lifestyles and everything that's going on outside. Restaurants should and can be oases where they can escape from everything. That's why it shouldn't be that big of a deal to turn a cell phone off at a restaurant.

What's your greatest source of inspiration?
The greatest source of inspiration right now is probably walking through the garden. Reading books. I tend to devour a lot of books. And travel. Having the chance to travel and eating at colleagues' restaurants and immersing yourself in different food cultures. I find that very creative.

Charles Phan

Charles Phan | The Slanted Door | San Francisco

Born in Da Lat, Vietnam, Phan is a self-taught chef who redefined Vietnamese cooking in America with the opening of the Slanted Door in San Francisco's Mission District 12 years ago. Now located in the Ferry Building, the restaurant continues to impress with its traditional Vietnamese recipes paired with fresh, local ingredients and a hip, modern sensibility. Phan recently opened Out the Door in the Westfield San Francisco Centre, bringing high quality Vietnamese food to the mall-crawling masses.

Why is this an exciting time to be a chef?
It's always good for me. I don't know if there's any better time. It's what I love to do. For me personally it's about me being able to do my work. It's creative. It's pays the mortgage and the bills and at the same time I'm able to do things I love. I'm not sitting in front of a computer while working by myself all day. I'm able to interact with different people and see how they're enjoying the food. For me especially I'm able to bring Vietnamese food to the American public. That's a really big deal.

What food trends excite and/or irritate you?
A couple years back you had the trend of fusion cuisine that sort of mixed East/West. That's not my cup of tea. One trend [I like] is a lot more localized, specific cuisine, such as Italian food that focuses on one specific region rather than just all across the board. That's exactly what I've been doing. My restaurant is about 12 years old and I focus on one area, one country. I don't have just "Asian food." It's like me saying I'm going to have "European food." What's European food?

What effect have the Food Network and the rise of celebrity chefs had on the industry?
I know a lot of colleagues are just appalled at some of the stuff that goes on on the Food Network, but at the end of the day it's doing a service to the industry to get people more conscientious about food. ... I grew up watching Jacques Pepin and Julia Child, and I'm really not happy when I see shows that don't have substance or kind of glance over things or don't pay attention to the real essence of cooking. We see a lot of that with today's TV chefs. And I don't see any Asian chefs on the Food Network.

What one thing would you change about the way Americans eat?
I think we as a culture in the United States don't pay enough attention to what we eat. Paying attention to food is associated with the elitist class. But you don't have to be like that. You take a culture like China or Vietnam and you could be dirt poor, but you could have an opinion about how that spinach should taste or that watercress. It's just simply paying attention to food and demanding quality of food. It's important to eat well and you don't have to have a lot of money to eat well. We need to get that across because we eat really poorly and get very fat.

What's the social value of what you do?
On a very simple basic level it's nourishment and bringing people together. For me I'm translating this Vietnamese story or bringing Vietnamese culture—I see that as passing along history to the next generation, whether or not you're of Asian descent or American descent. So for me it's about preserving the cultural heritage of my roots. At the restaurant level it's your basic escape from your home, your living room. You get served; you get to mingle and check out other people.

What's your greatest source of inspiration?
Inspiration for me has always been traveling. Events like this [the Masters of Food and Wine] are great because you're among your peers and see people doing different things. I learn a lot from it and I often take it back home. It could be a little technique I saw. It could be an ingredient I tasted. Sometimes I'll marry it with a traditional recipe or I'll tweak a traditional recipe just a little bit to make it a little bit better. But the biggest inspiration is still travel, going back home to Vietnam.

Mark Ayers

Mark Ayers | Pacific's Edge | Carmel Highlands

Ayers began cooking at 15 and graduated at the top of his class from the Culinary Institute of America. He's been executive chef at Pacific's Edge since 2003. The restaurant's kitchen is ground zero for the Masters of Food and Wine event and Ayers has been instrumental in planning the event. Dozens of the world's top culinary talents have passed through his kitchen. At Pacific's Edge, Ayers showcases impeccable local ingredients with bold, inventive style.

Why is this an exciting time to be a chef?
I think over the past 10, 15, probably 20 years really, it's become glamorous. We're so much in the spotlight. It's become a much more respected profession, or at least I think it is. You look at the culinary schools. Thirty years ago how many were there? Two? Now there are over 500. It pays tribute to the fact that it's becoming a desired occupation.

What food trends excite and/or irritate you?
The whole idea of following the trend irritates me the most. Or not doing something because it's supposed to be a trend. If you won't do something with foam because it's a trend, that seems silly to me. If the dish should have a foamy element to it, then that's what it should be. Just because it's been popular for eight years doesn't mean it shouldn't continue to be done. But to do it just because it's popular, that also irritates me.

What effect have the Food Network and the rise of celebrity chefs had on the industry?
I think it's positive. It's keeps raising the prestige of it. Everyone knows who Emeril Lagasse is and it's not because he's the world's greatest chef, it's just the Food Network has boosted him to such a tremendous level. It's obviously good for him, but it's good for the industry too because it promotes all of us.

What one thing would you change about the way Americans eat? My personal crusade is to end fast food. I hate it. I do eat the occasional In-N-Out burger, but McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, Arby's—all those places, I can't stand them. We need to eat healthier. If you're going to eat something without even thinking about what you're eating, eat something that's not going to kill you. The places that just slap the stuff out, I can't stand the idea of it.

What's the social value of what you do?
I think you play an important role in a lot of people's lives, like if people come here and have a great experience or a couple come to your restaurant and they fall in love. So you play an important role indirectly in that case and sometimes directly like when people just come to see you and have your food and experience what you're doing.

What's your greatest source of inspiration?
Ingredients. I just look at the list I get from the vendors, purveyors, farmers, mushroom pickers. That's what I start with and I go from there. It's all triggered by what's available.

Keiko Takahashi

Keiko Takahashi | El Paseo | Mill Valley

Trained in the technically exacting and aesthetically stunning kaiseki culinary tradition, Japanese-born Takahashi brings her rarefied style to Mill Valley's El Paseo restaurant where she combines her Japanese training with Italian and French influences. Her interview was translated by Seigo Takei.

Why is this an exciting time to be a chef?
As I recall, only few Americans—or Europeans—ate raw fish 10 to 20 years ago. Now if you dine out at top restaurant like Cyrus, French Laundry, etc. ... there is a lot of influence of Japanese cuisine by using the material such as seaweed or raw fish. This acceptance of the variety of food makes a big advantage for Japanese to create advanced cuisine and be at the head of the game from the beginning because we do not have to study unknown food materials or cooking techniques. And by attending events like the Masters, I am now convinced that American people are seeking better quality food and life, unlike 10 years ago.

What food trends excite and/or irritate you?
Many duplicate and copy Japanese cuisine by misunderstanding the concept and reason and prepare it the wrong way by adding individual imagination with lack of skill. What pleases me is because the food business is booming, it is now a lot easier to get top quality products from overseas. Chefs have more choices to combine their ideas and originality.

What one thing would you change about the way Americans eat?
I think they are going to the right direction now, especially in California, but if I say one thing, as we Japanese always say before and after the meal, "itadakimasu" and "gochisosamadeshita," to be thankful you can live and eat food. Then you will find out what to eat and not to eat naturally. It's the meaning of eating which connects to fulfilled, healthy life.

What effect have the Food Network and the rise of celebrity chefs had on the industry?
After Iron Chef was created in Japan, Japanese food industry has elevated and gained a great deal, and at the same time, there are more young "chef wannabes" who want to be a star. I think it is a great idea the Food Network has created, but I believe only few will survive. Some can do entertaining, but good cooking is a very rare talent. I want all the young cooks to remind themselves that they are cooks and they always need to elevate their skills and make their restaurant clients happy. The media thing is secondary always.

What's the social value of what you do?
I don't think deeply about social value. Simply, I believe it will follow naturally if you stay polite and work hard to make other people happy, then other people will find social value in you.

What's your greatest source of inspiration?
Meeting my clients at the restaurant and talking to them, though my English is not too good. I like to be there for them always. So please don't hesitate to call me after dinner when you come to El Paseo!

Daniel Humm

Daniel Humm | Eleven Madison Park | New York City

Swiss native Daniel Humm began his culinary training at 14 and first made a name for himself in this country as executive chef at San Francisco's Campton Place. In 2006 he became executive chef at Eleven Madison Park. His precise but elegant cooking emphasizes purity, simplicity and seasonal ingredients.

Why is this an exciting time to be a chef?
I'm from Europe and fine dining has been around for a long time and people are a little bit over it. There are still amazing restaurants and they do well but it seems to almost be harder right now in Europe. In America, people are just starting to get interested in food, get interested about chefs, get interested in ingredients. So I think this time in America is really good. People are so open to new things they haven't seen before. It's very interesting.

What food trends excite and/or irritate you?
Nothing really disturbs me because it's always my choice what I'm going to do. I really like how right now a lot of chefs are working on things that have never been done before as far as putting ingredients together and using new techniques. I think it's awesome. For me, basil and tomato still goes together. I don't want to change that, but I've seen things that I would have never thought of, and people try it and it works.

What effect have the Food Network and the rise of celebrity chefs had on the industry?
I think it's positive. The Food Network reaches a really wide range of people and they start talking about food, they start hearing about ingredients, they start to know what truffles are and stuff like that. So that's great. But I have to be honest, I've never watched any of those shows and I would never want to be on any of these shows. It's not who I am. For me, I want to be in the restaurant as much as possible. All the chefs who are on the Food Network don't have a lot of time to be at their restaurants. It's almost like it's its own career. You've got to have talent to be on TV and do things well. It's a different talent that you need in the restaurant.

What one thing would you change about the way Americans eat?
If they would eat a little slower and take a little bit more time, that would be nice. That was the biggest difference when I first started [cooking] in America. I came from a 50-seat restaurant in Switzerland to Campton Place and people just wanted their four courses in one hour. I wish they would see dining out as a whole-night thing, like when you go to the theater or go see a show. I wish they would not want to do two of those in one night.

What's the social value of what you do?
I don't really worry about that too much. I haven't really thought about it. I feel respected in what I do and that's pretty much it. At the end of the day I'm in the kitchen and it's hard work and I love to do it. And that's it.

What's your greatest source of inspiration?
I'm going to farmers market twice a week. Talking with the farmers inspires me, seeing the product. Traveling is good, but the time is usually not there. Reading. There are great cookbooks coming out from all over the world. Talking to other chefs about new things. In New York it's nice because all the chefs are very open. Great friendships.

Grant Achatz

Grant Achatz | Alinea | Chicago

Grant Achatz, executive chef at Chicago's Alinea, is redefining cooking and dining in America with a conceptual, hypermodern style that has come to be known as known as molecular gastronomy. Using techniques and ingredients more typically found in laboratories than kitchens, Achatz is creating some of the most exciting—and controversial—food in America.

Why is this an exciting time to be a chef?
This is an exciting time to be a chef because primarily I feel the culinary, gastronomic community is going through a giant rebirth, reinvigoration. For the first time in many, many years I feel there have actually been new techniques introduced. And also then just the greater awareness. The awareness of restaurants we see here in this country every year, you see it grow and grow and trickle down and trickle down and people are more educated and more informed. You have better diners.

What food trends excite and/or irritate you?
Ironically they're the same, which sounds kind of bizarre, but the very things that excite me are often the things that annoy me. What happens when you're innovating and creating in an original medium is that you have people that don't really understand the thought process. They don't understand the focus of what you're trying to do. They try to reinterpret and maybe they do so in a less than integral fashion. That becomes the annoying factor. What becomes the exciting factor is when I go into WD-50 or El Bulli and see something that's never been done before, I get to experience that both as a diner and a cook, as a culinarian, that's the exciting part. All these things that help us manipulate ingredients and alter textures and do this and that those specifically are very exciting but they can also be very disturbing if they're not done well.

What effect have the Food Network and the rise of celebrity chefs had on the industry?
I think it's had a profound effect just from public awareness. I think that now you're seeing people like Emeril doing toothpaste commercials, and it's unbelievable to me that chefs can cross that threshold similar to movie stars or sports players and obviously that's the power of television. But discount it as you may and be a purist and say, "Well, Emeril has six restaurants and obviously he's never in any of them and that's no good," but at the same time he's on the Food Network and 1 million, 2 million people are watching him cook something, and that's a positive thing, because even though it might be Emeril and he might have that personality and might be joking around and what not, it's still far better than the opposite end of the spectrum which is fast food and convenience.

What one thing would you change about the way Americans eat?
It's a cliché, but it's the processed foods. It's unfortunate that globally we're known as the processed food country and it's true. It's a shame.

What's the social value of what you do?
What's the social worth of art? It's a tough one. I think it's just that—I think especially what we do at Alinea, because it places such a priority on entertainment and emotion the same way that perhaps walking through a modern art museum and looking at works of different artists or sitting down to one of your favorite filmmakers' movies, it affects each person's emotional profile very differently and hopefully impacts it in a way that's is profound. So if you come in and sit down and spend five hours in the restaurant and you walk away with a lifelong memory of that meal, emotionally and viscerally, that's of value.

What's your greatest source of inspiration?
I'm a believer that inspiration has to come from within, because I think that to be inspired you have to process your surroundings through this filter. In my case this filter is cuisine and dining. Or when you look out here [points out the window to the rocky Carmel coastline] and see all these organic shapes, and maybe that helps me or inspires me to present a particular dish in that fashion. Everything you see, touch and smell, all your senses have to be that filter.


Send a letter to the editor about this story.






FIND A RESTAURANT
FIND A RESTAURANT REVIEW
SEARCH AVAILABLE RESERVATIONS & BOOK A TABLE




Live Feed
Quick restaurant hits by Metro dining editor Stett Holbrook.

5 Things to Love
Top-5 lists and hot picks.

Silicon Valley Veggie
Vegetarian eateries in the South Bay.