A little about me
I grew up in restaurant kitchens. Honestly. From the time I was fifteen and washing dishes in a Jewish deli in Jersey until today, my entire life has been spent wearing kitchen whites. My chosen trade has allowed me opportunities I never thought possible. I've worked in some of the best restaurants in the country, and now, with my partners, Doug Washington and my brother, Steven Rosenthal, I own three restaurants in San Francisco and one in Portland, Oregon. Cooking has taken me places I never dreamed of. I've eaten food at roadside stands in Thailand and grand brasseries in Paris, sampled world-class smoked pork in rural Kansas and Iberian pork fat on the Catalan coast of Spain. But there's one place cooking never took me, and that's home.
I've survived much of the last thirty-five years on staff meals. The last thing I wanted to do after a double shift on the hot line was to go home and cook. But more recently things have changed. After establishing Town Hall, getting Salt House off the ground, and laying the groundwork for Anchor & Hope, I realized I was becoming a restaurateur. With each project, I was moving a little bit further away from the visceral pleasures of the kitchen. The less I cooked at work, the more I missed the simple act of cooking, of using a set of skills to create something memorable and delicious.
I offer this background by way of explanation for what I'm about to say: I had never really cooked at home until recently. Sure, I would whip up an omelet every once in a while, and knock out a turkey at Thanksgiving. But the experience of cooking for a few familiar faces around the kitchen table is new to me. It was only when testing the recipes in this book for the home cook that I actually cooked, really cooked, in my home kitchen. You see, I'm old school. I came up when kitchens still functioned on the apprentice system. I learned through the shared knowledge of the cook and a list of ingredients. Someone took you under his or her wing, showed you the proverbial ropes, and it was trial by smoke and fire. Those ingredient lists were just that: no amounts, just a list. I learned to cook by instinct, by feel. The idea of measuring a tablespoon of, say, black pepper, well, I just wasn't used to it. This produced some tense moments in the kitchen when my wife, Mary, and I first began testing these recipes at home. She's also a cook, and a good one, so when, by reflex, I would toss a couple of healthy pinches of salt into a pot of pozole, there would be a sharp, "Mitch, what are you doing? Did you write it down?"
My life in restaurants started in 1975, when I got a job washing dishes in the kitchen of a small Jewish joint in Edison, New Jersey, called Jack Cooper's Celebrity Delicatessen. It was run by Tom Plaganis, a big Greek guy who was passionate about food. After a few years of scrubbing pots and rinsing plates, he began to let me cover the breaks for the short-order cooks. Tom taught me not only how to handle a sauté pan, but also how to handle myself in a restaurant kitchen, how to understand the hierarchy, how to view the kitchen as a kind of machine. He taught me to focus on making sure my part of that machine operated smoothly. I fell in love with the whole idea and with its processes. Using all of my senses to create something tangible for someone appealed to me. But satisfying the customers wasn't the only thing that I appreciated. I was also interested in the relationship of the chef to his crew. That early apprenticeship gave me a thrilling sense of being part of a long story, part of the elemental passing on of knowledge and technique.
When I was a kid, at vacation time, the whole family would pile into the car and drive south—to Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia. I was immediately taken by the world below the Mason-Dixon Line: the pace, the people, the hospitality of the South made a real impression on me. So did the food. There was nothing shy or genteel about southern flavors. And I liked its social function, how food brought people together.
As I became more confident (and competent) in the kitchen, Tom allowed me to start putting some of my own dishes on the menu at the deli. This was right around the time that a friend gave me the landmark cookbook Chef Paul Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen. If I had been impressed by the up-front flavors of the Piedmont South, imagine my reaction to the strength of flavor and seasonings that Prudhomme put into play. I immediately started adding dishes from the book to the menu at the deli. Looking back, there was something funny about serving New Orleans–style Cajun food in a Jewish-style delicatessen. Fortunately for me, Tom didn't care. The disconnect is apparent now, but at the time, nothing seemed strange about putting kishke, knishes, and corned beef sandwiches alongside jambalaya, blackened chicken, and gumbo.
This was in the mid-1980s, when Prudhomme was taking his restaurant, K-Paul's, on the road. When he came to Manhattan, I knew that I had to eat his food. I grabbed a buddy of mine, drove up to New York, stood in line for three hours, and, at long last, was given the chance to eat chef Paul's food. I was blown away. After the meal, Prudhomme graciously spent time with me, speaking at length about the techniques that made his approach unique. It was a heady experience, a kid from Jersey who cooked Cajun out of a Jewish deli in Edison talking to chef Paul Prudhomme, the king of New Orleans kitchens, about his philosophy on cooking.
K-Paul's was in town for six weeks. Of course, I went back. The line was long, but my patience was rewarded with another incredible meal. Prudhomme was the talk of New York, and I had heard that he occasionally let cooks train at K-Paul's, so when he made the inevitable visit to our table, I asked him about his "stage," a culinary internship program. Paul told me that they weren't bringing anyone on just then, but to call him on Friday and he would let me know. At noon on that Friday, and every other Friday for months, I would go into the office at the deli and call Paul Prudhomme. Finally, after nearly six months, I called one Friday and Paul said, "Come on down to New Orleans and cook."
During my two months at K-Paul's on Chartres Street in the French Quarter, I experienced a professional kitchen and the camaraderie that exists among chefs for the first time. Every single cook in that kitchen shared an enthusiasm, passion, and respect for food.
I felt as if I had received years' worth of experience in that short New Orleans stay (you need only look at the contents of this book to see how Prudhomme's influence has carried me forward). When my stage ended, I took that new knowledge and headed back north to cook at the Four Seasons in Manhattan. That's where I met Executive Chef Seppi Renggli, one of my most important mentors. Seppi taught me that it was okay to be unconventional, and that a chef did not need to stick to a single cuisine. On the same menu, he would offer an Indonesian curry alongside veal Pozharsky—and it worked. Some of my most interesting ideas about food, as well as my basic kitchen philosophy of being open and adventurous, of not being bound by a single cuisine, of letting varied styles intermingle on the menu, come from my days working with Seppi at the Four Seasons. After the Four Seasons, I began an unsettled period in my career, moving from kitchen to kitchen, my peregrinations landing me in such places as Le Cirque, and Coco Pazzo in Manhattan, Gitane in New Jersey, finally ending up at a resort on the island of Saint Lucia in the West Indies. After six months, the authorities found out I didn't have my work papers and kicked me off the island. Before I left I made a phone call. In my waning days at the Four Seasons, Seppi had told me that if I got the chance I should really cook with Wolfgang Puck. So before my unceremonious deportation, I rang up Wolfgang and asked him for a job. My first of three tours in the Postrio kitchen was in 1989, the year it opened and took the San Francisco restaurant scene by storm. It's sort of amazing to think that Wolfgang has now been at the forefront of American cooking for 40 years, but I learned why during my first stint at Postrio. Like Seppi, Wolfgang had a sense of adventure and whimsy, but where Seppi's adventurousness appeared on the plate, Wolfgang's was not only on the plate, but also the table and the chair and the walls . . . he changed the paradigm of what fine dining could be. It wasn't just the food, it was the whole atmosphere and experience. Wolfgang also taught Doug, Steven, and me that focusing on the customer will always pay off. I'll never forget walking through the lobby of the Prescott Hotel (where Postrio was housed) with Wolfgang one Saturday night. There was an older couple from Texas at the concierge desk lamenting the fact that Postrio was the one place they just had to eat at in San Francisco, and they couldn't get a reservation. It was a Saturday night and there were over 400 on the books, yet Wolfgang walked up to the couple and said, "You want to eat at Postrio, come with me." He marched them right over to the Host Station and said, "Find this couple a table." I was just as surprised as those Texans.
The Postrio kitchen, with its emphasis on premium ingredients, opened up a new world of possibilities to me, a world populated with local farmers and purveyors, all with a deep dedication to their craft. Unlike New York, where ingredients would arrive to the belly of the restaurant in crates, or New Orleans, where food was often flown in from other parts of the country, at Postrio, fresh vegetables and meats were delivered by the people who grew them, the people who raised them. I had never experienced that kind of attention to ingredients.
Postrio didn't only open culinary possibilities. It was also the first restaurant where Doug, my brother Steven, and I worked together. Steven and I started in the kitchen at Postrio as line cooks and quickly moved up the ranks, finally being named coexecutive chefs in 1993. Doug ran the front of the house. Each night after the restaurant closed, we would talk for hours about the kind of restaurant that we might open together. We imagined a place that we would want to visit again and again, one that was comfortable and served straightforward dishes—a place that didn't take itself too seriously, but was still focused on great service and great food. We envisioned Town Hall.
A little about our restaurants
Walking into Town Hall for the first time is like arriving at a party that's in full swing and you don't know many people but still feel welcome. It's loud and boisterous; everyone is clearly enjoying themselves. With the low candles, the lamps and chandeliers, the restaurant has a celebratory glow. On the walls is a mix of old and new, fine art and anonymous nineteenth-century portraiture, and an assortment of old family photographs and flea market finds. The large alcove to the right of the entrance is dominated by a long communal table that seats sixteen, but is more often ringed by a couple dozen people There's a similar bustle at the bar, where drinks might be raised in celebration of, say, a rainy Tuesday night in San Francisco. That spirit even carries over into the dining room, where tables and chairs are set a little closer together than in most restaurants. That's how it is at Town Hall now and has been since we opened in the fall of 2003. It is a different kind of casual fine dining, one that is completely contemporary, but with the feel and attitude of an old-time neighborhood joint.
Town Hall occupies the first two floors of a three-story corner brick building, one of the first structures built after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. In a neighborhood of historic architecture, the building would not stand out, but because it's surrounded by glass-covered modern and postmodern facades, this relic from an earlier era has a vivid presence: a turn-of-the-twentieth-century meeting hall in the middle of a bustling twenty-first-century city. The building plays a part in the mood and personality of the restaurant. Like Town Hall, the spaces our other restaurants inhabit set the tone for the dining experience. Salt House, a few blocks away on Mission Street, is in a building that housed one of the city's first postquake printing presses. Because of its brick walls and exposed steel I beams, the restaurant has a more industrial, edgy feel than Town Hall. The bare-bulb fixtures and artist Freya Prowe's oversized Don Quixote mural on the back wall remind you that you are sitting in a previously industrial neighborhood that has moved into the twenty-first century. The food, too, playing off the design, takes a more contemporary approach.
Just around the corner at 83 Minna is Anchor & Hope, our most recent addition to the neighborhood. For years, I often paused outside this building, wishing that someone would open the doors so I could steal a glimpse inside. Finally, one cold, rainy fall day, the garage doors started to open as I was passing by. What struck me initially was the thirty-foot trestle ceiling with its massive skylights flooding the space with light (I wasn't surprised when I later learned that the space had served as the studio of noted sculptor Beniamino Bufano). When the only things I saw inside were three parked cars and one car leaving, my mind began wandering to the architecture of coastal Maine. Doug, Steven, and I had been talking about opening a fish house, and this space, which had a weathered, faintly nautical look even before we draped knotty marine rope from the trestles, seemed tailor-made for the transformation. When a For Lease sign went up on the building three weeks later, we wasted no time in taking it over.
From Town Hall, on Howard Street, it's just a few short blocks to Salt House at 545 Mission Street, and less than six hundred feet from Salt House to the front door of Anchor & Hope. We had no idea when we struck out on our own and signed the lease on Town Hall that this once-quiet part of the new Financial District south of Market Street would become one of the city's liveliest neighborhoods: that the tallest building on the West Coast would start rising right next door to Anchor & Hope, that the empty lots nearby would soon become high-rent high-rises, or that the parking lot and bus station in the few hundred yards between Salt House and Anchor & Hope would be the future home of the largest development in the history of San Francisco, the Transbay Terminal and Urban Park, a massive hub for every train, bus, commuter rail, and rapid transit system in the entire Bay Area. At the same time this massive commercial enterprise has been undertaken, the area has been energized by the huge residential towers that have gone up nearby. So in the shadows of the cranes and pile drivers, there is a thriving neighborhood, a kind of small town that brings to each of the restaurants a clutch of regulars that know all of the staff by name and add a rich, welcoming atmosphere.
A little about this book
Writing a cookbook is a source of excitement, too. Every chef has dreams of seeing his or her book on the kitchen shelf, its pages dog-eared and favorite recipes splattered and smudged. I'm no exception. To get this book off your shelf and onto your countertop, I've brought together some of the favorite, most popular recipes from our restaurants. They represent a distillation of my thirty-five years working in professional kitchens. You'll see how my experiences in those kitchens have influenced what I do in my own, how the veal Pozharsky I learned at the Four Seasons became the classic meatball dish we serve at Town Hall, or how an Italian technique I learned for preparing squab at Coco Pazzo is used at Anchor & Hope to quick smoke the all-American rainbow trout. I even reveal a few secrets from that delicatessen in Jersey (lemon chicken, anyone?).