Scenes From SF Chefs 2012

Chef Mark Dommen (R) and Chef David Bazirgan (L) begin to plate their lamb dish in the first chef's challenge at SF Chefs.

If you spied the huge white tent pitched in the heart of San Francisco’s Union Square this past weekend, you knew it could only mean one thing:

The arrival of SF Chefs, the annual food-wine-cocktail extravaganza that celebrates the Bay Area’s home-grown culinary culture.

Top chefs, vintners, sommeliers and mixologists descended upon downtown to put on a series of special dinners, wine seminars, panel discussions, and culinary battles before setting up inside the tent to dole out gourmet eats and drinks to throngs of attendees.

Chef Joey Altman’s all-chef band, the Soul Peppers, entertained the hungry crowd.

On the opposing team, Chef Omri Aflalo of Bourbon Steak, readies his dishes.

Earlier that afternoon, the first round of the Eater Chef Challenge took place at the Westin St. Francis Hotel, pitting the team of Mark Sullivan of Spruce in San Francisco and Omri Aflalo of Bourbon Steak in San Francisco against the team of Mark Dommen of One Market Restaurant and David Bazirgan of the Fifth Floor in San Francisco. With an hour on the clock, the two teams had to incorporate lamb and Guittard chocolate into two dishes, which were presented to a panel of judges.

The Sullivan-Aflalo lamb dish.

The Dommen-Bazirgan lamb dish.

As the clock ticked down, the Dommen-Bazirgan team plated their lamb dish with mole flavors, along with chocolate ice cream created with liquid nitrogen. On the opposing side, Sullivan and Aflalo put up their lamb dish with a Moroccan influence, along with chocolate mousse with caramel.

The Dommen-Bazirgan chocolate ice cream made with liquid nitrogen.

The Sullivan-Aflalo chocolate mousse with caramel.

In the end, only two points separated the two teams, with the judges awarding the victory to Dommen and Bazirgan for the more pronounced chocolate flavor in both their dishes. It may have helped that Bazirgan had his wife and 4-month-old son in the audience cheering him on. Bazirgan joked that when his son is ready for his first bite of real food, he plans on it being foie gras, the fattened duck liver product now banned in California.

Chef Joey Altman jamming with his band underneath the big tent.

Here, in photos and text, are highlights from last Friday’s events:

* Sullivan on watching Bazirgan pull out the tank of liquid nitrogen during the cook-off challenge: “No, I don’t use the stuff in my restaurants. I’m deathly afraid of it.”

*Top Chef’‘ alum, Ryan Scott of Market & Rye in San Francisco on his early days, growing up in the Central Valley: “When I was 11, my parents had a restaurant. I saw them go bankrupt, close, lose their house and divorce. And still, I wanted to go into this business.”

* Scott on how he struggled after the Peter Merriman restaurant in Hawaii he worked at closed in the aftermath of 9/11 when tourism plummeted: “I was living in my car, eating two Whoppers a day because I had coupons and only $800 in the bank, and showering at 24-Hour Fitness because it was the only membership I had.” He later staged at Alan Wong’s before heading to the mainland, where he knocked on the backdoor of Gary Danko for weeks on end, until he was allowed to stage there, too.

Chaya's smoked duck breast rolls.

Parallel 37's pork slider on curry brioche bun.

Delfina's sardine crostini.

Plumed Horse's green gazpacho.

* Restaurateur Larry Mindel, on looking back at his career that spawned Poggio in Sausalito, the Il Fornaio chain, as well as Guaymas in Tiberon, MacArthur Park in San Francisco, and the recent Copita in Sausalito with his friend, Chef Joanne Weir: “I’m a restaurant nymphomaniac.”

Baker & Banker's Jeff Banker and Lori Baker.

Baker & Banker's calamari larb lettuce rolls.

Chris Cosentino, dishing up delectable pork charcuterie iwth help from Chef Mourad Lahlou.

Waterbar's linzer cookies with lemon curd and blueberry jam.

* Craig Stoll of Delfina in San Francisco on trying to decide upon a career when he was younger: “I thought about journalism and I thought about cooking, because I was hell-bent on finding a career that paid very little.”

* Stoll on why he was hooked after working as a dishwasher at age 15 at a Florida restaurant: “I loved it because they treated me as an adult — and they gave me beer.”

* Stoll on how he and his wife came up with the money to open Delfina: “I applied for every credit card out there. I don’t want to say it was a Ponzi scheme, but…When we found the spot, which was a former Brazilian cafe, the rent was cheaper than our apartment. So, I figured if it didn’t work out, we could just live there.”

Absinthe's roasted strawberries with tarragon meringue.

Bill Corbett, executive pastry chef of Absinthe.

* Laurence Jossel of Nopa and Nopalito, both in San Francisco, about whether chefs race to use the first ingredients of the season: “I’m sure some chefs do want to be the first to use corn or whatever. Somehow it always seems to be Michael Tusk of Quince, too!”

* Paul Canales, chef-owner of the upcoming Duende in Oakland, on why that doesn’t always make sense: “It’s not always the best stuff at the start of the season. To be a little Oakland, ahem, sometimes the first of the season stuff is sh-t.”

* Jossel on  his respect for farmers: “If it rains or it’s a heatwave, we open our restaurants. We’re fine. But those guys take the risk. It’s hard, tough, nasty work.”

Calafia's pork buns.

Chef Charlie Ayers of Calafia with his crew.

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