West Coast vs Third Coast
written by Dave Denison
California has always been a benchmark (at least for me) when it comes to trends within our food and wine industry. The San Francisco Bay area, along with the surrounding wine country often sets many standards that the rest of us adopt, though sometimes a bit later than sooner.
On a recent visit to San Francisco with amical Executive Chef Benjamin Hoxie, it wasn’t a complete surprise to see that our Grand Traverse region reflects somewhat of a parallel universe, albeit on a miniscule scale. If you can put aside the obvious demographic differences and milder climate (understatement!), many of our local industry professionals follow the same path and commitments which is a daily practice on the West Coast; Buy locally, use the best sustainable ingredients available, provide a high level of service to your patrons, all while nurturing and educating your staff to practice your beliefs.
Down towards the Embarcadero across from the Ferry Building stands One Market now in it’s 26th year of operation. Under the watchful eye of Chef Mark Dommen over the last 14 years, the restaurant continues to thrive. The building with its large ornate dining room, huge kitchen and banquet facility is not what comes to mind when thinking of the typical chef-driven boutique establishments we usually frequent. But make no mistake, the leader is the chef. One Market continues its extended success by maintaining supplier relationships built long before serving locally sourced ingredients became a universally known hot topic. Dommen is demanding when it comes to populating his menu with a steady stream of small farm ingredients along with sustainable seafood. For such a large operation, this is no small task.
One of the challenges Dommen has faced in recent years are the California state mandates for commercial recycling, composting and trash segregation which took effect in 2012. This law requires additional attention paid within the kitchen on the separation of these three catagories. On a large scaled operation such as One Market, located in the busy financial district, this can be daunting. Citations and fines are handed out on a regular basis for those not complying with the proper disposal of these biproducts of high volume kitchens. Back at home in TC, Carter’s Compost has been slinging compost buckets for their customers since 2012. American Waste provides recycling drop off stations for all while maintaining a huge sorting facility for both residential and commercial customers. Will this ever be a requirement for us in the not so distant future?
South of Market is the headquarters for McCalls Catering and Event Management. It is one of the largest and most complete catering organizations in the Bay Area. They serve up to 10,000 guests at a time for some of their well-known tech clients. They attribute this long-term success to their attention to detail, a passion for organization, commitment to quality and retaining their dedicated staff. Sounds like a mission statement for a 80 seat restaurant, doesn’t it?
On the day we visited, a dinner for 1,000 was being prepared for a function at Fort Mason on a pier jutting out into San Francisco Bay. With Alcatraz in the background, Executive Chef Josip Martinovic, was overseeing the team and “kitchen” they had set up just outside of the venue. Chef Josip explained their philosophy of using only sustainable seafood purchased through purveyors aligned with the California Fisheries & Seafood Institute, buying locally sourced ingredients whenever possible and preparing for the dietary requests of their guests. Although many diners may never attend another McCalls catering event again, Chef Josep is ready to address the needs of each individual guest. This aspect of service trickles down through the staff for all events, both large and small.
Most of our time was spent with James Beard award winner Chef Stuart Brioza of State Bird Provisions and The Progress. Brioza, along with his equally accomplished wife Nicole Krasinski, opened SBP in 2011, followed by The Progress in 2014 which was awarded a Michelin star in 2018. It was here at SBP that Chef Ben spent two days in the kitchen, observing methods and assisting in the preparation of menu items for the evening service with the SBP kitchen team. (Full disclosure: amical will be producing recipes from the State Bird Provisions cookbook May 6th -11th which is what started this adventure)
Farm day is Tuesday. A literal Farm to Table exercise as the harvested produce being dropped onto dining room tables that morning for sorting and cleaning. For the next few hours, all members turned their attention to the early week harvest. The farm is located just south of the city and it came first for Brioza and Krasinski, even before the restaurants were conceived. Each season its size and harvest have gradually increased as the farm management consults with the chef requests from both locations. The restaurants are the only end-users of these farm products. Both dining rooms have separate kitchens and utilize all of the produce delivered to them. Just as many of our local chefs have experienced, the delivery may not include amounts or exact ingredients ordered or anticipated. Mother Nature doesn’t play favorites, whether you own the farm or not. Even the famous Napa Valley garden across from the French Laundry in Yountville wasn’t spared the effects of a rough winter. You take what you can get and adjust your menu from there.
The modern California dim sum style menu and service of State Bird Provisions is one of the most uniquely satisfying dining experiences ever. The creative execution of the menu items and their development are a never-ending thought process that must be absolutely intoxicating to any member of their kitchen staff. Talking with Brioza, we learned this is a nurturing environment that never ceases to inspire, educate and bring out the best in all the staff members. We can’t help but feel this as the dim sum trays sweep by your table, presented to you by both kitchen and service team members. The dishes are expertly described, without pretention, but with that natural hint of pride and confidence.
This was a key take away for us. While we might be able to pull off some of these menu items for a week during May, we continue to strive in having that same feeling permeate our dining room for our guests to experience. Could it be that our staff is our most valuable locally sourced ingredient?!
In looking back at all we experienced in this whirlwind West Coast pilgrimage to what some feel is the birthplace of the beat that we march to, the comparisons are remarkably similar. While we can’t objectively measure with the same criteria, we can continue to build on the thoughts many of us have known to be true; We are more alike than different.