Tony Mantuano and Michael Tusk Team Up for an Italian Feast at the James Beard Foundation’s Taste America® in San Francisco
“If these old-school kitchens had a voice, wouldn’t it be fascinating to hear what they had to say?”—JBF Award winner Shelley Lindgren
This weekend the James Beard Foundation brought its annual Taste America culinary tour to the vibrant city of San Francisco. For the third year in a row, the Foundation is traveling to ten cities across the country to host one-of-kind fundraising dinners highlighting local cuisine and headlined by a visiting All-Star chef and a Local Star chef, as well as cooking demos, artisanal tastings, and book signings.
The main event, which took place at the historic Bimbo’s 365 Club, began with a walk-around tasting reception featuring a formidable group of local chefs, including Suzette Gresham (Acquerello), Chris Marchino (Cotogna), Rocky Maselli (A16), JBF Award winner Craig Stoll (Delfina), and Staffan Terje (Perbacco). The dishes, which paid homage to Italian food as well as the rich local culinary scene, included octopus terrine with salsa verde from Chris Marchino; buffalo milk ricotta with figs, honey, pomegranate, and bread crumbs from Rocky Maselli; and wild fennel sformatino with fresh snails and fennel flowers from Craig Stoll.
Following the tasting reception, guests made their way into the dining room for a lavish four-course dinner headlined by Taste America All-Star Tony Mantuano and Local Star Michael Tusk. First up, Tony Mantuano served a delicate winter squash antipasto with candied almonds, pepperoncino, and taleggio. Next up, Michael Tusk, who helms the kitchen at the widely acclaimed Quince, brought out an autumnal chickpea vellutata with peppers, tubetti, crispy chickpeas, and smoked black cod; while Mantuano offered diners another side of his culinary style with a hearty and impossibly tender pork shoulder with roasted peppers, polenta, chestnut honey, and radishes. “We came the farthest, but cooked the most food!” joked Mantuano, of his two courses for the evening. A palate-cleansing intermezzo course followed with frozen kefir, and finally, pastry chef Sarah Rich (Rich Table) finished the evening with her elegant walnut cake with roasted quince and zabaglione.
The food wasn’t the only star of the show, however: a group of local sommelier friends and colleagues, including JBF Award winner Shelley Lindgreg of A16 and SQPR, teamed up to select the wine pairings for the evening. Remarking on the historic venue, Lindgren said: “If these old-school kitchens had a voice, wouldn’t it be fascinating to hear what they had to say?”
On Saturday morning the festivities continued at Sur La Table, where All-Star and JBF Award winner Tony Mantuano charmed onlookers with an entertaining and educational cooking demo, aided by his wife and wine director Cathy Mantuano, and chef de cuisine Joe Flamm. The husband-and-wife duo talked about the research they did for their book, Wine Bar Food: Mediterranean Flavors to Crave with Wines to Match, while demonstrating a rustic yet refined dish: red wine–marinated and grilled lamb chops with giant white beans. Mantuano cautioned onlookers against the urge to flip or move the meat too much while cooking: “You need that crust, and you won’t get it if you keep touching it,” he warned. “Take a step away, have a glass of wine, and just let it char.” He and Flamm also taught guests the rule of thumb, so to speak, for testing red meat for doneness. “Gently poke the meat, and then compare it to what it feels like when touching two fingers together: index finger to thumb for rare, middle finger to thumb for medium-rare, ring finger to thumb for medium, and pinky to thumb for well-done.”
While cooking, the renowned Beard Award–winning chef (who oversees Spiaggia, which just celebrated its 31st anniversary, and Café Spiaggia in Chicago) also told the audience stories from his illustrious career, including cooking for President Obama and the First Lady on the night he won the White House in the 2008 election, the secret to his marriage/business partnership (“We each have our own areas, one in the kitchen, and one in the front of house!”), his favorite recipe for Greek lemonade (lemon juice, simple syrup, Uzo, honey, and mint), and why it’s hard for chefs to write cookbooks: “The last thing a chef wants to do is write a recipe; it goes against our nature,” he mused. “We might try to just talk you through it on the phone—and then it’s never right!” After the demo, Mantuano lingered to chat with guests, answer questions, and sign copies of his book.
The fun continued when lauded local chef Rocky Maselli (A16), who has also been certified as a pizzaiolo in Naples, stopped by to demonstrate a nutty, earthy pasta dish: farro pasta with chanterelles, shallots, thyme, kefir, and farmer cheese. When cooking the pasta, he warned against an oft-overlooked factor: “It’s very important to add lots of salt; that’s what gives the pasta lots of flavor,” he said. “When I train cooks at A16, I tell them the water has to taste like the sea.” He also discussed a key element of cooking with mushrooms, telling guests: “Get the pan really, really hot before adding the mushrooms—you don't want to steam them, you want to sear them,” he explained. “Wild mushrooms have a lot of water in them, and they get too wet if the pan isn't hot enough. Wait until you see a little smoke coming from the pan—I always set the smoke alarm off when I cook at home.”
The James Beard Foundation's Taste America tour continues in Los Angeles on November 6 and 7. Learn more about Taste America at jbftasteamerica.org and follow the tour at #JBFTasteAmerica on Twitter and Instagram.
The James Beard Foundation's mission is to celebrate, nurture, and honor America's diverse culinary heritage and future through programs that educate and inspire. Learn more at jamesbeard.org.