Courtesy of Chef Michael Tusk
Courtesy of Chef Michael Tusk
A few weeks ago, an ecstatic chef Michael Tusk and his team at Quince welcomed the news of his Embarcadero restaurant earning a prestigious third Michelin star for 2017. It had been three years since the second Michelin star was awarded, and Tusk was hopeful for a third this year after he and his wife, Lindsey, had completed another refurbishment of the California Italian-French fine dining establishment.
Now, Quince is one of 118 such three-star dining establishments around the world, and Tusk finally has a seat at the table. Not only is the restaurant part of the rarified air, Quince was the only restaurant in the country to gain a third star this year, bringing San Francisco on par with New York in the star count.
In the late ‘80s, Tusk, after graduating from Tulane with an art history degree and from the Culinary Institute of America in New York, took off for Europe to explore its culinary traditions while working and staging at Michelin-starred restaurants. The Barbaresco region of northern Italy won his heart and sparked a lifelong passion for fine Italian cuisine. Tusk, a consummate storyteller, has been sharing his stories on plates since he began his career stateside at Jeremiah Tower’s Stars restaurant in 1988. A year later, he joined Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse in Berkeley, and while there for four years he absorbed the product-centric philosophy he credits for helping develop his own personal style. After four years, he moved onto Oliveto for six years. Respect for Waters and his time there was evident as we chatted about her upcoming travel to Spain, a country he adores. He quipped that he would be happy to go along even if only to carry her hat!
Quince opened in 2003 and relocated in 2009 from Octavia Street to its larger quarters in Jackson Square. In 2010, Tusk opened the more informal Cotogna next door, both restaurants inspired by the seasonal produce of the Bay Area and more recently their own dedicated farm. Quince’s exemplary food and stellar service have made it one of the city's top tables and earned many accolades and recognition from critics. In the elegant dining room lit by spectacular Murano glass chandelier, artfully plated creations tantalize the palates of the well-heeled guests. The arrival of a Champagne cart at the table signals that this tasting menu-only dining Mecca might be a special occasion destination. Guests are welcome to tour the kitchen and are served a small bite as they watch the efficient kitchen brigade go about their business.
A dining experience at the elegant restaurant never fails to impress with stunning presentation and complexity of its contemporary cuisine. (There is a well-curated wine selection to match.) An indulgent creamy avocado soup set off with reserve caviar might be followed with freshly dug potatoes harvested on a staff field trip to the farm paired with oysters or a tagliolini with squid and geoduck with the sweet ending a Bing cherry dessert. Quince, a distinguished member of the Relais & Chateax global fellowship of luxury restaurants and hotels, is definitely worth a detour to the City by the Bay.
A shared love for travel, cuisine, art, and architecture have taken Tusk and his wife around the world especially Spain, Italy, France, and Japan. After being celebrated at the recent Michelin Gala in New York, the couple took off for Japan on another dining odyssey, the last having been to experience Noma Japan while exploring other fine kitchens. Disarmingly down to earth, Tusk enjoys engaging with guests at his restaurants. It is refreshing to come across a chef of his stature who is just as much in awe of culinary stars as any of us.
One afternoon, while the staff bustled about to set up dining room for the evening, he shared an amusing travel story. “On my last day in Spain, during my visit to San Sebastián this year, I decided that it was time for some good fish, somewhere right by the ocean, so we headed to ElKano in Getaria,” he said. “When I walked in I noticed that on the small raised platform on the left there was a large table full of people having what sounded like a really good time. As I am seated at my table I see a gentleman go by me towards the bathrooms and I pointed him out to my wife and said ‘Guess what? Carlo Petrini [the Italian founder of the slow food movement] just went by.’ To catch his attention, I walked over to the host stand that was on his way back to his table and tried to look nonchalant while I waited for him. I have known Carlo Petrini for years from my time at Chez Panisse.
“So when he went by I hailed him by name. He immediately recognized me and said ‘Michelo, let me introduce you to my friends,’ and I look over and see it's that big party wondering. It was a slow food gathering so we went over, me with my mediocre Italian, while my Spanish is even worse and who do I see at that table? The first person is Juan Mari Arzak, along with Ferran and Albert Adria, the Roca brothers, on each side of the table were the most well-regarded chefs in the world as well as people from the Basque Culinary Foundation. I was in a state of shock because I thought I was just going over to say hello to some Italian companions of Carlo’s, never imagining who I would see. Just that morning while at lunch, I had seen another gentleman and asked my wife if that was who I thought it was, and she said, ‘Yes, that is King Juan Carlos.’ So it was an amazing day seeing the King of Spain that morning while at night I saw the kings of gastronomy.”
The Daily Meal: Your story about that wonderful day and seeing the camaraderie between these people from the industry brings to mind the question: Are we missing this spirit in our food culture in the United States?
Michael Tusk: We don't see that here, though sometimes it's evident in small circles, but for the most part everyone is just doing their thing. Everyone is too busy. I don't want to say that they are looking out for themselves, their businesses, and families, but I agree that it would be nice to awaken that spirit.
Is our food culture more competitive stateside than in Europe and more about money-making than about the art and the craft?
Part of this comes from the real estate component of our industry. For example, in cities like New York, rents are going up exponentially. There are also other pockets in the country where this is occurring, maybe not to the extent in places such as New York, San Francisco, and Chicago but still occurring. There are however some interesting food communities all over the country. I recently visited Nashville; Charleston; Portland, Oregon; and Maine, where they are not uber competitive like in the bigger cities.
When I travel to places like Italy, I see a lot of chefs who own their places and don't need to turn over tables as many times during the course of an evening. They don't need to do a 120 or so covers every night to cover their expenses. I had a conversation recently at a farming conference about restaurants that are passed on in families. The top five organic farmer-chefs couldn't go on farming the land because none of their children wanted to carry on the family farm but wanted to be in tech or medicine. In the restaurant business, it a similar story. In Europe, restaurants are being passed down in families while in the U.S., there is that constant pressure.
San Francisco has become an extremely hard city to run a restaurant in. A lot of people want to come here but when they experience the cost of doing business here they realize it's hard just like in LA. I have been here for 29 years and have adapted to it but, like anything else in life, you have to make adjustments. There is a lot more pressure these days right from the beginning. Earlier there were only magazines or newspaper reviews and that gave you the ability to work out some kinks when you just opened — like we did at the original location. We spent $10,000 on that kitchen since that was all the money I had. Fourteen years later, things are so different. Nowadays, when you open a new place, the younger chefs face immediate pressure because there are people blogging or taking pictures. I am glad I didn't come from that generation where it's kind of scary since everything is out in the open. You don't have the time to work through issues.
You are a veteran in the business with two extremely successful operations, so what is your take on the impact of social media on the restaurant industry?
You just have to be open to it all — just like when cameras first became prevalent in dining rooms. It was the tripods, then recordings, and so on. You can't really shy away from it. Do your thing and take it with a grain of salt. These days everyone has a device of some sort, and anything can be posted whether it's true or not. We all have to deal with it. I understand why some restaurants don't want you to take pictures. However, at a certain point it's about ensuring that the guests are happy, that you are happy with the job you and your staff are doing, and that is enough for me. I used to get worked up about stuff earlier when someone would bring out a tripod and would annoy the guests next to them but these days the phones are more unobtrusive and quick, and I don't think any more about them.
I admit, when I travel I take pictures, too. I like to remember something or show them to friends. Twenty years ago, I could remember what I ate at a restaurant if it was that good and now sometimes you need a little help to remember. The photos are also for inspiration or show the staff when you are impressed by something. It could be a bottle of wine, a restaurant I want to go back to, the architecture, or design.
Why are more chefs like yourself becoming interested in having either dedicated or their own farms?
A lot of it has to do with education. As the owners of a restaurant, my wife and I feel we owe it to our employees and guests to know where things are coming from. Twenty years ago, it was exciting to go to a market and buy boxes of stuff, since there was a sense of immediacy. Then I thought if I could work with Peter, our farm supplier, on his farm, I could encourage maybe one person from our staff to go into farming because this generation is falling off farming. At the end of the day, we could share what we are using in the restaurant to let people know what is on the plates and what they are eating, which is a sign of the quality of products. Many cooks or front of house who have gone to school didn't get many opportunities to go to work in farms and get that first-hand education.
Recently, one of our field trips to the farm resulted in a potato dish for the fall menu. On an earlier visit, ground oyster shells were added to the soil and what they brought to potatoes in taste and strength to the soil was the inspiration behind that dish. We planted potatoes and then harvested them together to create the dish they will never forget along with the experience. For me it is a perfect and honest story that we can tell with our food.
How helpful is it to have a spouse, like in your case your wife, or a partner in this business who is supportive in order to stay for the long run?
It's pretty crucial and to get to where we are after starting in a 40-seater restaurant, moving across town, opening two restaurants, and getting other projects like the farm. We couldn't have done it without the support of each other. My wife was working in the industry when we met and since then we have been working together. We have a mutual interest in design and art being from an art background, art history for me while she comes from a design family and we combined our interests together in our work. Coming here is like going to someone's house who collects art, cookbooks, or cookware, and we collect them in the restaurant and at home. For us it's all about being around the table, and we want to make our guests feel comfortable as if they were in our home.
There is a keen interest in social causes these days. Is this coming from a genuine desire to make a change?
Chefs are constantly asked to support various causes. It is tough to say no, especially if I have asked a chef friend to support me then I have to be willing to support them. As long as it's something new I am able to learn about and educate the staff about then I am open to it. If I don't agree with a cause, I choose not to participate. The role of a chef has changed in recent years. We have more of a platform not only to share our views about different causes but to actively participate in many different ways. As a chef, I think we now have a greater social responsibility, but when you are young, you end up agreeing to more events. As you get older and more comfortable in your own skin, you narrow your focus and choose where you want to devote your time and resources. Then your efforts are not diluted and you are able to make an impact in one cause. That is what we have done with the farm since it’s agricultural land and has been deeded by Peter and his family so it will always remain farmland. It's something we believe in so have supported it.
Is educating diners about ingredients, sourcing responsibly, and sustainability also part of a chef’s job these days? If so, how much information should be shared?
I feel you should give them as much as they ask for without being preachy. We invite everyone into the kitchen so they get an opportunity to see what we do. If they ask for information about following our example in their own kitchen or have questions about equipment or products, we are glad to share it with them. It's the same when I am at the table talking to guests. If someone is engaging me I can go on all night about what they are interested in. It could be where things come from though it's become standard to share this information on menus.
I like the element of surprise in food when your palate tells you that there is something interesting. In that case, guests might have questions about where the plate came from, where the product came from, or how the dish was developed. You also have to respect the ones who don't want information but just have a relaxing experience.
I find that majority of guests are genuinely curious about everything from the artwork, our collection of large format photography which is probably the largest in any restaurant in the world and incites a lot of interest. It is part of my personal collection and some from galleries in San Francisco so that makes it interesting for our guests to have these visual clues around. A lot of it comes from my own background of art history.
You’ve been to Italy and to Massimo Bottura's Osteria Francescana [currently the World's Best Restaurant]. Is modern Italian cuisine becoming more the norm now?
There was a time when you wouldn't see a lot of interaction between the regions except if, say, the father of the family was Piedmontese while the mother was from Napoli. Now you can see both tradition and innovation on menus in Italy. You can see traditional-shape tortellini along with tortellini in a capsule form, which is really fascinating.
How important are the lists and Michelin awards personally to you as a chef, and are they entirely good for business?
There is some part of me that realizes that being part of a group like this is important. At the end of the day I am more concerned about what the guests’ experience is at my restaurant more than anything else. It is a conflicting reaction and I would be lying if I said it's not important. The third star is what everyone wants to achieve. This is what pushes people to excel.
Is the stress of maintaining the stars or the spot on the “Best of” lists worth it?
Well, there is already enough stress in this job to begin with, so I say it brings on a little bit more. It is always stressful and I have been through a lot during my time in the industry. I didn't get to travel often in the early years of my restaurant, and I spent all my time in the small kitchen at the old location. Over the years, I evolved and learned to accept this stress. I visit plenty of restaurants around the world that don't have these accolades yet are wonderful experiences. It’s great when that passion and commitment gets recognized and rewarded. It's well-deserved in the case of restaurants like Extebarri in a remote village in Spain, where even our taxi driver got lost. This is especially true when they don't have the resources to get recognition or press while some which are not such great experiences yet are on those lists.