Chef Bruce Hill has for years been one to watch for his mastery of craveable dishes: Neapolitan thin crust pizza; frozen custard perfection; and the best bar burger — his dishes often made via wood-fired grill with the use of his patented stainless steel Chef’s press. Hill is self-taught and trained with Jeremiah Tower at Stars as well as in the kitchen at Aqua. He is currently involved with the newly revamped Fog City as well as Zero Zero, Bix, Pizzeria Picco and Picco in Marin. His restaurants tend to get favorable notice from the San Francisco Chronicle and other publications and he is known as a cook with a great palate and a consistent manner.
Hill can often be spotted at the Civic Center farmers’ market; more on that inspiration source in a bit. He has helped consumers learn about some tasty and unique specialty items before others caught on: black garlic and later organic soft serve ice cream with or without a swirl of olive oil. Hill was raised in Washington D.C. and has cooked locally since 1984. His team at Fog City includes Erik Lowe as Chef de Cuisine and Pastry Chef Aaron Toensing. Chef Hill’s comments have been edited for clarity and length.
Bay Area Bites: What is it like to be back at Fog City?
Hill: It’s a little bit mixed. We really have a range of different customers coming in. The building works now, and we changed the flow.
Being back in the building brings up a whole range of emotions. There are some very joyous days and there are some days we have to work hard to get people to understand what our product is. We challenged ourselves with keeping the two words of Fog City. You see the Yelps and they say, “This isn’t the Fog City Diner we remember.”
Bay Area Bites: Can you tell us more about the wood-fired dishes that utilize a custom-made grill?
Hill: Half the kitchen is literally wood-fired. What’s neat is that there are some dishes that really sing with that appliance. For the whole kitchen, top to bottom, we made it really functional, like our burger station. Chef sent me a picture where they were cooking 12 burgers at once; that set up is really consistent and fast.
All over the kitchen, we had fun with the design. For example, the customer can see a burger being cooked, or process of making the roast chicken and the clams. Chef Eric’s now the conductor. Every single plate that comes out, he gets to scrutinize. He can finish and garnish each dish so every last touch can happen by the chef’s hand.
Bay Area Bites: Who are your mentors?
Hill: For cooking, there are many. Some are people I worked for, like Jeremiah Tower. Others are local chefs that are friends: David Kinch and Stuart Brioza. I like Greg Dunmore at Nojo. There are so many others.
My business partners Bill Upson and Bill Higgins have showed me how to make a restaurant into a sustainable business so that we can support the lives of 80 people and their families. You can be the creative person but if you can’t make sure the bills are paid on time… that’s so important. It saddens me to see when a business opens and due to lack of financial management skills vendors and employees don’t get paid. It’s very sad.
Bay Area Bites: Where do you get inspiration?
Hill: From discovering things at farmers’ markets. I was at the farmers’ market yesterday with my wife and it’s my happy place. I’ll see Chinese mustard greens and if someone’s fighting me to get to it, I’ll ask how they cook it and hope they’ll tell me. Experiencing other people’s food inspires me and puts me at the same pace as the customer. Often in the kitchen, the meter is going too fast. It’s important to go out on your day off when you’re relaxed and bring that inspiration back.
Bay Area Bites: Where do you hang out after work?
Hill: Home, in Alamo Square. I sometimes go out with guy friends on Sunday night but for the most part, I’m a homebody.
For eating spots, I am always looking to try people’s food that share the passion that I have and my chefs have. I like State Bird and am looking forward to trying Daniel Patterson’s new restaurant, Alta. I often go to places in my neighborhood: Nojo, Rich Table, and Bar Jules. I’m really blessed and definitely looking forward to seeing Corey Lee’s new restaurant down the street.
Bay Area Bites: What are the best and worst parts of your job?
Hill: The best is the people. I love the passion that people share for food and the care that they put into it. It all boils down to mutual respect among humans. I love talking with a customer and seeing them smile after they take a bite.
There aren’t that many bad parts. I would say plumbing issues are bad. I’m very involved in the maintenance of my businesses and am the scooper or fix-it guy. I feel blessed that I can make that sort of thing better.
Bay Area Bites: Anything we can expect in the future?
Hill: No. I intend to try to keep all my businesses on a balanced and sustainable path moving forward. In 2014, I intend to promote my cooking tool, the Chef’s Press, available at Williams-Sonoma. At Fog City, we use it extensively on the roast chicken and burger. I have new designs, shapes and sizes coming.
Also, I want to learn how to weld and will be taking a workshop. I’ll be at The Crucible, in Oakland. Welding and steel work have always excited me.