Studio Gourmet Features Baker and Banker Chefs
San Francisco is one American city where chefs attain “celebrity status” more so than many other cities in the country. You would be hard-pressed to find any city where chefs are held in higher regard, outside of New York, Las Vegas and possibly Los Angeles.
Anyone who cooks would understand one thing: putting together ingredients and flavors to create something completely delicious and unique is a true talent, and one that deserves recognition. In this city, if a restaurant offers unimpressive food, you can count the days to when it will close down. Conversely, if you find great food, it is a matter of time before the food-loving population of this city will stand in line to experience it.
So it seemed a great idea when the host of Studio Gourmet, Brad Lev, explained his concept: have a cooking demonstration with the chef (and tastings), followed by a talk show portion where the audience gets to know the chef – not just the food.
The show I attended was on October 25, 2011 at Circolo in Potrero Hill of San Francisco. The location was ideal for a show of this type, due to an open kitchen concept that allowed the forty or so attendees to watch comfortably during the cooking portion. Those who didn’t have a direct view could watch via the large television that was positioned so that all would have an inside view to the show. The restaurant appeared to be closed to the public on this evening, though I’m not sure that is always the case. I had been invited to review the event for San Francisco Food, but the cost of each ticket was $25 and included the cooking demonstration, talk show and a nicely portioned amount of food after the show.
Featured this time were the two chefs of the wildly popular Baker and Banker – Chef Jeff Banker and Pastry Chef Lori Baker. I had met Chef Banker previously during my visit to the restaurant, but it was my first time seeing his wife – though I did eat entirely too much of her bread during my visit. Demonstrating on this night would be Chef Banker only, while Chef Baker brought a pumpkin cobbler that was served with the food later. Starting from scratch to show how he makes the Farro Risotto with Chanterelle Mushrooms and Butternut Squash, currently available on Baker and Banker’s menu for $22. Chef Baker made the entire process look simple. The usage of fresh ingredients was not surprising, but it became clear just how much he focuses on quality and care of preparation and presentation that went into his dishes. The chanterelle mushrooms were plentiful, but the mushroom stock consisted of many more varieties of mushrooms, and added intense flavors to the dish. Using farro prevented even amateur home cooks from overcooking “risotto”, and even the gorgeous egg laid atop the dish was a sous-vide egg, in lieu of basic poaching (which he said would be fine for home cooks).
During the demonstration, Chef Banker freely shared recommendations and suggestions, while expertly going through each step of preparing this dish. Chef Baker stood adjacent to the kitchen watching her husband in action.
Once the demonstration was finished, people mingled for approximately 20-30 minutes, getting another cocktail or meeting one another, before the talk show portion of the event started. Speaking of cocktails – Circolo makes one mean Old Fashioned; with a stomach void of food, one drink was enough to make me, a regularly impressive drinker, feel pretty flushed.
In the backroom, with extremely bright stage lighting, seats were laid out to accommodate all guests. Needing to write, I was able to snatch one of the booths with table in the back of the room, though this put me at the farthest point from stage. (There were a few times where this positioning made it hard for me to hear all of the answers, so keep that in mind when you claim your seats.)
The host, Brad Lev, spent a considerable amount of time welcoming his guests prior to the demonstration, and again during the break before the show. Once the chefs and guests were all seated, he introduced himself and began the show.
Most interesting about the talk show, and completely contrary to what one might expect of a foodie event, was that food was hardly discussed. Once in awhile, Chef Banker mentioned food — like the Fridays of his childhood in Orange County of California, coming home to whiff of prime rib in the air, until the Friday his mother decided to experiment with a tofu casserole. Or a rack of lamb he tried in Italy, simply drizzled in olive oil, which truly forged much of his beliefs about cooking.
Brad Lev’s intention of the show was to enable the audience to get to know the chefs themselves, outside of food, and he succeeded in doing just that. We learned how the couple had met (on a blind date at Circolo!), and that Chef Banker was born to two psychologist parents, and considered himself to be the guinea pig to two marriage and family therapists. We also learned that prior to meeting Jeff, Chef Lori was originally from Ohio – and her first restaurant job was at Little Caesar’s. Asked what her favorite thing from Little Caesar’s was, her answer was a humorous but rather serious one: “Nothing.”
From attending the prestigious Le Cordon Blue in Paris via scholarship, to stints at Masa’s, Bix, and La Folie, amongst quite a few other big-name restaurants, Chef Banker had made his rounds throughout the culinary world and had every opportunity to learn what he loved and hated about the food industry prior to opening Baker and Banker with his wife. The idea to have an attached bakery to the restaurant, featuring the mastery of Chef Lori Baker was always part of the concept of having their own restaurant (which they now have at Baker and Banker). Asked what they think of their own restaurant, Chef Baker replied with, “I think it’s awesome. I think what we did is awesome.”
Very interesting was what Chef Banker remarked as his view on attending culinary school. As a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu, one might think he would turn up his nose to those who didn’t get trained at such institutes, but he readily stated that culinary school is only as the people attending that institute. If you attend with a great attitude, a school can produce great chefs, but not all chefs from well-known institutes are better than self-taught chefs. Chef Baker added that a lot depends also on how much knowledge you have to begin with, and that the expense of a culinary school might not be for everyone.
What Brad asked them what makes Baker and Banker different, the chefs commented that they make it a point to speak to their patrons nightly and to truly listen to the feedback. On any given night, one or both chefs will make their rounds, and when people have offered constructive criticism, these chefs have been known to go back to the kitchen to fix what was wrong. Some chefs may take criticism well, but refreshingly enough, these chefs also heeded the feedback from their servers, admitting that the servers they rely on may very well know a lot more about what goes on in the front of house (FOH) than they, the chefs, might.
There were many other details offered throughout the show; some were personal details that I’m not comfortable posting on this site (you had to be there!), and others are details you wouldn’t know unless you had a chance to sit down with the couple, like how it was actually Lori who suggested that she be set up with Jeff! For about 45 minutes, while Brad asked the questions, it was getting a glimpse into the personal lives of chefs that you might otherwise never know, no matter how many times you frequent a restaurant. Approximately 10 minutes was reserved at the end to take questions from the audience, too. When Brad asked which celebrity they would like to sign the Baker and Banker menu, Jeff immediately chose Mick Jagger; Lori pondered for a moment and then picked Oprah Winfrey (good choice!). What we also found out was that Lori was a vegetarian for 10 years. Humorously and in his rather subdued manner, Jeff added, “I could never marry a vegetarian.” Needless to say, Lori eats meat now.
Some other details?
Their last fancy dinner out?
Fleur de Lys.
Favorite San Francisco eateries?
Flour and Water, and Delfina.
How do they keep inspired?
Visiting Farmers’ Markets, researching on the internet, go out to eat as much as they can, any trip to New York, and they are planning a trip to New Orleans — a true foodie city, if there ever was one!
Which Farmers’ Market is their favorite?
Tuesday and Saturday Ferry Plaza is one, but the Thursday Marin Market is one that Chef Banker visits religiously.
Jeff: He couldn’t pick his favorite but his least favorite was tripe. (Edited: Thank you, RVM, for the correction.)
Lori: Peanut Butter
Open a sandwich shop — Jeff feels there’s a lack of truly good sandwich shops in San Francisco.
One word to describe one another?
Jeff, about Lori, “Incredible”‘; Lori about Jeff, “Loyal”.
After the show, the chefs went back to the kitchen to plate the food. I was finally able to try the risotto, and it was as good as it looked. The inclusion of squash in this dish intertwines sweet and savory, but I would have been perfectly happy without the squash as the mushroom flavors were seriously intense. Just looking at the sous vide egg made me happy, but mixed in with the risotto, I only wished I had more. Almost everyone contemplated seconds – and some of us actually went and got more.
Chef Baker’s pumpkin cobbler was impressive on all levels. Dense in flavor and light in texture, it offered a strong whiff of pumpkins; the sweetness was delicate and alluring, and in no way overpowering.
Up next on Studio Gourmet is Chef Mark Dommen of One Market who will be cooking up a “Bacon-wrapped Pork Tenderloin with Dandelions and Apples”, along with serving Dungeness Crab Cakes with a Saffron Aioli to all guests of the show. I’ve enjoyed his cooking for a few years, including one extraordinary Chef’s Table dinner that Chef Mark cooked — and this is one show not to be missed. Studio Gourmet is also upping the ante, so to speak; each ticket now includes one drink made by the great bar staff of Circolo, and a selection of Circolo appetizers before the show.
Chef Mark will be featured on November 15, starting at 5:30 PM at Circolo. Tickets are available HERE for only $35 — and as a special treat, you can use the discount code “niko” (without quotes) to get $5 off the ticket price. (Never let it be said I’m not helpful!)
Bring your friends and expect to learn a lot about Chef Mark while chowing on his fabulous cooking.
You can find more information about Studio Gourmet by visiting the website. Follow Brad on Twitter @studiogourmetsf for the latest updates about the show.