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The eats of San Francisco

21 August 2009 by
The eats of San Francisco

The San Francisco, Bay Area and Wine Country region of northern California has, with its focus on ingredients, developed a culinary reputation to rival New York's. Kerstin Kühn visits three chef-proprietors - Charles Phan of the Slanted Door, Todd Humphries from Martini House and David Kinch of Manresa - who exemplify the principles of provenance, seasonality and local sourcing.

Visit Caterersearch's recipe pages for images of the recipes described below.

San Francisco is a small city with a big reputation. Set on seven square miles of peninsula jutting into the Pacific Ocean, its steep hills, windy roads, cable cars and the Golden Gate Bridge are famous around the world. As well as the sights, the city is noted for its free-thinking: from the hippie community and beatnik generation of the 1960s, to the gay rights movement which began in the Castro district in the 1970s. To this day San Francisco remains the spiritual home of the free at heart.

And let's not forget its food culture. The area's restaurants are renowned for their diversity, multiculturalism and trend setting, with nearby Napa Valley home to one of the world's most acclaimed restaurants: Thomas Keller's three-Michelin-starred French Laundry. However, many more Bay Area chefs deserve the plaudits Keller has gained.

Michelin launched its first guide to San Francisco, Bay Area and Wine Country in 2007 and its current guide recognises 32 establishments with its coveted stars, compared with 56 awarded in New York. While New York is considered by many as the centre of American fine dining, the chefs on the West Coast aren't far behind their East Coast rivals. And where New York dining shows off through its theatre, service and extravagance, West Coast restaurants prefer to focus their attention on the food.

Provenance, seasonality and local sourcing don't form part of a popular trend here; they are basic principles everyone observes: the focus is always on the ingredients. Caterer went to visit three chefs in the San Francisco, Bay Area and Wine Country region at their restaurants and each one embraces and epitomises this way of life. But each interprets it in his own, special and inspiring way.


Charles Phan is the owner and executive chef of Vietnamese restaurant the Slanted Door, which is located at San Francisco's foodie destination, the Ferry Building. The restaurant, which serves a modern version of Vietnamese street food, opened in the city's Mission district in 1995 and moved to its upmarket site along the Embarcadero at the foot of San Francisco's famous Market Street in 2004.

Born in Vietnam in 1962, Phan and his family left the country at the end of the war in 1975 and relocated to Guam before moving to San Francisco in 1977, where they settled in Chinatown. His interest in hospitality started during high school when he worked as a busboy.

"I worked at an English pub when I was 15 - I remember they served steak and kidney pie - and that's when I first knew I wanted to join the hospitality industry," Phan says.

However, he enrolled for an architecture degree, ran the family's garment business and did a stint in the software industry in Silicon Valley in the early 1990s before realising his ambition of becoming a chef restaurateur.


Phan launched the Slanted Door with a vision to create a stylish ambiance for traditional Vietnamese cooking and a menu strongly focused on local ingredients. "The idea for the restaurant was in my head for about 10 years. I saw a real gap for a modern Vietnamese restaurant with design-led interiors and a focus on wine and fresh, great-quality ingredients," he explains. "Every ingredient, taste, texture, temperature and colour of each dish served at the Slanted Door has a history of exploration - a story that is a marriage of Vietnamese cooking with fresh US-based ingredients."

The Slanted Door proved a phenomenal success and in the past decade has become established as one of San Francisco's most prestigious eateries, having played host to a list of celebrities including former President Bill Clinton and his entourage during his presidency.

When Michelin first published its guide to the area, it held its launch party at the Slanted Door, which holds a Bib Gourmand. But Phan is not too fazed about the Red Guide. "Michelin is new here and I didn't grow up in Europe so I don't have a strong feeling about it," he says. "Michelin has a bias towards fine dining, and its priorities and aesthetic are different to mine. I don't think it really understands the dining scene here yet and it will take time for it to get how we do things."

In addition to the Slanted Door, Phan has launched a neighbourhood restaurant concept called Out The Door, which has two outlets in San Francisco, as well as the Academy Café at the California Academy of Sciences. He also runs a Chinese restaurant called Heaven's Dog, housed in the city's Soma Grand luxury apartment building.

If he could open another restaurant anywhere in the world, he says he'd like to do it in London. "If I think of the places I'd most like to live in, Hawaii would be on the list, but London would also be super-cool."


David Kinch is the chef-proprietor of the two-Michelin-starred Manresa in Los Gatos, located in the foothills of the Santa Cruz mountains. Kinch, one of the West Coast's most acclaimed chefs, has built his sophisticated menu around the biodynamic produce he procures from nearby Love Apple Farm, which caters solely for his restaurant's kitchen.

Born in Philadelphia and raised in New Orleans, Kinch decided at a very young age to become a chef. "I started working in restaurants after class when I was in high school and have always been attracted to the hospitality industry," he recalls.

By the age of 17 he was working alongside New Orleans legend Paul Prudhomme, and went on to graduate with honours from the Johnson and Wales Culinary Academy in Providence, Rhode Island, before moving to New York for a stab at the big time.

The young chef quickly made a name for himself but, instead of sticking to the Big Apple, decided to travel the globe to hone his culinary skills through stages at some of the world's top restaurants. These included stints at Michelin-starred restaurants such as the Schweizer Stuben in Germany (now closed); L'Espérance in St-Père-en-Vézelay, France; and Akelarre in San Sebastian, Spain. Kinch also worked as consultant chef at the Hotel Clio Court in Fukuoka, Japan, where he played an integral part in the creation of a contemporary American restaurant.

Kinch says his travels have shaped him as chef. "Travelling is really important to a young chef as it exposes you to things you would never normally be able to experience. You gain mentors and are able to expand your skills," he says. "My cooking now is very personal and informed by my travels. It's about my personal tastes - my likes and dislikes - and about the things I have seen. But it's also a reflection on where I am based and what's around me."

Kinch moved to the West Coast in 1989 and after running Silks at the Mandarin Oriental San Francisco and the city's Ernie's restaurant, both as executive chef, he launched his first solo venture, Sent Sovi, in Saratoga in 1995. In 2002 he opened Manresa, where over the years he started focusing his cooking more on organic and biodynamic ingredients.

"Four years ago we entered into a relationship with Cynthia Sandberg, who runs the biodynamic Love Apple Farm and now grows her produce exclusively for the restaurant," he says. "The major challenge with growing your own produce is that the garden tends to dictate what's on the menu. You don't want to be wasteful but respect the garden. It's a different way of thinking."


The USA has been affected by the global economic downturn in much the same way as the UK, and Kinch says the different economic climate has been a challenge. "Anyone who says the downturn isn't affecting them is lying," he says. "It's a normal business cycle, and in the seven years at Manresa we have been through two economic downturns. These sorts of times turn you from a restaurateur into a business person; you're forced to adjust your product but continue to maintain high standards."

Kinch's reputation for high standards has surpassed the borders of northern California and each year internationally acclaimed chefs come to cook at Manresa as part of his Cooking With Friends series. Visiting chefs have included Alain Passard, Mauro Colagreco and René Redzepi.


Saskatchewan-born Canadian Todd Humphries is the chef and co-owner, with Pat Kuleto, of the Michelin-starred Martini House restaurant in St Helena, Napa Valley. He enjoys a unique reputation on the US restaurant scene for his adventurous use of wild, foraged ingredients, especially mushrooms.

Humphries graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in New York in 1988, after which he landed an entry-level job at the city's Peninsula hotel under Swiss chef Gray Kunz. He quickly rose through the ranks and remained Kunz's protégé and executive sous chef for five years, first at the Peninsula and then at the acclaimed Lespinasse restaurant at the St Regis hotel (now run by Alain Ducasse).

In 1993 Humphries relocated to San Francisco, where he spent five years running his own restaurant and the hotel kitchens at the Campton Place hotel. He moved to Napa Valley in 1999 to run the Wine Spectator Greystone restaurant as executive chef for two years before launching Martini House in 2001. Housed in a 1920s bungalow in downtown St Helena, Martini House provides arguably one of the most romantic settings in Napa Valley, with its shaded terrace complete with rose garden and its countrified interior filled with stained-glass lanterns and working fireplaces.

The restaurant gained a Michelin star last year, an accolade Humphries says he's "very happy" to have. "There are a lot of different benchmarks rating restaurants in the USA, but I consider it particularly important to be included in the Michelin guide," he says.

While Michelin stars may presume certain standards of service on the East Coast, Humphries says that on the West Coast things are a lot more laid-back. "Diners here are as savvy as they are in New York but the fine-dining environment is a lot less stuffy," he explains. "At Martini House, it's a very casual environment despite the fact that we're Michelin-starred."

So the emphasis is on the food, and Humphries describes his cooking as all about taking advantage of the fantastic local ingredients. "I am an avid forager, and San Francisco and the Bay Area is possibly the best place in the world to go foraging for mushrooms," he enthuses.


His love of fungi has seen him create a dedicated mushroom tasting menu which includes varieties such as black trumpets, matsutakes and black chanterelles. Typical dishes may include a chilled mousseron soup served with sweet corn panna cotta, summer truffles and pickled ramps; next to roasted king porcini with violet artichokes, saffron gnocchi and a persillade mushroom glaze. Humphries's à la carte extends his love for wild produce with Maine scallops and lobster, Alaskan halibut, local organically farmed meats, and game paired with rare ingredients such as wood sorrel, forest ferns, rosehips and juniper berries.

As a chef, Humphries has certainly made his mark on the Californian - and, indeed, the national - dining scene, but there's no time for him to rest on his laurels. "I have been at Martini House for eight years now and am starting to itch for a new project," he says.

While nothing's been decided yet, a more casual sister restaurant could be on the cards in the not too distant future.


Charles Phan: "Mourad Lahlou, chef-proprietor of North African restaurant Aziza in San Francisco." Lahlou does with Moroccan dishes what Phan does with Vietnamese food by giving the cuisine a modern twist and focusing his menu on locally sourced ingredients.

David Kinch: "James Syhabout, chef-proprietor of Commis in Oakland." Syhabout is Kinch's former chef de cuisine who launched his own restaurant Commis in Oakland this year. The modern French menu is focused on seasonal, local, sustainably sourced ingredients.

Todd Humphries: "Gerald Hirigoyen, chef-proprietor of Piperade in San Francisco." Piperade celebrates the vibrant cuisine of the Basque region of Spain. The menu is a blend of Basque food refined by San Francisco's sense of freshness and simplicity.

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Phan says: "This is a very classic Vietnamese dish, and in 1992, when I went on my first trip back to Vietnam after the war, I had this dish in the lobby of the hotel I was staying in - the flavours were amazing. But I have changed the recipe slightly at the Slanted Door: instead of using flank steak I use filet mignon and I cut the meat into bigger pieces to get it medium-rare."

INGREDIENTS (Serves four as part of a multi-course meal)

  • 700g Niman Ranch filet mignon, trimmed of fat and cut into 3-4cm cubes
  • 80ml canola oil for stir-frying
  • 1 medium-sized red onion, roughly sliced
  • 4 stalks spring onion, trimmed and cut to 2.5cm lengths
  • 1tbs chopped garlic
  • 2tbs unsalted butter

For the meat marinade

  • 1tsp kosher salt
  • 1tsp ground black pepper
  • 2tbs canola oil

For the stir-fry sauce

  • 11/2tbs white vinegar
  • 3tbs sugar
  • 3tbs light soy sauce
  • 3tbs fish sauce
  • 1tsp cooking rice wine

For the salt and pepper dipping sauce

  • 1/2tsp kosher salt
  • 1/4tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • Juice of one fresh lime
  • 1 bunch of watercress, washed and dried


Marinate the meat with the salt, oil and 1/4 teaspoon of pepper for about two hours. Meanwhile, combine the stir-fry sauce ingredients. Stir and set aside.

Divide the meat into two portions, and do the same with the garlic, red onion and spring onion. You need to cook it in two batches.

Heat a wok or a large skillet over maximum heat until very hot. Add four tablespoons of oil to the wok. When the oil smokes, add the meat in one layer. Let it sit until a brown crust forms, and turn to brown the other side. Total time for browning should be less than five minutes.

Pour out excess oil, leaving about one tablespoon in the wok. Add half the red onion and half the spring onions and cook, stirring, for about 30 seconds. Add about half the stir-fry sauce mixture and shake the pan to combine ingredients.

Add half the butter and shake the pan until the butter melts. Remove the meat, and repeat steps with second batch of meat.

Place beef over the watercress.

Combine salt, pepper and lime juice in a small sauce ramekin. Serve beef with lime dipping sauce.


Kinch says: "To me, oysters are nature's perfect food. In season I have to try and keep a couple of preparations on the menu. This is a prepared oyster dish (pictured left) that is served chilled, and it is very wine-friendly. It is also an oyster dish that gets better the next day after you make it and can be prepared in advance."


  • 40 medium oysters
  • Juice of 1/2 lemon
  • 100g carrot
  • 100g onion
  • 100g leek
  • Sea salt
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 200ml olive oil, Catalan-style, low acidity
  • 1 small guindilla pepper
  • 40ml sherry vinegar
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Fresh ground black pepper, butcher's grind
  • 3tbs chives, minced

For the oyster froth

  • Oyster water plus still mineral water to equal 200ml
  • 5g lecithin
  • Lemon juice to taste
  • Salt


Open the oysters and reserve the liquid. Season with lemon juice.

Cut a brunoise of carrots, onions and leeks. Blanch them separately and chill in ice water. Keep in water with a touch of salt.

Brown the garlic clove in a little of the oil. When it is golden, add the rest of the oil, the guindilla, salt, pepper and bay leaf. Add the vinegar and take off the fire and allow to cool. Poach the oysters in their liquid until the edges just start to curl.

Add the oysters and their liquid to the escabèche with the vegetables. Stir in the minced chives. Marinate in a cool place. It can be refrigerated but allow to come to room temperature before serving.

Oyster froth

Gently warm the oyster water and blend in the lecithin. Season to taste with salt and lemon juice.

To serve: place five oysters in a bowl and arrange them attractively. Spoon over some of the escabèche along with the vegetables as if dressing with a vinaigrette.

Froth the oyster juice with a hand-held blender or wand and spoon the froth on and around the oysters. Serve immediately.


Humphries says: "This soup has been on the menu at Martini House since we opened, but after the first year I decided to take it off in the summer since it was so hot. A customer came up to the kitchen window and asked with great disappointment: ‘Where's your soup? I drove an hour for lunch so I could have it!' I have left it on the menu ever since and it is our biggest selling item."

INGREDIENTS (Serves four)

  • 175g butter
  • 2 shallots (sliced)
  • 220g button mushrooms
  • 60g dried porcini (rehydrated in warm water for 1 hour)
  • 75ml marsala
  • 75ml white wine
  • 500ml single cream
  • 300ml milk
  • 1tsp Banyuls vinegar
  • 1 cup brioche croûtons, 1/4in dice
  • 60g butter
  • 1tbs finely chopped chives
  • 4tbs sour cream or crème fraîche


In a sauté pan, melt the butter and lightly toast the brioche croûtons to golden brown. Reserve croûtons for soup garnish.

Sweat shallots in butter until translucent, add button mushrooms and drained, rehydrated porcini and stew until almost all of the liquid is gone. Deglaze with the marsala and white wine. Reduce until dry. Cover mushrooms with cream and milk. Bring to a simmer. Cook, stirring, for 20 minutes.

Purée soup in a blender until smooth. You may strain or leave chunky. Season with the Banyuls vinegar, salt and pepper. Divide the soup among four bowls and garnish with sour cream chives and the croûtons.

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