Wednesday, August 18, 2010

A Chat with Flour and Water's Chef Thomas McNaughton

SF Chefs 2010 was a week-long culinary event celebrating the food and wine of San Francisco and Northern California.  The event culminated last weekend with cooking demonstrations with some of San Francisco's top chefs, the fabulous Sugar Party showcasing many great restaurant's confectionery delights, and of course the grand tasting tent, taking over Union Square for two days, allowing people to sample and sip some of the best that San Francisco has to offer.

I was lucky enough to sit in on the cooking demonstration as Flour and Water's Chef Thomas McNaughton prepared a rabbit turine with rabbit confit and stone fruit compote. Thanks to the good people at Foodbuzz, I had a chance to chat with him for a few minutes after wards about his restaurant, San Francisco, and his passion for honest, unpretentious food.  Here is what he had to say:

Sixby10:  You started working in kitchens when you were 14 years old.  What was it that made you want to become a chef?

Thomas McNaughton:  So I started in kitchens when I was 14, but it wasn't until 16 or 17 that I started taking it seriously and started working in better kitchens.  I remember I was actually a bit embarrassed by it at that age, I remember buying cooking equipment and telling my friends it was for my girlfriend or my mom.  The other side of it was that I had never seen something like the inside of a kitchen before, it had that kind of badass feel to it.  It's a unique work environment.

Sx10:  After working in so many highly regarded kitchens such as Gary Danko, La Folie and Qunice, what has the experience of opening your own restaurant been like?

TM:  Every restaurant job that I've taken, I haven't felt comfortable at.  It's a learning experience taking that next step; I ran the kitchen at Gary Danko for a while, ran the kitchen at Quince for a while, and you always say how hard it would be to open your own place, but until you do it nobody knows how hard it's going to be.  It's long hours, a lot of people in the kitchen work 16 or 17 hour days, but implementing the structure of a kitchen, until you do it 100% on your own from start to finish, you can't prepare for half of what is coming at you.  You just kind of have to dive into it, everyone is going to get their ass kicked, and learn from that experience.  As long as it's a learning experience and you come out the other side.  But until you do it you have no idea how difficult it's going to be.


Sx10:  Did you bring a lot of what you learned from those other kitchens to Flour and Water?

TM:  Sure.  But the most difficult thing about Flour and Water is that the kitchen was just completed 3 months ago.  So it has been constantly implementing procedures in an unfinished space, which is very difficult.  But every single job I've taken, at either Gary Danko, La Folie, or Quince, each of those positions I took for a specific reason.  I went to La Folie to learn to be a really solid line cook.  I went to Quince to deal with ingredients and build relationships with farmers, and I went to Gary Danko to learn the management side of it.  The (Gary Danko) kitchen runs like a well oiled machine.

Sx10:  You spent a good deal of time working in Europe and especially Italy, and seem to be drawn to Italian cuisine.  What are some of the fundamentals you brought back from your time there?

TM:  People think that we have a very loose Italian menu at Flour and Water.  But most Italians that come into the restaurant get it, because the whole thing is that it's about what grows around you, it's what's in season, it's what's good, just try not to mess it up.  You're not going to see that many avacados over in Italy, but we are surrounded by California avacadoes, so they are going to be on our menu.  If you are trying to do something strictly from what is in Campanga or what's in Lombardy, those ingredients are out of season right now, or they are only very specific to that region.  That's what Italian food is to me; use what grows around you, use it simply and translate that.


Sx10:  You've mentioned in other interviews the importance of sourcing from small, local farms, using sustainable ingredients and making sure you use the whole animal.  Can you share a little about how that became a priority for you?

TM:  It's ten times a better product.  That salad (a peach compote & salad he made to compliment the rabbit turine), if we had some disgusting Mexican peaches that tasted like nothing, the salad would be ruined.  But what we have (the peaches) are amazing, so it makes our job easier.  It's about amazing products, and as a cook you want to surround yourself with the best products you possibly can.

But it's also about supporting people.  I love the interaction with farmers, and the relationships that we have together.  I'd much rather call up a guy that I know and say "what do you have?  Send it to me." and talk to him for a half hour about his kids, whats going on in his life.  That's important to me, to build those relationships.

Sx10:  You mentioned during the demo that in your kitchen, you don't really use recipes, but ratios, like 16 ounces of lean meat needs 8 ounces of fat back when making a sausage.  I've always thought recipes are better as suggestions, because there are always so many variables.  Could you share your thoughts?

TM:  It's difficult in restaurants because you need to be streamlined.  If you make a dish, it needs to taste exactly like he made the dish the day before, or she made the dish the day before that.  But the food that we are using is ever changing.  I can't stand sterile restaurants.  There are certain restaurants that you go to that have that sterile feel, that people get into a routine of going to.  Food needs to be a little bit dirty.  You can have the most high-end restaurant with the most intricate food, but it needs to be dirty.  There are those heightened flavors, and (the food) is less sterile.  That doesn't mean rustic food to me, dirty food, it means the food is ever changing, bold flavors, it's not cookie cutter.



Sx10:  Do you have a guilty pleasure dish?

TM:  I'm from the East Coast, so I definitely miss cheesesteaks.  But I'm going to have to go with a pork roll.  Every single breakfast menu in the tri-state area has pork roll.  It's almost like Spam.  It's definitely not made from humane things, but it's just something I grew up with and every time I go back there I eat pork rolls.

Sx10:  You have three new businesses opening up soon near Flour and Water.  Can you talk a little about what they are and what the motivation was behind them?

TM:  There is Central Kitchen, which is a new restaurant, then a salumeria, and bar.  Everything goes with the neighborhood, goes as the natural next step.  The salumeria is extremely rustic to-go food, a good day time business to capture a lower price point and serve people that can't afford to go to Flour and Water.  Central Kitchen is little bit more high end; it's a bigger space, but everything (restaurant, salumeria, bar) just kind of flows together.  Everything fits into a circle for what we think is going to be successful and the things that we want to do.



Sx10:  What drew you and your business partner to the Mission as a place to open a restaurant?

TM: The building had been abandoned for 8 years, and I hate the term "up and coming" but there were definitely a lot of things happening in that neighborhood. You could see a surge of people moving there, and nothing was really going on.  It's so far off the beaten Mission path, they're actually trying to change the name.  People say that we are in the Mission, like when people think of 18th street, that corridor there, that just feels miles away from us.

Sx10:  Steeling a question from the Anthony Bourdain playbook, what would be your Death Row meal?

TM:  It might seem a little to open ended; but I would take a spread.  I like big flavors, and I want to taste a little bit of everything.  I just want a bunch of little bites, a bunch of little glasses of amazing wine.  I know it's a bit open ended.


Thank you, Chef McNaughton,  for taking some time out of your busy schedule to sit down and talk with me.  It was a pleasure getting pick your brain a little for the readers of this humble little blog.  I hope you all enjoyed getting to know the chef a little better, and be sure to check out Flour and Water as soon as you possibly can.

1 comments:

Mardi @eatlivetravelwrite said...

Oh my. I was AT that same demonstration! Great interview! We just happened upon it in Macy's as we were passing through SF on a California Road Trip. Such a great demo, awesome food and a genuine nice guy!!! Still working on my CA posts but will be sure to link to this when I write up the demo!!!