Chef’s Perspective: A Rising Star

By Jackie Burrell
Bay Area News Group

When committed carnivores flock to a restaurant to indulge in vegan fare, you know something’s up. However, it all becomes clear when the vegan platter in question is a wildly creative, charcuterie-type assortment of grilled tomatoes with chilaca pistachio mole and serrano-seared eggplant.

The man responsible for wooing vegetarians and their meat-loving neighbors to the same table is Sean Baker, the executive chef at Berkeley’s Gather.

The tall, lanky chef with the irrepressible grin has won plaudits from the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, and has been featured in Food & Wine magazine. Esquire magazine named him Chef of the Year, and anointed the year-old eatery as one of the top new restaurants of 2010.

So it’s a bit of a surprise to learn the seeds of that reputation were sown in the concession stands of state fairs. As a kid, Baker was dipping strawberries and serving grilled steaks at his parents’ booths at a tender age he doesn’t want to disclose — he frets it may not have been strictly legal. But when you grow up in a family of food industry folks, the lines between hanging out, helping out and working tend to blur.

He has fond memories of those days, of taco nights at home and his father’s fried chicken, as well as his stint at Le Cordon Bleu in Portland, Ore., where the then-vegetarian found himself at a disadvantage in a land of demi glaces and Escoffier-ed meats.

"I couldn’t taste anything," he said.



“A month through, I dropped the vegetarian thing.”

His fascination with vegetarian and vegan cuisine, as well as classical French technique, charcuterie and butchery, led him to Berkeley — by way of an externship at Millennium, Eric Tucker’s cutting-edge vegetarian restaurant in San Francisco.

"I was staying at a hostel in the Tenderloin. It was horrible," Baker said. "But I was working the prep shift and on the third day, the salad guy didn’t show up. Eric asked, ‘Do you want to work the station?’ "

Baker spent more than four years there as sous chef before moving on to brief stints at Google (“For money, which was the wrong decision. Never make a decision based on money.”) and Jesse Cool’s Flea Street Cafe in Menlo Park. Then came Palo Alto’s Zibibbo, the bustling Mediterranean restaurant that cranks through hundreds of plates a night. Baker did everything from butchering to expediting, a critical coordinating job that oversees a dish — or in Zibibbo’s case, 400 dishes a night — from waiter’s order to finished, garnished plate.

"I was miserable at the time," he said, "but it gives you these skills you don’t realize."

He can butcher a halibut in 15 seconds — perfectly — and do 380 covers in one night with intricate food, all without breaking a sweat. Zibibbo, he said, helped him learn how and, in that way, helped him create Gather.

The Berkeley restaurant is an intriguing mix that’s as welcoming to denim-clad students as suits. The banquettes are upholstered in recycled leather belts, the floors are polished concrete and the woodwork is recycled from an old high school gym. Chalkboards relay not the special of the day, but the specific farm that grew the pluots (Blossom Bluff), baby onions (Lindencroft) and goat cheese (Redwood Hill).

The description of the place made at least one restaurant critic, Esquire’s John Mariani, fret that it would turn out to be one of those effete, organic haute houses filled with “groaning rhetoric and floppy-headed waitresses with Vedic tattoos.” Instead, Mariani found crossover cuisine, a menu devoted to omnivores and vegetarians alike, with Prather Ranch burgers and a vegan charcuterie platter that Mariani “devoured … as if it were baby back ribs.” The resulting review — as well as a New York Times write-up — put Gather on the national map.

In mid-August, a week before his wedding to longtime girlfriend and fellow chef Renee Rohrig, Baker was relaxing at his eatery and waxing enthusiastic about spit-roasted pigs, ripening grapes and, of course, produce.

"It was nice," he said, about the recent accolades, "but we’re continuously working on the craft, pushing ourselves with ideas, techniques" in an attempt to use "everything on the farm."

In locavore restaurants such as Gather, the chef builds relationships with specific farmers and places orders not for that day or week’s ripe harvest, but for specific esoteric heirloom varieties, to be planted just for him and harvested months down the line. It’s a symbiotic relationship in which the chef dictates the farmer’s choices, and the farm dictates the seasonal cuisine.

Baker’s closest relationship is with Lindencroft Farm, an organic farm in the hills of Ben Lomond. It’s there that Linda Butler, Baker’s best friend and business partner lives. He calls her “my second mother.”

"He was my first chef, the first one I’d ever worked with," Butler said. "And I think I’m his first farmer."

On that initial visit, Baker was prowling for produce for his kitchens at Santa Cruz’s beloved, rustic Italian Gabriella Cafe, where he was executive chef.

"He looked around," Butler recalled, "and said, ‘This is really beautiful, do you think you could grow …?’ He started naming all this stuff — chicories, escarole, rapini. I’d never even had rapini until he asked me to."

That was the beginning. When Baker left Gabriella for Bonny Doon Vineyards’ Cellar Door and then Gather, the relationship continued. The farm and restaurant are now so connected, there’s soil from Lindencroft mixed into the paint on Gather’s walls. At Lindencroft the pair, chef and farmer, talk and swap recipes and ideas late into the night.

Baker credits Gather’s success to Butler’s “pristine produce” and the inspiration it — and she — provide. Call it a mutual admiration society, aided and abetted by what Baker describes as a support network of people who inspire him. It includes his business partners Ari Derfel and Eric Fenster — who Baker says dreamed up Gather on a vision quest — his staff and the new Mrs. Baker. Their goal: to give every diner not just a meal, but an experience filled with surprises, no matter their dietary preferences.

And if die-hard steak-lovers eschew the sirloin in favor of the heirloom eggplant ragout with Beluga lentils, that’s OK too.

Sean Baker

Age: 30
Profession: Chef, Gather restaurant in Berkeley
Hometown: Grew up in South Lake Tahoe. Lives in San Francisco.
Education: Le Cordon Bleu, Portland, Oregon
Honors: Chef of the Year, Esquire Magazine
Advice for young chefs: “Be prepared mentally and physically to give 100 percent of what you have every single day. To give less is not good enough — it’s a tough job. Read, eat and don’t spend money on partying.”

Source: mercurynews.com
mercurynews.com
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