The return to San Francisco and finding a a voice through pop ups

Posted by Hearth and Cellar on Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Hearth and Cellar founder Gabe Sanders let us see his process behind creating the perfect pop up dinner for his February 11 supper.

I got my "big break" in the SF restaurant scene at the age of 26. I had been working as a line cook in the city for three years, and left Contigo to take the sous-chef job up the street at Firefly. Within three months, the chef I signed up to work for had left to pursue long term career goals, and I had accepted the position as chef de cuisine. I faced a steep learning curve, but enjoyed and thrived in the role for the next two years. I left Firefly because I felt that I wanted to broaden my culinary perspective. I spent the next six months traveling through Europe, North Africa and Australia, an experience which gave me some much needed time to decompress and exposed me to a slew of new foods.

I cooked constantly while traveling. A good kitchen was my highest priority in choosing apartments to rent in each new city, and the truest introduction that I got to a place was in shopping at the farmer's market. I collected a small pantry in my backpack, riffed on the local specialties in my homes away from home, and developed my own distinct culinary "voice" as I worked with the seasonal produce of the world.

Upon returning to San Francisco, I decided that I wanted to continue to refine and define that voice. I recognized that pop-up dinners would give me more freedom to define meals on my terms than a traditional restaurant. By limiting the size of my dinners, I'm able to ensure that I can choose every vegetable with my own hands and eyes at the farmer's market. I can cook every steak myself, and every pot of beans comes out exactly the way I want it to. In short, Hearth and Cellar has given me the opportunity to refine my cooking in a way I never could when I was running a busy restaurant kitchen day in and day out.

While they give me great opportunities to fully realize my mental images of dishes, the pop-ups aren't easy! I spend 15-20 hours in the week leading up to each dinner testing techniques, shopping for ingredients, and then prepping the food I'll serve. Even after putting in all that time, I still wasn't anywhere close to ready for my first dinner in September 2015. Two hours before my guests arrived, at least an hour behind schedule, I started to feel sick. I've never suffered much from nerves in my career, but before that first dinner, I was so nervous I went and puked before I could keep prepping. 

Two friends who are both cooks arrived first, and I enlisted their help in putting together my amuse bouche. Even with their support, I was a disorganized mess all through the dinner. I served roasted chicken, and I was running back and forth between a gas oven set to 300F and a wood oven running upwards of 600F, juggling legs and breasts in and out of them. It's a minor miracle that I managed to get all the chickens cooked, and none ended up as embers! My audience for that first time was all friends, so they didn't give me too hard a time about my hectic demeanor. I knew going in that I hadn't planned everything out, and I figured "well, nothing is going to show me what I need to learn better than struggling through the first time." I did learn a massive amount from that experience, and was far better prepared the next time, but I'm afraid the night took a few years off of my life.

My menu in February, illustrated the way that the various experiences and influences I touched on earlier are coming together to inform my cooking. The first course will feature some of the most exciting winter products: silky black cod or punchy local herring (depending on what looks the best that day!), and cauliflower and Brussels sprouts at the peak of their winter sweetness. The format of Hearth and Cellar allows me to choose the best of what's available, and to smoothly adapt to the unexpected.

I'm reaching back to my first winter at Firefly to inspire my salad course. One of my big hits then was a salad of blood oranges and kumquats with Red Russian Kale and fresh goat's cheese. Now, I'm adding depth and maturity to that concept by building it around sprouted French lentils, peppery wild arugula, and lots of brightness from fresh herbs.

Eating a transcendentally tender lamb shoulder in Provence was one of the most memorable experiences I had in France. I'm looking forward to channeling that inspiration by slow-roasting lamb from BN Ranch (who raises the best meat money can buy). I've decided to serve it with a porcini and tomato ragout based on Marcella Hazan's justly famous Tuscan meatloaf. Fusing a favorite recipe from my childhood with inspiration gleaned from my travels makes this dish feel especially personal.

For dessert I'm going to compliment the earthiness of a good dark chocolate mousse with another particularly personal touch. I'll use blackcurrants that I picked in upstate New York with my mother at the height of summer, and canned to brighten up a winter day. Thinking back to the day we spent harvesting perfectly ripe berries will enrich the dish for me as much as their delicate balance of sweet, tart, and bitter flavors.

The intention that I'm able to give my cooking in Hearth and Cellar makes it a rich opportunity for me to develop a unique and delicious style of my own. I've been steadily improving my ability to cook food that speaks for who I am, and how I like to eat.

I also have a much greater opportunity to connect with my guests now than I ever did as a restaurant chef. I work collaboratively with my service partners, so I'm regularly running plates, clearing tables, and discussing the food with guests. I get to see people's initial reactions to my plating, to see what components they enjoy the most, and to answer their questions directly. I feel lucky to have these added opportunities to share the thoughts that inform a dish's creation, and to feel the appreciation from diners for what I'm doing.

In addition to using their beautiful space to host my pop-ups, I work as a cook at Marla Bakery for my "day job." Working there has been one of the unexpected blessings of the last year; the culture is very supportive of collaboration, growth, and creativity. My chef, Andre, has been remarkably encouraging of my contributions to Marla's menus, and I've learned a lot from working with him. Amy Brown and Joe Wolf, the owners of the bakery, have been unbelievably supportive of my fledgling business. 

I can see clear improvement in the cooking I do for Marla as a result of my focused work on Hearth and Cellar. I plan to continue doing pop-ups to further develop my food and my business skills, with the long-term goal of opening my own restaurant. I'm confident that the growth I'm realizing now will make me a far better chef and restaurateur when I find the right opportunity.


Check out Hearth and Cellar's Twitter and Instagram to find out more!

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