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Take Five with Chef Annie Somerville of Greens, the Pioneering Vegetarian Restaurant that Just Turned the Big 30

Friday, 26. February 2010 5:20

An upscale vegetarian restaurant, constructed of recycled and reclaimed wood, which grows much of its own organic produce and buys the rest from local farmers.

Sounds standard now, doesn’t it? But in 1979, when Greens Restaurant opened its doors at Fort Mason in San Francisco, vegetarian food was anything but elegant and refined. Opened by the San Francisco Zen Center in what was an old Army base, the tranquil restaurant with its sweeping views of the Bay, elevated the then-heavy and heavily brown-colored vegetarian cooking of the day to new heights by even daring to serve wine.

Its building was constructed by carpenters from the Zen Center, including lead designer Paul Discoe, an ordained Zen Buddhist priest, who later went on to design Oracle CEO Larry Ellison’s much-ballyhooed Zen palace in Woodside.

The restaurant may have just gotten spiffed up with new carpet, new slate entry tiles, a warmer paint color and new chairs on the way. But one thing has remained the same. For 28 of the restaurant’s 30 years, one woman has been a constant in the kitchen — Chef Annie Somerville, who took over from founding chef, Deborah Madison.

The slender, energetic, 57-year-old Somerville chatted with me recently about the restaurant’s amazing longevity; why she doesn’t own a cell phone; and what fellow chef and avowed carnivore, Chris Cosentino of Incanto, thinks of her.

Q: Are you surprised Greens has endured all these years?

A: When we shut down for the remodel, I had a chance to go through all these old articles in a filing cabinet. When you read the early reviews, you see how shocked people were that vegetarian food could be so beautiful and that it could be a cuisine in its own right.

I’ll look at recipes we haven’t done in awhile and think, ‘Wow, we’ve been doing that so long and others are making it now.’ It’s all so timely, and we’re still around.

Q: And this is the first restaurant you’ve ever worked at?

A: I never thought I’d be here, and I never thought it would last. The restaurant opened with very little money. We all worked for very little. We had to be thrifty.

Back then, I thought the people working here were crazy. (laughs) They were all so tired. They were dragging. But everybody did everything. A Zen master might be the dishwasher. And we’d all hose off the mats at the end of the night.

Q: When did you become vegetarian?

A: In high school. It was the thing to do at the time.

I don’t think of it in a strict way. I’m not a vegan or a strident vegetarian. Occasionally, I’ll still eat a little chicken or fish. I think the reason Greens has been here so long is because it does beautiful food. I don’t think of it as vegetarian.

Q: Did becoming a vegetarian change your palate?

A: My palate became more rarefied because we have all these great ingredients to cook with. I’m also much more aware of salt now because I eat almost no processed foods.

I don’t think most of our guests here are vegetarian, but we have no way of knowing for sure. For some vegetarians, Greens is not vegetarian enough because we use butter, we use cheese, and there is rennet in the European cheeses we serve. Over the years, I think our food has gotten leaner. Deborah’s cooking was influenced by French cuisine, so there was roux, and butter in sauces. Nowadays, though, we sauté in oil and finish dishes with butter, so people can opt to have it or not.

Q: What’s your ideal meal?

A: At home the other night, I had Romanesco cauliflower that I cut into pieces, and roasted at 400 degrees with olive oil and pepper until they were crisp, then squirted on some Meyer lemon juice. Then, I made some polenta with butter and Parmesan. Next, I sautéed a big head of chard with green garlic and spring onions. There was a nice toasted walnut bread with Andante cheese. For dessert, there were organic almonds, dates and mandarins from the farmers’ market. My husband and I sat down to all of that, and it was lovely. Everything we ate was grown by someone I knew.

Q: Does it irk you when folks like Anthony Bourdain deride vegetarians as the scourge of the planet?

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Take Five with “Top Chef” Contestant Kevin Gillespie, On the Impact of TV Fame

Tuesday, 24. November 2009 5:20

Chef Kevin Gillespie of "Top Chef'' grills up succulent pork belly in South Carolina last weekend.

Only four remain.

As Season 6 of Bravo TV’s wildly popular “Top Chef” show winds to a close, Atlanta’s Kevin Gillespie still remains standing. Executive chef and partner of Woodfire Grill, the poised 27-year-old has held himself above the dramatics and hi-jinks exhibited by some of his other competitors. He makes no apologies for his food being simple. Indeed, his longevity just shows that food needn’t be fussy to be spectacular.

I caught up with Gillespie this weekend when I was invited to attend the third annual “Tyler Florence’s Palmetto Bluff Lowcountry Celebration” at the serene, sumptuous Inn at Palmetto Bluff in South Carolina.

Clearly a fan favorite, he was mobbed by well-wishers as he manned the grill, where he was turning out smoky pork belly served with pickled apples and a pureed peanut sauce. Talk about a succulent dish with true Southern twang.

Kevin's grilled pork belly with pickled apples and a zippy peanut sauce.

Everyone wanted to ask him if he ended up winning “Top Chef.” But he remained mum. You’ll just have to keep watching to find out how much farther he gets.

Q: Kevin, how did you get involved with “Top Chef”?

A: They came to me about it. I had to really think about it. I had not really watched the show before, and I feared TV would cheapen what I was doing, that it would add this novelty aspect to it.

Q: How has being on the show changed your life?

A: It’s made the restaurant significantly busier. We’ve had a 330 percent increase in revenue. We didn’t even think that was possible.

The celebrity part is crazy. I was surprised how much people like the show. People really care, and it’s nice to see how much they want to see someone who believes in food succeed. I think it’s also spurred a lot of people to be interested in something they had long forgotten. Television has given people like myself a vehicle to say what they think about food. You have to use it as a vehicle to help shape young people.

Q: Do you like the way you’ve been portrayed on TV?

A: I had a generous portrayal. They didn’t create a person who didn’t exist. I’m not a person who talks negative about others. I’m very purposeful. I think it’s given me credibility on the show.

Q: What surprised you most about doing the show?

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Take Five With Masaharu Morimoto, On His New Svelte Figure and New Napa Restaurant

Tuesday, 17. November 2009 5:15

A trim Chef Masaharu Morimoto. (Photo courtesy of the Food Network)

Masaharu Morimoto, the star of the original Japanese “Iron Chef” and the newer Food Network version, “Iron Chef America,” may be sporting a trimmer physique these days. But the celebrated chef, who was born in Hiroshima, Japan, is still one commanding presence.

Morimoto visited the Napa Valley last weekend for the 12th annual “Worlds of Flavor” conference at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena, the theme of which this year was “World Street Food, World Comfort Food.” The chef, who was there to do cooking demonstrations, drew crowds wherever he went, especially at the marketplace, where his crew cooked up okonomiyaki (a Japanese savory pancake layered with noodles, pork and a fried egg) and takoyaki (a Japanese octopus donut hole).

During a break, I had a chance to talk with the 54-year-old chef about his sixth restaurant that will open next summer in the Wine Country — Morimoto Napa.

Q: What made you choose Napa as opposed to San Francisco for your restaurant?

A: Two years ago, I came here for the “Worlds of Flavor” conference. It was my first time in Napa. I liked it. It is a special place. It’s a culinary place.

Q: What will Morimoto Napa be like?

A: Thomas Schoos, who did Tao in Las Vegas, is the designer. There will be three components — a fine-dining room with a sushi bar and omakase, a late-night lounge, and a retail store. People will be able to buy fish and Wagyu beef from Japan to take home to cook. We may sell bento box lunches and do catering for parties, too.

Q: Will the restaurant look like a piece of Japan? Or a piece of Napa?

A: It will look like a piece of Morimoto.

Morimoto supervises his crew at the "Worlds of Flavor'' conference.

Cooking up a Japanese savory pancake.

Tender octopus donuts get flipped so they're golden all around.

Q: With so many restaurants already, how often will people expect to see you actually in the Napa restaurant?

A: I will be there as much as I can.

Q: Will we be buying a place to live here? Perhaps a house with its own vineyard to make Morimoto wine?

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Take Five with Chef Charles Phan, On His “Iron Chef America” Battle

Wednesday, 4. November 2009 5:18

Charles Phan battles on "Iron Chef America'' this Sunday. (Photo courtesy of the Food Network)

With his outrageously popular Slanted Door restaurant, three Out the Door eateries, Heaven’s Dog, and the Academy of Sciences cafe — all of them in San Francisco — it’s hard to believe Chef Charles Phan has time to do much of anything else.

But somehow the 47-year-old chef, who’s ethnically Chinese and a native of Vietnam, found time to go mano-a-mano and burner-to-burner with Cat Cora on “Iron Chef America.”

Filmed in July 2008, that episode finally will air 10 p.m. Nov. 8.

I had a chance to talk with Phan yesterday about his surprising appearance on the show, given his aversion to doing TV.

Q: Ahem. So, I was witness to you saying on a panel in San Francisco earlier this year that you hate being photographed and you hate being on TV. So what gives?

A: Yeah, I do hate it. (laughs) But I kind of have to do it, because it’s my work. The Food Network approached me about doing it. It’s a national show and a chance to show off Vietnamese cooking.

Q: How did it go?

A: It was fine. I didn’t get too stressed out about it. I did the show with my chefs from Slanted Door. Getting the food plated was a challenge. We usually don’t plate individually like that. We normally serve family-style. So we were out of our realm a little bit. But it was OK.

Q: What surprised you most?

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Take Five with Momofuku’s David Chang, On the Flap Over “Fig-Gate”

Friday, 30. October 2009 3:30

Chef David Chang gets ready to take on San Francisco. (Photo courtesy of Gabriele Stabile)

Think what you will of hotter-than-Hades New York chef sensation, David Chang.

He’ll be the first to say he doesn’t give a crap — with a carefully placed f-bomb for emphasis, of course.

But the 32-year-old chef-owner of the phenomenal Momofuku restaurants in Manhattan, who formerly cooked at New York’s esteemed Café Boulud, has sure ignited a firestorm in the Bay Area.

Who knew a comment about figs would prompt such a ruckus?

In case you missed it, earlier this month at the New York Wine & Food Festival, Chang was onstage with the irrepressible Anthony Bourdain. Knocking back beers, the two were pontificating on their personal likes and dislikes in the culinary world. That’s when Chang reportedly said, “F*****g every restaurant in San Francisco is just serving figs on a plate. Do something with your food.”

Well, in San Francisco, those were interpreted as some serious fighting words.

The Northern California chapter of the Asia Society abruptly canceled a planned Nov. 8 appearance by Chang at E&O Trading Co. in San Francisco. He was scheduled to appear at the event with a number of other prominent Asian-American Bay Area chefs, one of whom withdrew after Chang made that comment.

Indeed, what was supposed to be a simple stop to promote his first cookbook, “Momofuku” (Clarkson Potter), one of the most anticipated releases of the year, has turned into a rather highly charged situation because of the supposed dissing of San Francisco.

Chang still intends to make other book-signing appearances here. You can meet him Nov. 4, when he’ll be appearing with his co-author, New York Times writer Peter Meehan; as well as Chris Cosentino of Incanto restaurant in San Francisco; and Christopher Kostow of the Restaurant at Meadowood in St. Helena. The 7 p.m. event at Café du Nord organized by 7×7 magazine is free. To reserve a spot, email: events@7×7.com with “Changtastic” in the subject line.

The new cookbook.

Additionally, Chang and Meehan will appear 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Nov. 5 at Williams-Sonoma on Union Square in San Francisco; 11 a.m. Nov. 7 at Sur La Table in the San Francisco Ferry Building; 4 p.m. Nov. 7 at Kepler’s in Menlo Park with David Kinch of Los Gatos’ Manresa; and noon Nov. 8 at Omnivore Books in San Francisco with Jeremy Fox of Napa’s Unbuntu.

At Omnivore, they’re already jesting about putting out a plate of fresh figs for the occasion.

You can’t blame Chang for being sick of talking about it all. But he was kind enough to indulge me when I chatted with him by phone yesterday.

Q: Do you regret the fig comment? Or do you think people in the Bay Area just need to lighten up?

A: I don’t regret it. It was said and people took it out of context. People are overly sensitive. I am not trying to piss anyone off. But if they are pissed off, maybe there’s some truth behind it

What I said was a generalization. Not every restaurant is serving figs on a plate. You guys have great produce. It seems like every restaurant tries to follow that road. Anyone that challenges that gets trampled on. It’s great that there is Zuni and Chez Panisse and Oliveto, which take that approach. It seems, though, that many in San Francisco are not that open to expanding beyond that family tree.

But the fact that we’re still talking about this is ridiculous. It’s so silly. It’s so dumb.

Q: Bourdain and others have criticized Alice Waters of Chez Panisse for being overly strident about organics. Does that put you in a delicate position since Alice is fond of you and been a friend to you?

A: She’s the face of the movement. At the end of the day, everyone is after the same goal — a world where everyone eats well. Alice is providing the ideal. You need someone to provide the utopian concept. And she doesn’t have a mean bone in her body.

I can understand both sides of the coin. For me, I know Alice’s intent, and whether people agree or disagree, it’s not for me to judge. I will support her no matter what she needs from me. People can criticize her, but she’s trying, and she’s trying to do something in which the end goal is a good thing.

I can totally understand Tony’s position, too. I can still be a friend to both Tony and Alice. You can have a friend who may not like another one of your friends. Like Tony f*****g hates Alan Richman (award-winning food writer for GQ magazine), but I get along with Richman.

Q: So with all this hoopla, do you feel like you should be coming into town wearing a flak jacket in case you’re pelted with figs?

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