That cooking school mantra is so true: we eat with the eyes first. If your heart quickens (even a little) at the chance of also batting an eye at a known chef who happens to be plating your food, San Francisco event planners have something for you. August 3 to August 5, the fourth-annual SF Chefs Grand Tasting tent is slated to turn Union Square into an urban garden party swirl with food, cocktails, wine tastes from 30 wineries, mixologists, and of course chefs. It’s a good way to, say, check out the latest molecular gastronomy dish at one table and stroll over for a nibble of seafood ceviche in the next breath. Pacing is everything, and taking breaks and staying hydrated will give you more staying power. There are also classes, food pairings, volunteer opportunities, cooking competitions and a full menu of culinary and sweet offerings from 25 chefs, including Dominique Crenn, Arnold Wong, Hoss Zare, Traci Des Jardins, Chris Cosentino, Tyler Florence (TyFlo), Ryan Scott, Thomas McNaughton and Staffan Terje. Dinners and related events are happening throughout the city leading up to late July, and a full list of events is available on the SF Chefs website. Check out the discount code available for many events via Epicuring.
I have written about and worked for SF Chefs for the three past years. It brings a particular emphasis on our local products, people and places, from farms to restaurants. I was a paid production staff member of the 2010 SF Chefs, and saw that the story behind why SF Chefs came into being doesn’t seem well-known or talked about. The Golden Gate Restaurant Association is a key player in SF Chefs history, and GGRA members say they’ve had their say from the start on how the events will happen. SF Chefs raises scholarship funds for lower income kids to build the next generation of culinary professionals. Many of the volunteers I managed for SF Chefs were referred by Kevin Westlye and were generally young and enthusiastic about the world of hospitality.
To tell the story of SF Chefs, in person and phone interviews were held with the Golden Gate Restaurant Association’s (GGRA) Executive Director Rob Black and GGRA Board Member and former Executive Director Kevin Westlye, publicist Andrew Freeman, chefs David Lawrence (1300 Fillmore), Emily Luchetti (Waterbar and Farallon), Craig Stoll (Delfina, Locanda, Pizzeria Delfina), Staffan Terje (Perbacco and Barbacco) and Joanne Weir (Copita).
How did SF Chefs get started?
Kevin Westlye: The genesis of the event was looking at San Francisco, the Bay Area and northern California and not seeing a celebratory event that put together artisan products of the region with our incredible chef talent. We also looked at the other festivals that existed — the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, South Beach to a certain degree, and Pebble Beach. For all of those events, the chefs were brought into a community for three to four days. They’d have an incredible event and then leave. With our events, the public can come and taste from 25-30 local chefs at a time.
Craig Stoll: I was excited and got involved right away because I thought it was important for San Francisco to have its own food and wine festival. At the start, it was a “duh” moment: why hadn’t we had our own food and wine festival before, of all cities? It’s about showing San Francisco off as a food city.
Andrew Freeman: It was definitely the inspiration of the GGRA Board under Kevin Westlye. There was a lot going on with food and wine festivals happening all over the country. We had a feeling that San Francisco is the epicenter and a culinary Mecca and that we didn’t want to lose our position as that leader. Our original meeting was a brainstorming session. We noticed that people in New York and then Las Vegas at that point were comparing themselves to San Francisco. We have Napa and Sonoma, and the start of the farm to table movement with Alice Waters. If we could pull it off, we’d highlight the chefs of San Francisco. It took time to find sponsors–always a challenge, plan it and get the space.
Joanne Weir: I’ve been involved since the beginning because I’m such a supporter of anything San Francisco. We all hear about New York, London and Paris but we really have an incredible food culture here.
David Lawrence: The event came about around the importance of San Francisco as a national brand. I came here in the late 80s from London. When you talked about food then, you talked about New York and San Francisco. SF Chefs helped elevate our brand nationally. It’s a period of time to come and taste under one roof. A lot of people love this. Maybe they can’t always afford to come to all of the restaurants that are involved. The event lets you sample or taste from chefs and restaurants and is just a perfect marriage.
Community is a strong reason for SF Chefs to exist and grow. How has community come into play in your experience with SF Chefs?
David Lawrence: The community element has always been a part of the history of SF Chefs. I’m very proud of it and how it has evolved.
Staffan Terje: It really gets us to connect with each other and exchange ideas. People get to see chefs they know being out there and having fun. Our regular guests get to connect with us. People who haven’t been to the restaurant connect with us.
Joanne Weir: This is where people are all talking about “Did you taste this?” or “Did you see what Mourad is doing?” I love the camaraderie. We all do the same thing and get so caught up in our little world. I am at SF Chefs ‘til late at night each year because I love seeing all my friends.
We’re really building on the relationships we have with the farmers, and where we get our wine and get our spirits. Chefs cook, but without the farmers, there’s nothing.
Andrew Freeman: From the start, to pull this off, we had to come together around the idea that we are a community about food and wine. Media sponsors donate space and we keep it organic and real and about the chefs, for the chefs. We have our rising stars and we decided “let’s make this about the community,” and also look to our scene leaders.
Craig Stoll: It’s always a schmooze fest.
Emily Luchetti: It’s an opportunity for people to see each other and visit. If there’s some chef you haven’t met, you have a good opportunity to try their food. Networking is work and you make connections but this is like a fun-fest almost. For the people who attend and buy tickets, yes we’re working our table but it’s fun to be there, and not just work.
Rob Black: We’re all about fostering community in our culinary world and see people in each others kitchens, sharing recipes, farms and vendors. We also have dinner party projects to showcase innovation and creativity from our community. One of the great ones will be Dominique Crenn cooking with Jason Fox. We asked her “What would be fun for you?” and she said that he would be someone she’d like to work with. [EDITOR’S NOTE: In March 2012, Chef Crenn shared with Bay Area Bites that she was a fan of Jason Fox’s cooking at Commonwealth].
What’s on the menu for this year?
Andrew Freeman: Sliders are really popular. I think people want that safe adventure and to know that for the ticket price, they’ll get enough to eat and enough wine.
David Lawrence: I’m deciding what to serve. I’m known for grits and short ribs and fried green tomatoes. Last year, I did white grits with pesto, white grits with BBQ chicken and goat cheese. It’s a Southern style dish with California sophistication. The year before I did grits with bleu cheese. People say “Wow this is good.” The idea is to never run out.
Emily Luchetti: We usually do something fruit-related because it’s summer and you want to take advantage of fruit and also serve a lot of people with no fork. They’re holding a dish and glass of wine sometimes. I do something tried and true that I know they’ll like.
Any bloopers from past SF Chefs events?
Andrew Freeman: Last year, the ribbon cutting with Baker & Banker involved an incredible cake. The wind was so intense that pieces of the cake were blowing up. We were trying to act like it’s not cold and learned to do the ribbon cutting inside, on the stage. Each year we learn how to make it better.
The first year, we scheduled a cooking demo at Macy’s and no one checked to see if the store would be open that early. It wasn’t open for the demo. There was one big line and we checked with security and did an impromptu “let’s bring everyone in,” and the guests thought it was really cool.