Ah, San Francisco, city on the Bay. As I walk down Powell Street past my hotel, The Sir Francis Drake, the clang of the cable cars reminds me that I am indeed in San Francisco. What a joy to be here for the 20th anniversary of the founding of the organization Women Chefs & Restaurateurs.
Walking towards the bay area, I pass Union Square, still colorful with flowers on this January day. I am heading for Market Street where my destination is the Ferry Building,a major market for shoppers of fine foods and produce. I hop aboard the “F” car. It is an old timey streetcar. These streetcars purloined from all over the US have been refurbished for tourist pleasure. Outside the Ferry Market, California’s vibrant, fresh produce is on display for purchase. There are thick heavy carrots of vibrant colors-orange, gold and purple as well as various lettuces. There are crimson, golden and candy-striped beets, squashes, radishes-all bright with flavor and color. Inside the market I admire the cheeses, creams and other dairy products of Cow Girl Creamery, the salty briny scent of fresh oysters from Hog Island Oysters, the charcuterie and sausages enticing with flavor from Boccalone Salumeria, and mushrooms! I have never seen such a variety of mushrooms! Here at Far West Fungi are also fresh truffles and unusual forest products. I don’t need it, but I must buy that nice expensive truffle salt. Warm yeasty smells are coming from Acme Bakery where I gaze at croissants, salt sticks and breakfast rolls studded with sesame and poppy seed.
My appetite is on fire. I stroll around the outdoor pavillion drinking in the sights of the bay with its multiple ferry lines. To my left is the notorious prison of Alcatraz. Opposite me is Sausalito with its many cafes, restaurants and trendy shops. Finally I enter Charles Phan’s Slanted Door Restaurant. Asian flavors of ginger and garlic beguile me. I settle in where I can observe the luncheon action. I decide on Asian Imperial Spring Rolls for my first course. The gulf shrimp is crispy and spicy in its delicate rice paper roll while roasted pork shoulder, glass noodles, and roasted peanuts add flavor and crunch to my lovely entree. I love this Vietnamese street food.
The following day I depart for a culinary tour of the East Bay. Allison Negrin, Executive Chef at John Muir Medical Center, is our guide as we tour the Gourmet Ghetto in Berkeley. Our first stop is Monterey Market with its abundant display of fresh veggies of all kinds. Our next stop is Poulet. Here a sumptuous variety of chicken dishes and take out meals are offered. There is roast chicken, crispy southern fried chicken, broiled chicken, numerous chicken salads, Thai-style chicken–the list goes on. Our next stop is a visit to The Local Butcher Shop where we watch a huge carcass of beef just delivered from a nearby farm being quartered into its various steaks and chops. Here the whole animal is utilized creatively. At the Cheese Board Collective we enjoy tasty samplings of delicious cheeses. This worker-owned collective stocks 300-400 cheeses, among them nutty, rich, high mountain cheeses, cheddars, blues,fetas, goatsmilk and Gouda.
Finally we head to Alice Water’s legendary restaurant Chez Panisse. It was here in Berkeley in 1967 that the food revolution under Alice’s tutelage began. The restaurant is named after the main character, Honore’ Panisse, in Marcel Pagnol’s 1935 movie trilogy, and is composed of two floors tastefully paneled in light woods with an open kitchen central to the dining area. I decide upon farm rocket lettuce with marinated beets, mustard and egg, followed by spicy wood oven cooked shellfish stew , fragrant with saffron, leeks and harissa ( a spicy Morroccan paste). The dessert is extraordinary. A crackling crispy crust is the bed for a delicious apple quince galette which is served with vanilla bean ice cream.
That evening I attend a Welcome Reception at Prospect Restaurant. The hors d’oeuvres are fabulous. There are long bread sticks (grissini) wrapped in prosciutto, mini crab tartlettes. pork belly taquitos, salt and pepper chicken wings and spicy french fries with aioli. Afterwards it is on to the elegant Grand Cafe Brasserie for dinner. The Grand Cafe is most impressive with its art deco light fixtures, marble bars and bronze sculptures The opulent ballroom with its authentic Parisian decor bespeaks the world of San Francisco’s gilded past before the Earthquake of 1906.
We begin our meal with a soft opening, a welcome aperatif of gin, Lillet Blanc, Violette Liqueur and Lemon Absinthe. It encourages conversation and conviviality among the five of us enjoying this meal. A further welcome introduction are the delicate scallops in blood orange sauce served with roasted fingerling potatoes. The scallops are resting in a pool of fennel puree with a truffle nage. Roderer Estates Brut is a tasteful accompaniment to the dish. McCormack Ranch roasted goat carmelized and crusty is served mixed grill style on the bone. Seared crisp, it is perfect for gnawing, yet so tender with its feta, pomegranite chickpea polenta and fried kale. Our wine is a Seghesio Zinfandel from Sonoma. I love the cheese course which follows There is Mimolette, Truffled Humboldt Fog, and Roaring Forties Blue. This fine assortment is accompanied by Hiniskillin Ice Wine from Niagra Penninsola in Canada. Afterwards we congratulate Executive Chef Alicia Jenish on the fine selection of dishes she had prepared for us.
The following morning we are greeted with an enticing networking breakfast of frittata, poached apples and pears, Greek yogurt and crusty country fries with bacon crumbles. I munch on croissants with sweet butter and preserves as well as a chocolate coffee cake. I take a seat next to Nell Newman who is our featured speaker for that morning. Nell is the daughter of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward and a founder along with her father of Newman’s Own Organics. Nell tells us about Newman’s Certified Organic Products where the profits generated are referred to a wide range of charitable organizations. Nell’s commitment to organic foods and sustainable agriculture is apparent as she discusses organic ingredients and the necessity to support the environment. She is a vibrant speaker and afterwards tells me a little bit about her background and what it was like growing up in a family of five children with two nomadic actor parents. She also explained to me that her family had moved so often that by the time she reached high school she was so far behind in her subjects, that she just dropped out, finally obtaining her GED at a later date and graduating from the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine. Nell believes that living a more environmentally conscious life helps us all., a philosophy much needed in our society of speed and mass production.
Following Nell’s talk we celebrate the roots of WCR with a memorial tribute to its founders, in particular to Barbara Tropp, the leading founder of WCR. At the same time the conference is offering many interesting seminars and classes such as Modernist Cuisine or Molecular Gastronomy, Foraging, and California Cuisine. I take part in the latter which features a panel of some of the very chefs who helped change the way Americans eat and think about food. It was here in California that fresh local sustainably produced ingredients evolved with eclectic global flavors thus furthering the establishment of the culinary revolution. In the meantime various book signings by noted culinary authors as well as a silent auction are taking place.
That evening I attend a gala cocktail reception and culinary awards dinner upstairs at the Ferry Building. The building has been beautifully decorated for this event and is ablaze with hundreds of candles and vigil lights placed upon elegantly appointed tables. It is a romantic yet glamorous environment The hors d’oeuvres prepared by Paula LeDuc Fine Catering are sensational. There is duck confit with cherry jam served with shiso leaf, walnut duck butter and pickled shallot. “Fungi Frites” are crispy fried oyster mushrooms seasoned with smoked salt. Roasted beef tenderloin is offered on bamboo skewers with deconstructed bearnaise while griddled romaine hearts on toasty baguettes arrive with whipped chevre and meyer lemon jam At the same time parmesan custard is offered in a savory cone with bacon and balsamic caviar.These are only the hors d’oeuvres. What follows is an abundant and delicious dinner. As a starter to our meal there is a beet and pink lady apple salad with roasted walnuts, fresh goat cheese, winter greens and cider vinaigrette.The fish is Kombu-cured arctic char with pickled shitake mushrooms, citrus and trout roe. The wine is a Gallo 2009 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. For the entree there is a duo of beef braised shortribs and tartare, mashed potatoes and herb salad. The cheeses are Piemontese Cusie with a mushroom crumble, chestnut honey meringues.and a tobacco tuile. Dessert is a chocolate budino (an Italian-type pudding) with almond graham crust, malt cream and crunchy coffee meringue. In the meantime awards are presented by those “Two Hot Tamales”, Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken. Among the awards is one for culinary excellence and dedication to teaching in the culinary community. This is presented to Roberta Dowling, owner-director of the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts, of which my daughter is an alumna
On Friday I take part in a butchery, chacuterie and salumi round table. We taste a selection of the panelists’ most popular menu items while they share stories about their resources regarding curing and preserving. We sample mortadella, boudin noir, liver pate with prunes and chicken pate with pistachios. Later I attend a seminar on ethnic cuisines where our speakers take us on a trip through the soul food of the Hakka diaspora (China) as well as through the cuisine of Peru, where we sample amarillo peppers, black mint and cornnuts. After that it is on to a buffet lunch of smoked salmon, roasted fingerlings and grilled lamb, An information fair and trade show are also going on. I have the opportunity to sample all kinds of food products and receive so many new sample products that I fill up not one but two tote bags.
A culinary competition is next. Three teams have been chosen to compete with one another in preparing a three course feast utilizing “secret ingredient” items. Among the competitors is my new friend Gail Crawford along with her team mate Loida Alegre. Their coach is the indomitable Iron Chef from the Food Network, Cat Cora. Other Food Network people are also present as coaches. Among them, Amanda Freitag and Lee Ann Wong. Gail and Loida win the competition for the best dessert, a bacon inspired delectable treat. In the meantime Gail’s husband, Doug, and I quaff champagne while all of us receive a magnificent goblet celebrating the 20th anniversary of WCR.
That evening I attend a Founders’ Reception at Farallon Restaurant. I indulge in crab cakes and fresh, briny, sparkling oysters.There are tons of mini-desserts,most of them chocolate inspired such as bittersweet malt gateaux, chocolate peanut butter bites, petit s’mores and chocolate macarons. Emily Luchetti, executive pastry chef of Farallon, has done her work well.
The next morning I head for home. As I rest dreamily on the plane, I am inspired by the old Christmas verse from “‘Twas the Night Before…..indeed there are definitely “visions of sugarplums” dancing through my head….a sweet ending to a delightful event.
About The Author: Isabel Chesak holds linguistic degrees in French and German, has lived in several European countries, but now calls Massachusetts home. She has written two cookbooks, taught cooking classes in Madrid, and is an enthusiastic traveler and cook.
Photo Credits: Flickr cc – #1 Loco Steve, #2 Mastermaq, #3 Chadly, #4 Nick Step, #5 Micurs, #6 Myrna Litt