One of the best meals I’ve had this year can’t be experienced again.
Not in all its totality.
It was on Sept. 4 at San Francisco’s tony Fifth Floor restaurant, on what was the last night that Executive Chef Jennie Lorenzo was in the kitchen.
Although, I had eaten at the Fifth Floor a few times over the past few years under the reign of other top toques, I had yet to make it in there to try Lorenzo’s cooking. I had planned on doing so some day. But some day came all too unexpectedly when Lorenzo emailed me that week, inviting me to come in as her guest, as she was about to depart the restaurant after cooking there on and off for five and a half years.
My husband, who is happy enough with a burger and gets jaded after one too many fancy tasting menus, sat back in his chair that night, looked me square in the eyes, and said emphatically after only the second course, “I am SO glad we came. This is really good.”
How good? Even our server, who had worked with Lorenzo for the past few years, came in to dine on his day off a few days before because he wanted to experience Chef Lorenzo’s dazzling cooking one last time before she left.
You might be scratching your head right now, thinking how it’s possible you’ve never heard of this talented, 35-year-old Filipino-American, who has worked for some of the most legendary chefs in the United States, Europe and Japan. It’s not your fault. For whatever reason, Lorenzo never garnered the buzz she should have. She took over right after the restaurant was remodeled — its wild, flashy animal prints toned down to a sleeker, simpler contemporary look. But the public seemed confused about what the restaurant had become. Some thought it still fine-dining; others turned their back, thinking it had morphed into a bistro of all things.
The pity of that.
Especially because Lorenzo decided to leave the restaurant to take a much needed break. Although the restaurant will continue, it’s unclear yet who will be named as her replacement.
I close my eyes and can still taste my dinner that night, so full of finesse and inventive combinations, including a Thai snapper crudo, glistening and clean, next to a scoop of impossibly intense tomato sorbet, the likes of which I’ve never experienced as skillfully done except at the French Laundry.
Next, a rarefied version of a poached egg on crisp salad greens. Only the yolk had been emulsified until silky smooth after being cooked at 64 degrees Celsius. Alongside were nutty, earthy porcinis that were outrageously good. A sprinkle of powdered herbs and powdered brown butter added an unexpected thrill.
Seared foie gras got a surprising crunchy oat crust with brown butter foam and plum sauce. It made me think of a rustic fruit crumble, only made haute with the decadent duck liver.
And one of my favorite dishes of the night — chicken wing cooked sous vide tender, then served with duck liver-mascarpone mousse, teeny champagne grapes, tender pasta and a red wine jus. Think of it as the fanciest chicken wing ever.
Lorenzo, the second female chef to head the Fifth Floor, following Melissa Perello (who went on to open Frances in San Francisco), has worked under the discriminating tutelage of the likes of Gordon Ramsay, Marco Pierre White, Laurent Gras and Hiro Sone in her career. She’s not sure yet what she will do next. But she does plan on returning to cooking, and hopes it will be somewhere in the Bay Area.
I had a chance to talk at length with her recently, about surviving some of the toughest kitchens in the world and her Asian family’s reaction when she first told them she wanted to cook professionally.
Q: So, it’s a given that you will come back to cooking after your break?
A: For sure. It’s something I’ve always enjoyed ever since I was a young age. I grew up in Manila eating things like pigs ears that are now fashionable. And chicken feet and any kind of offal.
I plan on doing some traveling to Asia. I will be eating around a lot, then examining my options. I would like to stay in the Bay Area. I moved here in 2001 and I like San Francisco very much. It’s a small big city. Everything is great. Everything is so convenient. And you have such educated diners.
Last week, I cooked on a bus (Le Truc). (laughs) People made it seem like the sign of the times, that I went from cooking at the Fifth Floor to a bus. But it’s still quality food. It just happens the venue is mobile.
Q: You’re the second born of four children in your family and the only girl. You studied engineering, then international business in college. So, what did your Asian parents think when you told them you were chucking all of that to become a chef?
A: My parents at first were in a bit of shock. In the Philippines, being a chef was not a normal trade to go into. Back then, it wasn’t considered glamorous, either. It was considered a blue-collar job. My family hired cooks to cook for us. They thought, ‘Why are you doing this?’
Later on, I would send them pictures of food I’d made. My Mom, who still lives in the Philippines, also has dined at some of the restaurants where I worked, and that definitely changed her perception of what we do for a living. Mom will Google me every once in a while and say, ‘I read about you.’ Then, ask what is a Michelin star when she saw we had one at the Fifth Floor. She’ll say, ‘Oh! It’s a big deal.’ (laughs)
Q: What attracted you to the profession?
A: I didn’t really learn cooking from my Mom. We didn’t spend a lot of time in the kitchen. It wasn’t like Saturday mornings, baking cookies together. It wasn’t that.
I would just cook something. The first cake I baked was when I was 10. I was at my grandma’s house. There wasn’t much for me to do, so I went into the kitchen to make a cake. My Mom saw it and was so proud. She showed my grandmother. That was when it showed me how rewarding it is. You make something you’re proud of, and you share it with someone and see them so happy. It goes to your soul.
When I was in high school, I would follow recipes out of magazines. Or look on the box of Hershey’s hot cocoa for the chocolate cake recipe. I went to cooking classes for fun when I was a kid. I always enjoyed it. I never thought of doing it professionally until I moved to United States. In Asia, you have fancy restaurants. Here, you have so many different categories of restaurants. It made me think that I could do it.
Q: You’ve worked with an extraordinary list of chefs over the years. I’m going to name a few and I want you to say the first thing that pops into your mind.
Marco Pierre White?
A: Intimidating, especially for a younger cook.
Q: Gordon Ramsay?
A: The same. You almost cook with a little bit of fear. You have to focus, keep your mouth shut and work. It’s a harsher way of training, but it builds a good foundation.
Q: Laurent Gras?
A: Very intense. Out of all of them, I truly enjoyed his cooking the most. He pulls out unusual combinations of things. I picked that up from him. At my cooking at the Fifth Floor, you would often find something on a dish that gave it a twist or made it a little different. You need to find that one thing that ties it all together to make sense. I once did a dish of chicken, muskmelon, yuba and lobster. The two sauces tied it together. You eat it and it makes sense. My sous chef often mentioned that dish — that you can make things happen as long as you can pull it off. It was a surprising dish.
Q: Hiro Sone?
A: He’s very Japanese, but at the same time very American.
Q: His wife, Lissa Doumani?
A: She likes things a certain way — a little more classic in terms of flavor. Both she and Hiro are very adventurous eaters. They’re a blast to go out to eat with. I did that with them in Japan once. It was amazing.
Q: Roland Passot?
A: A very passionate Frenchman in the kitchen.
Q: Laurent Manrique?
A: Very well traveled, with a very good palate.
Q: Was it crazy working for the original enfant terrible chef, Marco Pierre White?
A: He’s something else. Around the time I was cooking at Mirabelle in London, it was toward the end of his cooking in the kitchen. It wasn’t quite the same. Things still ran really tight. I didn’t get quite the treatment that Mario Batali did. Marco had mellowed a bit by then.
Q: So did Gordon Ramsay ever scream that you were a ‘stupid donkey’?
A: On my day off, I watched ‘Boiling Point,’ his first BBC show. I was like, ‘That’s my chef! Holy sh*t.’
After I moved to the United States, whenever I saw his show or heard his voice, I would have to change the channel; my stomach would begin to churn. It was that same voice, yelling at you all over again.
I remember when he got his three Michelin stars. He bought a Ferrari. In that kitchen, it’s like, ‘I don’t speak. I just keep working and working.’ I heard people say Gordon’s new Ferrari was parked outside. But I was too much into keeping my head down and doing my work, so I didn’t go out to look at it.
Q: Any mishaps you still remember?
A: Crab ravioli. The damn crab ravioli. At Gordon’s restaurant, someone sent it back because they found a tiny piece of crab shell in it. Gordon turned around and screamed, ‘Who picked the crab today?!?’ I felt my heart stop for a second. I wasn’t going to deny it. I walked over, and said to him very humbly, ‘It was me, Chef. I picked the crab.’ He said, ‘Be careful! Don’t ever do it again!’ in a stern way. I learned early on that you’re not entitled to any mistakes at all.
Q: Working in such tough environments, did you ever want to quit?
A: No. When I first started cooking, I knew I wanted to do finer cuisine, with more technique. I always knew what my next step would be. I would do research on my next kitchen and work to get into it. So I wanted to be in every kitchen I was in. It was never, ‘This is bullsh*t’ and I never went home crying. It was my choice to be in those kitchens. Therefore, I knew I just had to take it. It was hard, yes, but you keep going. You see your hard work and you see yourself getting better. That’s the payoff.
Q: Why did you always want to do fine dining?
A: I’m the type of person who likes to think. I like the craftsmanship, all the small details and the techniques involved. At the Fifth Floor, everything is weighed out. When we cut the asparagus, it’s precisely 3 ½ inches long. That’s what it has to be. You see markings on our cutting boards. You want to be as consistent as you can be. All my cooks run around with scales. I standardize everything. I think it is a little unusual for a chef to do this. We try to be as accurate as we can be. It’s trying to make it more uniform because with that comes consistency.
Q: Your tasting menu at the Fifth Floor had many courses, yet it wasn’t an exercise in overindulgence.
A: My food is cleaner tasting. For the restaurant, I’d only order a gallon of cream for the week, and we didn’t even use it all. Other chefs would be amazed. How could you use so little cream, they wondered.
Q: Have you ever been able to incorporate your Filipino heritage into your cooking?
A: Not yet. Not really. Filipino food is very rustic, home-style cooking. But it’s funny — a few tables at the Fifth Floor would sometimes eat the pork belly and ask, ‘Is the chef Filipino?’ Filipinos like crispy pork.
Q: So, you’ve cooked on a bus. Any chance we’ll see you come back to cooking by starting up a Filipino taco truck?
A: Some of our cooks at the Fifth Floor used to really enjoy the crudo and foie gras dishes we made there. They used to joke that I should start a crudo or sashimi truck. I don’t see myself doing that just yet. But you never know. (laughs)