Four Bay Area Culinary Masters Gush About the Food Pros They Marvel at Most

Leilani Marie Labong | August 7, 2019 | Food & Drink Restaurants

Within the tunnel vision required to make your mark in the restaurant industry—known to eat chefs alive, especially in the Bay Area—it seems that nary a minute can be spared to enjoy a meal that doesn’t involve grazing the inventory in the walk-in. But, on occasion, chefs leave the confines of their passion projects to enjoy the food of someone else’s domain. Here, three emerging Bay Area chefs tell us about the dishes someone else made that caused them to take notice and savor every last bite.

Chefs Rodney Wages (left) and Scott Clark (right).

Once Upon a Thyme
A sprig of raw thyme on a cheese tart nearly derailed a rare date night for chef Scott Clark and his wife, Alexis Liu. The couple—then new parents—were dining at Avery, chef Rodney Wages’ fine-dining restaurant in the Fillmore. “I saw the raw thyme; I was like, ‘What? Rodney, you blew it!’” recalls Clark, chef-owner of Dad’s Luncheonette in Half Moon Bay. Even the comforting sight of melty cheese—an ingredient that figures prominently in his hamburger-stand menu—could not triumph over that taught, fresh-from-the-garden garnish. “I despise raw thyme. But then I ate the tart, and angels started singing.”

Inside a nutty buckwheat crust, Wages layers deeply caramelized alliums, soft and tangy Harbison cheese (which gets a woodsy note from a wrapping of spruce bark), and finishes with maple syrup and a sprig of, yes, wait for it—raw thyme. The singular pastry has a familiar but surprising pedigree. “It’s like a savory-style pecan pie,” says Wages, who grew up in the Midwest, where cheese-on-pie has a long heritage.

Rodney Wages and Scott Clark bond over a cheese tart with thyme.

“What I love about Rodney’s cooking is that it’s astute and imaginative,” says Clark. “Thyme can be too perfumey and not in a million years would I have reached for it.” For Wages, who hails from the city’s most celebrated three-Michelin-starred kitchens, including Benu, Atelier Crenn and Saison, where he worked with Clark, the choice was not as daring as much as intuitive. “The herb adds an unexpected note of freshness,” he says.

The three-bite tart is a cheese course that bridges the savory and sweet sections of Wages’ Asian-inflected tasting menu (which famously includes a caviar “bump” consumed from the back of the diner’s hand), making Clark’s quirky point of reference for his friend’s fromage master class even more delightful in light of its aspirational lineage. “The tart reminds me of grilled cheese,” says Clark. “Isn’t that just so mental?”

Chefs Anthony Secviar and Zareen Khan split naan.

Curry Spice and Everything Nice
For a chef whose restaurant pedigree includes posts at The French Laundry in Yountville and El Bulli in Roses, Spain, chef Anthony Secviar has a deep reverence for a dish that could not be further from the realm of European finery he’s used to: chef Zareen Khan’s chicken tikka masala.

“I don’t need to remember the first time I ate the chicken tikka masala at Zareen’s because I go back and relive it all the time,” says Secviar, who had been hearing legend about Khan’s specialty for two years, but each time he tried to visit her eponymous Mountain View restaurant, he was daunted by its incurable line of diners, often 20 deep. “And every time,” he says of the dish, “it’s as fresh and smoky and creamy and delectable as ever.” As fate would have it, in 2018, Zareen’s opened its newest location in Palo Alto, within 450 feet of Secviar’s Michelin-starred New American restaurant, Protégé.

Spices; chicken tikki masala; carefully grilling.

A creamy tomato-based curry chicken tikka masala has a mysterious history originating in either 1970s Punjab or Glasgow. Peculiarly, it is also the national dish of England. Khan is also skeptical of chicken tikka masala’s authenticity, which could be considered a gateway dish for Indian cuisine, since the hot spices, rich cream and fresh tomatoes make an especially appealing and remarkably balanced flavor trifecta. Though the chef hails from Pakistan (her parents were immigrants from India), she had not heard of the dish until 1992, after she arrived from Karachi to Boston, where she was completing a master’s degree in economics at Northeastern University.

“You can find chicken tikka masala in Karachi now, but it wasn’t there when I was growing up,” says Khan, who left a corporate career in product management to start teaching Pakistani cooking in her home kitchen. She opened her first restaurant in 2014. While she won’t reveal all the secrets of her famous dish, she does admit that its charcoal-grilled chicken thighs marinated in chile powder, cumin, kashmiri chile powder and—insert classified spices here—is inspired by Pakistani street food, which may give Khan’s luscious interpretation of this Westernized recipe its South Asian heart and soul, making it irresistible, even to those with the finest palates.

“When you’ve paid to eat something dozens of times over the course of a year, in all likelihood, it’s your favorite food,” says Secviar. “I’ll probably have it for lunch tomorrow.”

Chefs Matthew Kammerer (left) and Gavin Schmidt (right).

Getting Piggy With It
Chef Matthew Kammerer of Mendocino County’s first and only Michelin-starred restaurant at the Harbor House Inn in Elk considers himself “mostly vegetarian,” making an exception for fresh seafood, especially if it comes from the inn’s private cove. But, recently, this long-held dietary preference was undermined by chef Gavin Schmidt’s French charcuterie, a veritable meat extravaganza.

“Gavin’s charcuterie has had a big impact on me,” says Kammerer, who first sampled Schmidt’s tête de cochon last October during a birthday celebration at Schmidt’s restaurant, The Morris, located in the Mission District. Schmidt’s charcuterie includes his famous tête de cochon—made by brining a pig’s head for a week—alongside rabbit terrine with apricot, pistachio and Chartreuse and a pate de campagne.

“He has a true understanding of technique, texture and seasoning,” says Kammerer. “Apparently, I have really missed this kind of food.” Crafting Lyonnaise-style pates, terrines and rillettes was elemental to Kammerer’s early restaurant career, particularly while at Boston’s acclaimed French restaurant Menton eight years ago.

Matthew Kammerer and Gavin Schmidt share stories as Schmidt plates his charcuterie.

Charcuterie emerged in the Middle Ages from a need to preserve and use whole animals, lest any of their funky but perfectly edible parts start to decay. In the scheme of such a deep-seated tradition, Schmidt taking 20 years to perfect his recipe for pate de campagne seems foregone. “It’s got a lot of animal parts, including offal, and it’s even wrapped in bacon. It’s very piggy,” says the chef, who learned the craft of charcuterie while working at Seattle’s beloved and long-shuttered Campagne. “It’s fun to make and still quite traditional.”

Inspired by Schmidt’s artisanship, Kammerer has dusted off his charcuterie-making memories, breaking from the property-sourced fish and vegetable tradition at the inn by occasionally bringing in a whole pig, partly destined for a pate de campagne seasoned with rosemary and smoked bay leaves from the garden, putting a new Harbor House spin on a once-forgotten favorite.


Photography by: Liz Daly