Chefs Talk About Bringing Inspiration to the Menu at the Symrise-Star Chefs San Francisco Roundtable
November’s roundtable discussions, hosted by Symrise in San Francisco, revealed a few trends, including an urge to look to the past for inspiration and, at the same time, to tell your own, unique story and introduce diners to something new ingredients, techniques, or flavors. The esteemed group of chefs and mixologists shared their thoughts on how to do just that.
Chef Mourad set off on this topic when he joked, “When [Chris Cosentino] opened Cockscomb, I really thought that he was a genius because it basically gave him carte blanche to do whatever he wanted. He could do whatever—San Francisco is a melting pot!”
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It’s true, Cosentino agrees. He was attracted to San Francisco because of its unique culinary landscape, which evolved from many different cultures and he wanted to be able to draw on all of them. “Chop suey was created here, green goddess, hangtown fry, pisco punch, celery victor, cioppino.” All of these dishes evolved in San Francisco, but they drew on the native cuisines of the cooks who migrated here from all over the world.
“We have this mish mosh of cuisines here, but when I moved here, everybody was focusing on one particular region,” Cosentino says. “It’s really fun to branch out and do whatever I want.” But all of the chefs agreed that whatever you do, you have to put it in a context that the diner feels comfortable with.
“You have to look at any ingredient that you work with and ask yourself, from your perspective, what is the best way to make that ingredient shine?” Says Mourad. But, he warned, “It is not just a matter of being cute or different. You have to ask yourself, how can I use this to tell my story to the diners?”
Cosentino agrees. “We want to push limits, make delicious food, but it has to be something that guests are willing to try. I really try to focus on the history aspect first, but I always say put the familiar with the unfamiliar and that gets people to be more comfortable. Put bacon with anything and people will try it.”
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“A lot of us are trying to find a niche where we can survive and secure an audience,” Mourad says. “You have to be creative and tell people a story they haven’t heard before. I have an advantage and [Val] has an advantage. Val is telling his own story about Mexican food that no one else can tell. I’m doing the same thing with Moroccan food.”
Cosentino asserts that there are “a million ways to get there. I create dishes that will make people talk and have fun.”
“We have a dish called Tripe a la Cannes,” Cosentino says. “It’s called that because it’s from Cannes, France, obviously,” Cosentino says, “But we serve it in can with a Campbell’s Soup-style label.” Likewise, many other dishes on his menu involve clever plays on words or other twists. “It’s all about being jovial and letting the guests have a good time.”
“A lot of time my goal is specifically to not replicate anything that I see anywhere else,” Cosentino continues. He tells the story of how is then 9-year-old son asked him why there was no ham in a hamburger. “Now we have a dish on the menu called the ‘ham’ burger.” And it’s made of—you guess it—ham.
Alicia Walton keeps her cocktail list on the classic side, but aims to make her cocktails extraordinary by by focusing on ingredients with “awesome flavor profiles.”
“Whatever ingredient I’m working with,” she says, “I drink it slowly and try to just figure out what’s in there that I like. I’ll also ask myself what’s not there that I want to taste? For instance, you get no heat at all from aperol, but what would happen if you put chile in it? So I’ll just try it.”
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“I want to be as authentic as possible, but I also want it to be approachable. I want people to see the drink on the menu and say, ‘Oh, wow, that sounds delicious.’” Walton says. “It’s a tough balance between wanting to do stuff that’s new and fresh, and also realizing that you have new customers who will still be wowed by the old stuff.”
At the end of the day, the chef’s agree, what diners really want is a connection with the person creating their food.
“It has to come from the heart. The moment that the soul is lost in what people are doing, you can taste it,” Cosentino says.