“The 21st Century Pastry Chef” SF Panel


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Belinda Leong of b.patisserie, John Birdsall of Chow, Matt Tinder of Coi and the Daniel Patterson Group, Michelle Polzine of 20th Century Café, Nicole Plue of SF Cooking School, and William Werner of Craftsman and Wolves

The San Francisco Cooking School hosted a panel discussion on “The 21st Century Pastry Chef” with several leading Bay Area pastry chefs on August 8, 2013.  The panel was moderated by John Birdsall, senior editor of Chow, and featured Lincoln Carson of the Mina Group, Bill Corbett of the Absinthe Group, Belinda Leong of b.patisserie, Matt Tinder of Coi and the Daniel Patterson Group, Michelle Polzine of 20th Century Café, Nicole Plue of SF Cooking School, and William Werner of Craftsman and Wolves.  All of them are accomplished chefs with great pedigrees, experience, and recognition, working in different segments of the food industry, from Carson over-seeing the pastry program at the 20-restaurant Mina Group, to Werner, Polzine, and Leong with their own recently opened stand-alone pastry shops.

First things first: SF pastry chefs’ thoughts on the massively hyped “cronut” phenomenon in New York.  For those who have not heard of the cronut, it is a pastry created by Dominique Ansel, a very well-respected NYC pastry chef, that consists of a croissant dough shaped into a donut, deep-fried and filled with pastry cream and topped with frosting.  Sounds delicious.  People are lining up for hours before the shop opens, or apparently paying homeless people to stand in line for them, in order to snag one, in part due to coverage not only in food media, but also national media attention as well.  Most of the SF pastry chefs were very congratulatory of Ansel in being able to capture and take advantage of a moment with his creation, which Matt Tinder appreciated as a demonstration of Ansel’s skill with laminated dough.  The three owners of their own shops reported that their customers have asked if they will make a cronut, but none of them have plans to make one.  And despite the hype, Werner felt that any focus on pastry in the national media is good for everyone.

The big question of the night was whether or not pastry chefs were an endangered species.  A lot of the responses had to do with the economics of the restaurant industry.  The pastries and desserts do not bring in as much revenue as the savory side (and may actually lose money), so it’s hard to justify a separate pastry chef (even though that chef might be making “only” $40-45K).  Most customers are coming for the savory side and the chef of the restaurant, and not the desserts.  That said, for fine dining establishments, a pastry program is still essential as part of the complete restaurant experience.  And most of the chefs talked about their passion for cooking as why they are there.

There was also discussion on the  generalization that the west coast is more “produce”-driven, eg David Chang’s infamous “figs on a plate” comment, and east coast is more technique-driven.  Tinder made the point that it he thought it was actually much harder to work with seasonally available fruits and vegetables, as opposed to an ingredient such as, say, chocolate, because of the variability in product quality (need to use refractometers to measure sugar content) and uncertainty over whether something promised from a farm would actually be delivered.

Other notes:

– SF pastry may have in the past best been known for Tartine Bakery’s rustic style, but places like b.patisserie (classic French), Craftsman and Wolves (modern French), and 20th Century (Austro-Hungarian) are moving forward with their own unique styles.

– Favorite under-appreciated ingredient? Corbett, vegetables; Polzine, honey; Werner, macha; Plue, whole wheat flour; Leong, almond flour.  Best response was from Tinder: “plain” yogurt and “plain” ice cream, ie executing a perfect example of a single product in both taste and texture can be a surprise.

– Qualities that the chefs look for in someone who is interested in staging in their kitchens: commitment, respect for the chef’s kitchen and the years they have put in to perfect a recipe, willingness to listen and to own mistakes.

– New cooking school grads want their own shop right away and don’t understand that it takes years to learn the craft and be great and don’t appreciate or even know about pastry chefs who have come before them.  Kids these days!

Overall, it was an informative, thoughtful program from some amazing pastry chefs providing perspective from a range of different backgrounds.  Prior to the discussion there was a dessert bar with absolutely delicious Feve artisan chocolates and pies from PieTisserie in Oakland.

The new San Francisco Cooking School on Van Ness just north of Civic Center recently opened in a beautiful space and is offering various culinary and pastry arts certificate programs as well as single session cooking classes.

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San Francisco Food Trucks: Off the Grid and StrEAT Food Park


I first became aware of the burgeoning food truck movement from a New York Times article in 2009 about Roy Choi’s Kogi BBQ Korean taco truck in Los Angeles, CA that was causing a sensation with its fusion of Korean barbecue and Mexican tacos.  I had to go down to LA that summer and check it out.  I found the location of the truck, in an industrial park south of LA, on their website.  There was an hour-long line and a news crew filming the scene.  They had Korean barbecue (pork, chicken, kalbi) tacos and sliders that were delicious.

 

It seemed shortly thereafter that the food truck movement in the Bay Area really exploded.  In 2010 the Off the Grid group began organizing a food truck event on Friday nights at Fort Mason in San Francisco, where around 30 trucks gather from 5-10 pm.  It’s great fun to be able to try so many different trucks.

Off the Grid now holds a host of other gatherings in San Francisco and other locations in the Bay Area during other days of the week.  The downside of Fort Mason is that the lines are often long, it gets cold on Friday nights in the City, and there are not that many dedicated facilities (tables, bathrooms).  In 2012 the new StrEAT Food Park opened in the SoMa (South of Market) neighborhood, on 11th street near US101.  It’s loosely modeled after the food truck “pods” found in Portland, OR.  There are clean bathrooms, indoor and outdoor seating areas, sometimes a bartender, and up to ten trucks for lunch and dinner seven days a week.

Another place to find food trucks is at various Farmer’s Markets in the Bay Area.  The Ferry Terminal Farmer’s Market on Saturday has the Roli Roti truck, which has chickens roasting on rotisserie grills with their juices dripping onto roast potatoes below.  Roli Roti also serves one of my favorite food truck items, the porchetta sandwich.  They take pork loin, herbs, and spices and roll it in pork belly and roast it on the rotisserie.  Slices of juicy meat and crackling skin are served with sweet onion marmalade, greens, and a crusty roll. Roli Roti also comes to other Farmer’s Markets and locations, but they only sell porchetta at the Ferry Terminal, unfortunately.

I am a big fan of all of the new food trucks.  It’s a great way for aspiring chefs and entrepeneurs to start their own food businesses.  Some, like Mission Street Food, have parlayed their success into actual restaurants.  The trucks take advantage of social media, announcing their locations on Twitter and Facebook.  They have been featured nationally on Food Network’s The Great Food Truck Race.  There is a great variety of food being served: Indian, barbecue, seafood, creme brulee, cookies, Belgian waffles, Japanese, French.  Sometimes, the food from the food trucks can be a bit overwhelming.  A couple of examples: waffle fries drowned in chicken tikka masala and melted cheese; a sandwich of panko-crusted fried chicken, pulled pork, cheese, bacon, a fried egg, and slaw on a brioche bun.  Not subtle, but it doesn’t have to be.  There’s so much variety out there now that there is something for everyone.

Update May 2013: Just went to the Picnic at the Presidio food truck event sponsored by Off the Grid.  I think it’s a really great setting.  Link here.

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