Friday, April 24, 2009

Contents (no longer) under pressure: Paradise and lunch in San Francisco’s Dog Patch

On Tuesday I had lunch at Kitchenette. I guess a few chefs from Chez Panisse and Foreign Cinema had some free time and decided to open a little sandwich stand. It’s located in an industrial loading dock at 20th and Illinois in San Francisco although the high-end attire of the people waiting for their sandwiches would lead you to believe it was closer to Jackson Square. Anyway, the sandwich was amazing—grilled cod with avocado salsa, jicama, chiles and lemon aioli. They also had 50 cent lemon ginger cookies, which were fantastic.

Basically, when a few chefs got handed lemons, they made lemonade–really good meyer lemonade. Because people are hesitant to drop 80 bucks a head on a prix fixe menu at Chez Panisse, some exciting and affordable options are springing up around San Francisco. Another great example is The Sentinel, run by Canteen head chef Dennis Leary. Delicious corned beef on flatbread with gruyère, cabbage and russian dressing for $8.65.

This is a great shift for the restaurant industry. Fresh, well-considered food is becoming much more accessible. As a result, the bond between chefs and their patrons is being strengthened. Fancy restaurants create an environment filled with pressure and stress. Once restaurant-goers expect a certain something from you, it can easily turn into a straitjacket that only gets tighter as time goes on. In a job where creativity is very important, the constant pressure has to be draining. These new, low-key options seem to be a lot more human for everyone involved.

Maybe this is a new career path for talented chefs who are looking for a way out of the pressure cooker. It reminds me of when a bunch of French chefs decided to renounce their Michelin stars citing stress as a major reason. “You always have to be impeccable. Like footballers, there comes a point when you don’t have the energy, the happiness, the excitement,” said Le Figaro food critic François Simon. One chef, Bernard Loiseau, killed himself when it was rumored that he was going to lose one of his stars in the 2004 Guide.

Most of the chefs who left their stars behind aren’t leaving the kitchen entirely. In fact, a lot of them are opening small, more casual bistros where they find themselves less boxed in and much happier. Olivier Roellinger left his three-star Maisons de Bricourt in Brittany to open a toned down seafood restaurant called Coquillage. He benefits from the relaxed atmosphere, and everyone who visits gets to enjoy top-notch food in a more casual setting.

The economy is forcing people out of the rat race and it’s starting to show some dividends. Instead of chasing fame and fortune, some serious professionals are rolling up their sleeves and creating new forms of life. At Kitchenette they’re selling great food at a reasonable price off the back of a loading dock. They call it “spontaneous organic covert nourishment.”

9/10 UUSD (Universal Units of Sandwich Deliciousness)


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