No matter how food-obsessed the rest of North America is – whether it's the popularity of chef vs. chef shows, one-night-only restaurants or gourmet food trucks – in the San Francisco Bay Area, they take it further.
Even at the deepest point in the recession, there were block-long lineups for gourmet fried-chicken sandwiches (Bakesale Betty in Oakland) and decadent ice cream (Humphry Slocombe in San Francisco). At a friend's recent birthday party, we played Botticelli, that game where people drop names of famous people in a hat and you pull chits out and describe them frantically to your teammates. Local chefs were as common as historical figures. "She's not too obscure: She was on Iron Chef and she beat Mario Batali."
Out here, where so many small farmers, boutique vintners and professional foragers are trying to proffer the next big thing, the food and drink trends shift speedily. Blink and all the blood oranges on the menus become Cara Cara oranges; the wine of the moment shifts from albarino (so 2012) to vermentino; and suddenly sorrel, the lemony green, is accenting every second appetizer or dessert.
But one trend shows no signs of being here today, gone tomorrow: For the past few years, many top chefs have decided to open constellations of restaurants. These are not the chains of old, capitalizing on brand names with a cookie-cutter approach. Having seen how well that turns out (Wolfgang Puck), this generation of chefs sidestep any accusation of selling out by making each restaurant radically different, giving each a different name and identity, sometimes even a different ethnicity. And with more interest in creative control than profits, they also tend to supplement flagship high-end places with budget-friendly joints. This way, even the 99 per cent can check out a top chef's work, and real aficionados can splurge, and compare and contrast the efforts.
There are isolated examples of the trend in Canada: Toronto's Claudio Aprile and Mark McEwan both have several restaurants, but the difference in style and price between their venues is not terribly dramatic. And an effort to try such a chainlet in Vancouver by Top Chef Canada winner Dale MacKay failed last summer. Maybe it's the financial or reputational risk involved, but it has yet to catch on in a big way north of the border.
"You see this all over the U.S., less so in Europe, but of course it's most extreme here, in the Bay Area, where food trends on low volume elsewhere get amplified," says Clark Wolf, a consultant to top restaurants across America. "Here, almost every top chef does this – I can only think of one who doesn't. It's not like the old gastro-bistro in France, a cheaper version of the same food in the chef's main restaurant. Each place has to be a major departure from the last."
An extreme case in point: Traci Des Jardins has a gourmet French-Californian place, Jardinière, near the opera house; a sports bar, Public House, attached to the baseball stadium; and a Mexican taqueria, Mijita, in the Ferry Building. "She proved she could play in the big leagues, with her first [Jardinière]," Wolf says, "but then she said, 'Look I'm going to show you how my Mexican ancestors ate.' "
"Because of my name, everyone said why's this French girl, this chef who's trained at these major French restaurants, why's she trying to pull off Mexican street food," Des Jardins says. "But one of my key food memories is of my maternal grandmother – she called me 'Mijita' – making tortillas."
Why would Des Jardins and other top chefs – like Thomas Keller and Gary Danko – take these flyers, instead of just continuing to perfect one great place, or, in business terms, why not capitalize on the established brand and the kitchen's expertise by opening another Jardinière? "You have different sides to you, everyone does," she says dreamily. "You want to explore them."
Much of the hottest food action in the region is happening across the Bay in trendy, troubled Oakland. For all its crime problems and pockets of intense poverty, the city was recently named the fifth-best food destination in America by The New York Times.
Although chef Tanya Holland trained at one of the Paris's top cooking schools, La Varenne, the cuisine she wanted to offer in her restaurants was neither French nor haute. She and her husband and business partner Phil Surkis have opened two small restaurants in a tough, manifestly depressed part of town – West Oakland, where they also live.
One is a soul-food joint, Brown Sugar Kitchen, that has such airy waffles that an Los Angeles food writer once drove all the way up the coast to eat; the other, B-Side BBQ, does toothsome ribs – and, since this is California, some delicious braised tofu. "This used to be the barbecue belt, where a lot of Southerners, African Americans, ended up, and they brought a love of that food with them," Surkis says. "We wanted to honour that history."
James Syhabout, raised from the age of 2 in Oakland, grew up in the kitchen of his mother's Thai restaurant, but, like Holland, went to a top cooking school (in San Francisco), and then did stages in major Bay Area and European restaurants.
His first Oakland restaurant, Commis, is a tasting menu only, moderately expensive, and within six months of its opening it had earned his, and the city's, first Michelin star. He then opened up Hawker Fare, offering cheap Asian street food (like Des Jardins, he was inspired by his own family's weekday fare), and this spring, he will do an open-late venue, Box and Bells, which will feature the relatively low-cost, low-labour meals he and his staff like to eat after a long evening in the kitchen (think: salt cod boxty, beef with a snail fricassee). By opening distinct places, he can explore these disparate ideas, each with his unique vision.
As a native of relatively down-to-earth Toronto, I sometimes tire of the non-stop talk about food in the Bay Area. But a meal (roughly $110 each) at Syhabout's Commis reminded me why there is this chatter. Yes, the trendy ingredients are all here – the oyster came with a mousse of wood sorrel, a Sardinian vermentino accompanied the braised halibut, a pudding was made from Cara Cara oranges. But slowly, we're seduced – it's among the best meals I've had.
One little tasty, beautifully presented dish after another arrives like clockwork – a crown of salad, crab seasoned with its roe, a poached egg in witchy spices. Companionable staff share stories about the winemakers and food sources. And when Stevie Wonder sings Signed, Sealed, Delivered near the end of our meal, the deal has been done, we belong to this chef. Here, in a plain room, in a rough neighbourhood in a dirty old town, both our bodies and spirits have been nourished.
The foodies of the Bay Area treat their best local chefs like artists, like rock stars – and they expect, and welcome, periodic reinventions by them. This, then, is what all the fuss is about.