Category Archives: “Take Five” Q&A

Take Five with “Top Chef Masters” Contender Suvir Saran, on His Upcoming Bay Area Appearance with the Food Gal

New York Chef Suvir Saran. (Photo by Jim Franco)

If you’ve been tuning in to this season’s “Top Chef Masters’’ on Bravo TV, you’ve probably already discovered not only how charismatic, but candid Chef Suvir Saran can be.

The 38-year-old, executive chef/owner of award-winning Devi in New York City will tell you he’s probably one of the most frank chefs you’ll ever meet. (Wait till you hear what he thinks of Zagat and Yelp.) That forthrightness, coupled with an energetic and telegenic presence, has made him a favorite speaker at seminars. See for yourself when he joins yours truly on stage at 7 p.m. April 29 for a lively Q&A session at the India Community Center in Milpitas. Tickets are $50 for ICC members; and $55 for non-members. Executive Chef Vittal Shetty of Amber India in San Jose will prepare signature hors d’oeuvres inspired by Saran’s recipes.

Saran’s South Bay appearance will be in conjunction with Dining Out for Life Silicon Valley,’’ which is part of an annual  national campaign, in which participating restaurants raise money for those living with HIV/AIDS. Proceeds from the Silicon Valley event will support the Health Trust AIDS Services, which helps more than 800 people in Santa Clara County with hot meal delivery, food baskets, and housing assistance.

Forty restaurants in 12 Silicon Valley cities will donate at least 25 percent of their food sales on April 28 to that organization. For more details, click here. Saran also will be making a surprise appearance that evening at four South Bay restaurants, so keep your eyes peeled.

Additionally, at 12:30 p.m. April 29, Saran will present a talk about healthy cooking at the Health Trust Food Basket in San Jose. He will be joined by cookbook author and legendary restaurateur, Joyce Goldstein, who was an early pioneer in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Advance reservations are required by emailing Jon Breen at

Devi's mung bean chaat. (Photo by Ben Fink)

Lastly, Saran is not only donating four dinners for two at Devi, but also donating his time to cook a meal for eight at a private home in the Bay Area. These items will be auctioned off online on the Health Trust’s Web site to the highest bidders, starting at midnight May 5.

Last week, I had a chance to chat by phone with him about what brought him to the United States at age 20, and what he thinks of the state of Indian food here.

Q: Why is ‘Dining Out for Life’ a cause near and dear to you?

A: I lost many friends to HIV/AIDS. My partner of nine years is a big civil rights person. He’s always yelling and screaming, and I realized that a voice demanding humanity was important in American society.

Most people take it for granted that we live in a democracy and everything is perfect. I have to be a champion of underdogs. I owe it to every underdog to speak up for them.

Q: Devi was the first and only Indian restaurant in the United States to earn a Michelin star. What did that honor mean to you?

A: That I should commit suicide now that they’ve taken it away after two years. (laughs) It was an honor. It was a wonderful thing. We got it at the top of our game. Then, it was taken from us. Since my business partner and I had a separation, we are now back at our prime. Who knows? Maybe next year, we’ll get it back again.

We had it two years in a row. It was a luxury. I don’t take it for granted. I look it as a sweet gift bestowed us on by powers that be. It’s not like those worthless Zagat ratings, which have no value in my mind.

Q: I’m almost afraid to ask what you think of Yelp?

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Take Five with Pastry Chef Rodney Cerdan of the Village Pub, On His Candy-Filled Childhood

Rodney Cerdan, executive pastry chef of the Village Pub, who is never far away from a good cookie.

Rodney Cerdan is a very dangerous man.

If left to his own devices, he will ply you with chocolate honey mousse cake, peanut butter brownie bars with fluffs of toasted marshmallow, chewy almond cookies and bags of homemade sticky caramels to no surrender.

He can’t help himself. As executive pastry chef of the Village Pub in Woodside, Cerdan, 33, has been baking since he was 7, when he’d commandeer his Mom’s toaster oven before taking on the full-size one.

After stints at Roy’s Restaurant in San Francisco, Delessio’s Market in Bakery in San Francisco, and Bi-Rite Creamery and Bakeshop in San Francisco, Cerdan took over the head pastry job at the Village Pub in October 2010.

Recently, I had a chance to try a sampling of his newest desserts (about $10 each) on the house that reference homey favorites, but have been reborn with contemporary flair. They included a fluffy, airy chocolate honey mousse cake with spicy ginger ice cream; and a Meyer lemon pudding cake with an ethereal texture made all the more luxurious with dollops of lush white chocolate.

Cerdan's chocolate honey mousse cake with ginger ice cream and ginger chocolate bark.

Cerdan, who is of Spanish-Basque and El Salvadoran heritages, joined me at the table to chat about his failed attempt at an acting career, what it was like to grow up with a mom who worked at See’s Candies, and what his all-time favorite dessert is.

Q: Your Mom wrapped candies at See’s. That must be every kid’s fantasy, right?

A: She used to bring home 10-pound boxes. The fruit-filled chocolates were always my favorite. I used to take a knife to the bottom of each candy until I found the ones that I was looking for.

I got pretty good at identifying them just by sight. But it’s been awhile. I’m not sure I could do it now. I’d have to brush up on it.

Q: When you were 7 years old, you wanted an Easy-Bake oven?

A: Yes, but I couldn’t have one. But I found that the toaster oven was better. There was none of that pushing a tiny pan under a light bulb.

I would grab a box of Bisquick and make all the recipes. Then, I’d make my own coffee cakes and pigs in a blanket. I made my own pasta at 9.

I’d watch all the PBS cooking shows, especially Julia Child and ‘Yan Can Cook.’

Q: So was this how your love for baking started?

A: My Mom would come home smelling of chocolate and vanilla. That pretty much did it. (laughs)

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Take Five with Bill Corbett, the Pastry Chef Who Dreamed of Being a Heavy Metal Musician

Absinthe's Bill Corbett dishes on how he became a pastry chef. (Photo courtesy of the restaurant)

If you think Executive Pastry Chef Bill Corbett of Absinthe Brasserie & Bar in San Francisco has always dreamed of making desserts, you’d be wrong. If you think he enjoys indulging in dessert on his days off, you’d be wrong about that, too. And if you think he can’t get enough of deep, dark chocolate, well, you’d be striking out three for three.

Despite those contrarian characteristics, Corbett, a native of Waterloo, Canada, has done all right for himself. Indeed, the 36-year-old, who probably would have been a heavy metal musician if he’d had his druthers, has made quite the name for himself, having worked at such esteemed establishments as WD-50 in New York, Michael Mina restaurant in San Francisco, and Coi, also in San Francisco.

Recently, I had a chance to sit down with Corbett at Absinthe, where he started in January to oversee the sweets there, as well as at Arlequin Café and Comstock Saloon. I also had a chance to try a couple of his elegant desserts: an Earl Grey pavlova with vivid mint ice cream, and a modern take on German chocolate cake with coconut foam that totally changed my mind about the traditionally too-gooey version.

Corbett's German Chocolate Cake. (Photo by Carolyn Jung)

Q: What brought you to the United States?

A: I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do for a living when I was a kid. I was into music, especially punk music. I worked in a video store in Canada. When it closed, a friend got a job as a dishwasher at a restaurant. So, I did, too.

I’d still love to be in a band now. If I could be in a heavy metal band, I’d do it in a heart beat. But I’d have to set aside time to actually learn to play an instrument. (laughs)

I moved to Florida from Canada, because I had friends in bands there. I had no work visa and only $800 in my pocket. So, I worked at a café in Tampa and was paid under the table. It was called the 7th Heaven Psychic Café. We served salads and sandwiches, and there were psychic readings.

Q: Seriously?

A: Seriously.

Florida was where I met my wife, too. I ended up moving to Toronto for a year to work in an all-you-can-eat buffet place. But then I moved to New York because my wife was going to school there. She’s a graphic artist.

I started to realize that I couldn’t just collect a paycheck, even if it meant I could buy records. And the more I learned about cooking, the more I started to really love it.

Q: Why did you decide to focus on the sweet side, rather than the savory one?

A: Forced into it is probably the wrong way to put it. (laughs) I wanted to cook. I was trying to get into culinary school in the United States. I could work here, but I couldn’t get loans here.

I was working at a bar in Brooklyn when I was 28. One day, a woman told me that Lincoln Carson, who is now the corporate pastry chef for Michael Mina, had a place and that I should go do a stage there. I barely knew what ‘stage’ meant. The fact was that nobody wanted to hire me because I had no culinary school training and no New York experience.

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Take Five with Chef Grant Achatz, on His New Memoir Chronicling His Brave Battle Against Tongue Cancer

Grant Achatz's new book. (Photo courtesy of Penguin)

Next is the prophetic name of the new restaurant expected to open this spring in Chicago by acclaimed chef, Grant Achatz, of the James Beard Award-winning, Michelin three-starred Alinea.

Like his first Chicago ground-breaking sanctum to molecular gastronomy, Next also will challenge and provoke the defiinition of what a restaurant is by completely reinventing itself every three months with period-themed menus and decor, along with an audacious non-refundable ticketing system as the only option to snag a table there.

It’s bold. It’s daring. And it’s a miracle that it’s even possible.

After all, if you know Achatz’s story, you already realize that the odds were stacked against him far higher than the city’s iconic Sears Tower when he was diagnosed with tongue cancer four years ago at age 32. By the time it was caught, his squamous cell carcinoma was at stage 4. There is no stage 5.

Doctors told this chef and father of two young sons that he would die a painful death in mere months if he didn’t undergo radical surgery to remove his tongue and part of his jaw, which would leave him disfigured, unable to talk and without the ability to taste. Despite conventional thinking, Achatz decided to gamble on an alternative, experimental and brutal treatment of intensive, targeted chemotherapy and radiation that ended up saving his life.

His stunning story is recounted in his new memoir, “Life, on the Line: A Chef’s Story of Chasing Greatness, Facing Death, and Redefining the Way We Eat’’ (Penguin), which debuts March 3.

You can meet Achatz on March 17 in San Francisco, when he and his business partner and co-writer, Nick Kokonas will be signing copies of the book at 12:30 p.m. at Book Passage in the Ferry Building. Later that day, 5 p.m. to 6 p.m., they will also sign books at Omnivore in San Francisco. The talk they will hold afterward at Omnivore sold out days after it was announced.

Last week, I had a chance to talk by phone with Achatz on what it was like to reveal so much about himself in this book; his relationship with rival Chicago chef, Charlie Trotter; and his feelings on who might portray him in the feature film-version of his memoir, which may be directed, surprisingly, by David Dobkin of “Wedding Crashers” fame.

Q: Has your sense of taste returned fully now?

A: I believe so. Taste is a funny thing, though. If you go to an ophthalmologist, they can tell if your eyes aren’t working correctly. They can give you a prescription for glasses or contacts. Same with hearing. But taste is something you can’t measure.

To me, at least in my memory, my tasting ability is the same as it was pre-cancer. I would even argue that certain aspects resulting from the treatment helped me to taste better now. It doesn’t have to do with the physiology of it. It’s the mental thing. It’s learning what taste is and how it’s composed.

My ability to taste came back in pieces. I was down to under 130 pounds and I never used to drink coffee with sugar in it. But I did then to get calories. I’d put three giant tablespoons of sugar in my coffee. One day, I took a sip and I could actually taste the sugar. Up to that point, I couldn’t taste sweet at all. Then, three months later, I’d drink my coffee and say, ‘Damn, this coffee tastes bitter.’ And so, I could taste bitterness again. Having tastes come back in stages like that really teaches you about how they all relate to one another as they come together on the palate and function in relation to one another. It was a very informative process. I wouldn’t recommend it, though. (laughs) But it works for me.

Alinea's hazelnut yogurt, curry saffron, freeze-dried corn in edible tube. (Photo courtesy of Penguin)

Q: How did your fight against cancer change you as a person and as a chef? Do you look at life differently now?

A: It does make you look at life differently. You have to make fundamental decisions. Different people handle things differently. Some people might say, ‘I need to reprioritize my life, spend more time with loved ones, and work less.’ When you face mortality, you undergo a self-evaluation of your life. I’m pretty happy with my life. I didn’t feel like I had to change anything. How lucky am I to get to go to work for 14-16 hours a day to do something I love? I probably do focus more now on my two young boys. And I make a more time now for relatives, and for my girlfriend. But on a whole, I really didn’t change anything.

I don’t think it made me more driven. My trajectory pre-cancer was such that I think I would be exactly what I am now even if the cancer had never happened.

Q: Did you ever think, ‘Why me?’

A: I had maybe a couple moments of that. But it was not a consistent feeling.

In the book, I reveal how I was sitting on the couch with my mother and she started to cry and I started to cry. She asked me what was wrong. And I thought, ‘What’s wrong??!’ I guess you could call it self-pity. I guess it was then that I thought it was unfair, that I was too young for all of this, that this was supposed to happen to old people. There was a sense of helplessness. That was my low point. I did nothing to deserve this. I wasn’t a chain-smoker; I wasn’t an alcoholic. So, I did ask myself, ‘Why me?’ It was probably only twice. That time with my mother and then when I was sitting with Heather (Sperling, his girlfriend who is the editor of the Tasting Table Chicago e-newsletter) after the diagnosis. I felt bad for her and for my boys.

Q: In the book, you state that your experience in working at the French Laundry in Yountville as a young cook essentially helped save your life. Can you expound on that?

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Take Five with Yigit Pura, On His Sweet Victory on “Top Chef Just Desserts”

Yigit Pura dishes on his victory in "Top Chef Just Desserts.'' (Photo courtesy of Pura)

If you tuned into the insanely wild first season of Bravo TV’s “Top Chef Just Desserts,’’ you know that Yigit Pura brought sweet victory home to San Francisco. The executive pastry chef of Taste Catering and Event Planning triumphed over formidable challenges and plenty of histrionics to win a cool $100,000.

A native of Turkey, Pura has felt at home in the kitchen ever since he was a tot, helping his mom make dark caramel and other sugary goodies. Self-taught, he worked in New York at Le Cirque 2000 and Restaurant Daniel, before moving to San Francisco, where he now works on a variety of events that range in scale from a dinner for eight in a private home to a Major League Baseball fete for 5,000 people. Following his win, the board of supervisors even proclaimed Nov. 17 as “Yigit Pura Day’’ in the city.

This week, I had a chance to talk to the 30-year-old Pura, about life before, during and after the show.

Q: I’ve watched ‘Top Chef’’ since its inception and I have to say I’ve never seen such drama as on ‘Top Chef Just Desserts.’ Is the world of pastry really that over-the-top?

A: (laughs) Pastry chefs tend to be more meticulous creatures, and with that comes a need for more of a sense of control. We’re definitely more eccentric than the savory side.

Q: Why did you want to do the show?

A: I got approached by Bravo. I had always watched ‘Top Chef,’ so it was a tempting offer. I couldn’t say ‘No.’ I thought it would be an interesting platform to showcase pastry chefs’ work instead of just having it be an afterthought after the savory courses, as it usually is.

For one of the challenges, Pura created this elegant hazelnut dacquoise with milk jam and salted caramel ice cream. (Photo courtesy of Bravo TV)

Q: What was the hardest challenge?

A: There were a few of them. The ‘Celebritea’ challenge, where we had to create a dessert based on a celebrity couple. (Pura chose Madonna and Guy Ritchie.) I had a hard time grasping that in my core. I felt I wasn’t in my body then. After the restaurant wars challenge, I was a mess. I tend to be pretty grounded, but with the lack of sleep, I just felt the floodgates open. It was definitely not my finest moment. But I finally was able to channel all of that to just get re-inspired in the competition.

Q: What surprised you most about doing the show?

A: I tend to plan things a lot in my work when I create recipes and do events. Confronted with such time constraints and limitations on the show, I was amazed I could be so spontaneous under such conditions.

Q: Of all your competitors, whose pastries/desserts would you most want to eat on your day off?

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